Cablegate: French Say Syria Delivering On All Fronts

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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 PARIS 002212


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/05/2028


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Classified By: Political Minister-Counselor Kathleen H. Allegrone, reas
ons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (S) Summary: "We think Syria is delivering on the key
dossier," French Presidency Advisor for the Middle East Boris
Boillon said December 5, as he recapped his November 30 visit
to Damascus with Presidency Secretary General Claude Gueant
and NSA-equivalent Jean-David Levitte. In contrast to his
colleagues at the MFA (ref A), Boillon predicted that Syria
would name an ambassador to Beirut by the end of the year,
although he conceded that the Syrians might delay until the
first few days of January "just to show that they are
independent." Such a delay would not begin to affect the
relationship unless it extended beyond President Sarkozy's
January 6 visit to Lebanon and, even more gravely, beyond
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman's state visit to Paris in
March. He added that Lebanese diplomat Michel Khoury has
been tapped to be Lebanon's ambassador to Syria. Boillon
agreed with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's argument that
Sleiman should not run an independent bloc of candidates in
Lebanon's parliamentary elections on the grounds that
Lebanon's president should remain above politics. In a
startling admission, al-Asad tacitly acknowledged that he is
not preventing arms from transiting Syria to Hizballah,
although the French read his comment as an indication that
Syria would end weapons shipments if it were to conclude a
peace agreement with Israel. Boillon said the French team
encouraged the Syrians to be transparent with the IAEA,
adding that it would be "catastrophic" for Syria's dispute
with the IAEA to escalate. End summary.

Syria Earns a Passing Grade

2. (S) The French Presidency believes Syria is earning a
passing grade on the benchmarks set by President Sarkozy this
summer, according to Middle East Advisor Boris Boillon. "We
think Syria is delivering on the key dossier," Boillon said
during a December 5 meeting with PolMinCouns and NEA Watcher.
Recapping his November 30 visit to Damascus with Presidency
Secretary General Claude Gueant and NSA-equivalent Jean-David
Levitte, Boillon claimed that President al-Asad had assured
his guests that Syria was on track to open an embassy in
Beirut and exchange ambassadors with Lebanon by the end of
the year. "What's the exact deadline?" Syrian FM Muallim
reportedly asked, obliging the French diplomats to point out
that the end of the year was commonly understood to be
December 31. Boillon conceded the possibility that the
Syrians -- who are "very stubborn" -- might deliberately miss
the deadline by a day or so "just to show that they are
independent and are not being forced to do anything." Such a
delay was of no consequence. If, however, the Syrians had
not named an ambassador by January 6, when Sarkozy will visit
French troops serving with UNIFIL, the French would see
matters in a very different light. In that event, President
Sleiman's state visit to Paris in March would likely serve as
a red line, beyond which the relationship would be subject to
as-yet-undetermined cooling measures. Nevertheless, the
upbeat Boillon seemed to view this possibility as remote and
noted that Lebanon has tapped Lebanese diplomat Michel Khoury
to represent Beirut in Damascus, and said the GOF is
encouraging the GOL to announce Khoury's appointment as soon
as possible so as to deprive the Syrians of any pretext for
not naming their own ambassador.

3. (S) Despite the lingering question marks on the timeline
for the ambassadorial exchange (as reported Ref A, the MFA is
decidedly more pessimistic), Boillon emphasized that the
French give al-Asad credit for having established a new and
better atmosphere with Lebanese officials. In point of fact,
he said that al-Asad seems to have a genuine respect for his
new Lebanese counterpart and has become notably warmer in his
meetings with other Lebanese leaders.

4. (S) Turning to other benchmarks, such as progress on
border security/demarcation and on the return of missing
Lebanese prisoners held in Syrian jails, Boillon said al-Asad
claimed to have made progress on all. "We take a somewhat
more nuanced view," said Boillon, who freely admitted that
there had been no meaningful progress on any of those areas.
However, he said Sarkozy's priority had always been the
exchange of ambassadors: once that is completed, the French
would focus on the other benchmarks in 2009 and push for
concrete results.

Opposing Sleiman's Electoral Bloc

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5. (S) Al-Asad told the French that it would be a mistake for
President Sleiman to form an independent bloc of candidates
to run in the upcoming parliamentary election, since the
confessional nature of the Lebanese polity requires the
President to remain above the political fray. Boillon
indicated that the French fully agreed with this reasoning.
"We interpret (Michel) Aoun's visit to Damascus as a message
from al-Asad to Sleiman that he should not try to set himself
up as the leader of Lebanon's Christian community," said
Boillon. In addition, the French also agreed with al-Asad's
view that whatever the outcome of the parliamentary
elections, Lebanon should again form a national unity

Israel and Hizballah Arms

6. (S) The Syrian President indicated he was willing to
re-engage in peace talks with the Israeli government.
Indeed, al-Asad suggested his goal would be to take the talks
as far as possible while PM Olmert remains in office, since
progress would presumably be more difficult if a right-wing
Israeli government were to come to power in 2009. Asked
point-blank whether Syria would end its support of Hizballah
in exchange for Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan
Heights, al-Asad made a somewhat astonishing statement, which
Boillon paraphrased as: "For the moment, I am not playing the
role of policeman with regard to the arms that are going
through Syria to Hizballah. But I understand Israel's
security requirements." While al-Asad's comment is a tacit
admission that he is aware of, and facilitates, arms
shipments to Hizballah, the French interpreted it in a
positive light. His meaning, said Boillon, was that in
exchange for peace with Israel, al-Asad would be willing to
turn off the arms flow to Hizballah.

Nuclear Questions

7. (S) The French asked the Syrians whether they had pressed
the Iranians on the need to cooperate with the IAEA. Al-Asad
betrayed some annoyance with Iran, saying the only high level
Iranian to visit Damascus in recent months was FM Mottaki,
whom the Syrians dutifully encouraged to "accept
international controls." However, al-Asad stressed that he
did not want to carry any more water for the French on this
issue, both because he believed Iran has a right to
enrichment and because he found the P5 1 offer illogical
since it was based upon offering the Iranians an end-state
(no enrichment capability) that the Iranians have explicitly
rejected. "He seems to have been affected by Iran's
propaganda," mused Boillon. As for Syria's own troubles with
the IAEA, al-Asad vehemently denied that the Al-Kibar site
had been a nuclear installation. The French counseled
transparency, warning that the IAEA was "like a pitbull" and
adding that if the Syrians came clean with the IAEA as Libya
had done, France would try to be helpful. However, Boillon
noted that the French do not want to make Syria's IAEA
Technical Project (i.e., the feasibility/site study)
contingent upon such transparency. "If we take too hard of a
line on the Technical Project, then the Syrians may pull back
into their shell and turn again to Iran," said Boillon.
PolMinCouns pushed back against this reasoning, but it was
evident that Boillon had convinced himself that escalating
pressure on Syria at the IAEA would be a mistake. Seeing
Syria's relations with the IAEA devolve into a bitter
standoff the way that Iraq's and Iran's had would be "a
catastrophe," he maintained.

8. (S) Comment: That President Sarkozy's advisors are
inclined to give the Syrians the benefit of the doubt on the
exchange of ambassadors and other questions is no surprise:
although the French insist that they fully understand the
duplicitous nature of the Syrian regime, they have invested a
great deal of Sarkozy's political capital into building
bridges to Damascus and will tolerate a fair amount of
elasticity so long as the relationship can be billed as a
success. What is somewhat more troubling is the extent to
which Boillon seemed to view Lebanese domestic politics
through SARG-tinted glasses. While we defer to our
colleagues in Beirut and Damascus for an authoritative
analysis, al-Asad's professed concern for office of the
Lebanese presidency strikes us as less probable than his fear
that Sleiman's bloc would strip votes away from the
pro-Syrian March 8 opposition. Likewise, the insistence on a
national unity government (which the French see as essential
for Lebanon's stability) might also be seen as a means of
essentially depriving the March 14th movement of any victory
it might achieve at the ballot box. Such a convergence of
views, coupled with President Sleiman's emergence as France's
preferred Lebanese interlocutor (notably, Boillon made not a

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single reference to PM Siniora, but his may also be in
keeping with Sarkozy's preference of dealing directly with
what he sees as his counterparts rather than with prime
ministers), suggests that our conversations with the French
about Lebanon and Syria are not going to get any easier in
the short run.


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