‘To realise that Syria deserved the cold shoulder did not require the life of a prime minister’

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In the days following the assassination in 2005 of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, it seemed that for the first time in over 30 years since Syrian troops had occupied Lebanon, there was a chance to rescue Lebanon from Syria’s stranglehold. The murder triggered an unprecedented popular reaction – it was nicknamed the Cedar Revolution and forced Syria finally to acquiesce to UN Security Council resolutions demanding Damascus withdraw its troops.

With Syrian fingerprints all over the charred remains of Hariri and his party, it seemed safe to assume that Damascus’s mischief would finally be treated for what it was. And for a time, so it seemed.

A special UN investigation was launched and a tribunal was set up to try and punish the culprits. Diplomatic isolation followed quickly – even the European Union, traditionally a champion of dialogue, felt its association agreement with Syria had to be put on hold.

To realise that Syria deserved the cold shoulder did not require the life of a prime minister. Despite repeated efforts by Europe and the United States to engage Syria constructively, the man at the helm has been misbehaving since he inherited power upon his father’s death in June 2000. Many hoped that Bashar al-Assad would be a Young Turk for Syria – a hope that rested on the vacuous assumption that, having studied in the West, Assad would bring Syria out of its insular and repressive ways.

But a year in London does not necessarily engender enlightenment – after all, both Mohammed Atta and Pol Pot studied in the West.

Still, a long queue of dignitaries called in at Assad’s palace before Hariri joined the long list of assassinated Lebanese. The US had sent at least five high-profile delegations to Damascus, including the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell. As for Europe, the traffic was even more intense. EU Commission President Romano Prodi visited Damascus in 2001, followed by Commissioner Chris Patten in September 2003. This is hardly isolation.

How did Damascus respond to engagement? It kept the flow of jihadis to Iraq going through its borders and its airport. For a police state, this can hardly be dismissed as “porous borders”. It sheltered the terror masters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It supplied Hizbollah with weapons in Lebanon while meddling in that country’s internal affairs. It did not hesitate to send its hitmen to kill whoever stood in the way of Damascus’s imperial ambitions – Hariri was just one of many. And it cemented its 30-year-old strategic alliance with Iran just as Tehran’s nuclear programme was becoming Europe’s headache. Which is why, as Hariri’s smouldering corpse was removed from the wreckage, someone in Paris said: “Enough is enough.” The former French President Jacques Chirac was a close friend of Hariri. His friend’s death showed him the hollowness of the case for engaging Syria.

But that was then and now it’s a different world. Nobody seems capable of stopping Iran and as the Islamic Republic casts a shadow over the region, someone must have thought that dialogue and engagement might win Damascus back over to the West. Chirac’s successor had little personal attachment to the victims of Syrian assassins and figured that – to paraphrase one of France’s shrewdest kings – Damascus might well be worth a Mass. And that’s how Assad got to sit next to the great and the good in Paris on Bastille Day and how President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Damascus in September to have lunch with Syria’s dictator, despite Assad’s insistence that he will “never give up on Hizbollah”.

So forget that Syria’s many mouthpieces have already said their alliance with Iran is not one of convenience but strategic. Forget that Syria is behind every political murder in Lebanon. Forget that, had it not been for the Israeli Air Force’s raid deep inside Syria on September 6 last year, Damascus might well be building nuclear weapons today. Forget that Syria continues to pour jihadis into Iraq and to supply Iranian, Russian and Chinese weapons to Hizbollah. Forget that after Russia crushed Georgia, Assad rushed to Moscow to congratulate Russian imperial aggression, seek offensive weapons and offer military bases as if it were the Cold War all over again. And most of all, forget that Syria’s consistent misbehaviour reflects her strategic interests, which are not ours.

Europe – against all the evidence – is prepared to go to Damascus under the illusion that our persuasive arguments will budge Assad in ways that nothing else has so far. It may work – but at what price? Hariri’s tragic fate still demands justice. A deal with Damascus will have to mute that – and then some. For despite Western diplomacy’s insistence, the prize for Damascus is not the Golan Heights, it is the formalisation of Lebanon’s status as a vassal of Syria and a playground for Iran, and the West’s acquiescence in the Syria-Iran axis as the rising power in the region. So as Europe under Sarkozy’s leadership takes the road to Damascus yet again, it might ask: what’s Syrian slang for “Munich”?