A minefield ahead for Bernard Kouchner
By Michael Young

Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 14 was the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in France. A day later, last Sunday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner did a good impersonation by almost storming off the stage in anger at a pushy Lebanese journalist. The Celle-Saint-Cloud gathering was a lot about atmospherics, however its usefulness might be supplanted by its dangers if Kouchner and his boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, are not careful.

No one can deny the short-term advantages of the meeting at La Celle-Saint-Cloud. It was an opportunity for representatives of the divided Lebanese political class to meet, even though those present were not party or movement leaders. It began a process that might be further exploited down the road by all sides. And it handed some form of diplomatic momentum to France, which continues to support United Nations resolutions designed to protect Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, while also remaining a resolute backer of the Hariri tribunal.

But is that enough? The reason Kouchner was handed his platform was that both Iran and Syria saw an opening to begin breaking France off from the United States in addressing Lebanese issues. The genesis of this proposal came last May, when the head of Iran's national security council, Ali Larijani, told the French daily Le Figaro that given the election of Sarkozy, who was "not emotionally implicated with one side" in the Lebanese political spectrum, France and Iran should cooperate in stabilizing Lebanon. That Syria signed off on its allies' traveling to Paris was a sign that Damascus and Tehran are together in using the French card. Moreover, the invitation to Hizbullah was gratifying from a country whose president has called the party a "terrorist organization."

The French are no fools. They have seen Syria shooting down all European, Arab, or international initiatives to sponsor reconciliation in Lebanon on terms it disapproves of. Ominously, the visit to Damascus on Wednesday by French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran suggests Syrian obstructionism may be paying off. In an exchange last April whose minutes were leaked to the French daily Le Monde, President Bashar Assad made it amply clear to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that Lebanon was only ever stable when Syria dominated the country. Last week, in the build-up to the conference in France, Syria's official daily Al-Thawra argued that any resolution to the Lebanese deadlock passed through Damascus. Kouchner knows that Syrian and Iranian acquiescence in Saint-Cloud was a concerted effort to advance their agendas in Lebanon, not a sudden yearning for concord in Beirut.

Still, in a statement once Saint-Cloud had ended, Kouchner hinted that Syria and Iran were on different wavelengths in Lebanon. That may be true in the long term, and the foreign minister may have been sowing some divisiveness of his own, but there are no signs that the two countries have anything but common objectives today: to defend Hizbullah and its weapons; to put the international community on the defensive by eroding UN Security Council resolutions, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701; and to guarantee that the next Lebanese president is someone they can trust and who will help them achieve the first two objectives.

Then there is the Hariri tribunal. Hizbullah officials, notably the head of the party's parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, have said they consider "null and void" the Siniora government's decisions taken after the resignation of the Shiite ministers. One decision surely to be targeted is the government's endorsement of the Hariri tribunal, which provoked the resignations in the first place. Hizbullah and Syria's other allies may no longer be able to cripple the tribunal at the UN, but they can do so as ministers in a government in which they have veto power. The tribunal may be a reality on paper, but it is not a physical reality yet. Lebanon must still approve its share of financing for the institution, and agreement must still be reached on a location for deliberations. That's not mentioning that Lebanese judges remain vulnerable to political pressure.

The French, like many others, must take all this into consideration when pushing for a government of national reconciliation. Both Syria and Iran are on the same page in wanting to bring about such a government in order to strengthen their hold over the Lebanese system. Reconciliation efforts, by their very nature, whether they are French or Arab, will mean compelling the majority to grant veto power to the opposition. Yet what has the opposition surrendered until now? Virtually nothing. In Saint-Cloud it once again refused to hold presidential elections before the formation of a new government, and it still rejects any formula that would not allow it to bring the government down through mass resignations.

In other words, Kouchner hit up against the same obstacles that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa did during his recent visit to Beirut. Hizbullah and Amal have no margin whatsoever to negotiate a solution that the majority might consider minimally acceptable. If Kouchner imagines that his visit to Beirut later this month will help break a deadlock he couldn't break in Saint-Cloud, then he will be very disappointed. France is being allowed a small space to maneuver, but not one that would allow it to modify fundamental Syrian and Iranian aims.

What can Kouchner do to avoid being hoodwinked? Playing on Syrian and Iranian differences won't work. The two countries have perfected a good cop-bad cop routine. But France can perhaps position itself in such a way where it has the final word among the Europe countries on Syrian and Iranian intentions in Lebanon. In other words, it can agree to stand or fall by its efforts to determine the seriousness of Damascus and Tehran when it comes to finding a solution acceptable to all the Lebanese parties; with clear recognition in Brussels, particularly from the European Union's chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, that France's judgment will be authoritative. For this to work, Kouchner should set benchmarks for success and a specific timeframe to try achieving a more detailed common agreement over principles. If nothing gives, then he should publicly declare who prevented a resolution to the crisis.

This will be an admission of failure, but if the EU is on board, then at least it could rebuild some of the international consensus on Lebanon that has become shakier in the face of European timorousness in facing Syria and Iran. That inter-Lebanese amity is necessary to this process goes without saying, and Kouchner, rightly, sought to build bridges for precisely that purpose. But up to now there are no signs that Syria's and Iran's Lebanese allies have leeway to do anything but restate positions engendering stalemate. Lebanon is heading for a perilous vacuum on the presidency, and Kouchner and the EU should not fear blaming the guilty for this and going back to the Security Council, evidence in hand.
***Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.