French President Nicolas Sarkozy's invitation to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to be part of the Mediterranean Union has triggered a range of responses in the Arab media. The Saudi and Lebanese Christian media harshly criticized the invitation, on the grounds that it disregarded the fact that Syrian policy had not changed, and would therefore contribute to a hardening of this policy. The Syrian media conceded that Syria had not changed its policy, but claimed that Sarkozy had realized that rapprochement with Syria was in France's interests.
The following are excerpts from the articles:
Lebanese Christian Daily Al-Nahar: Assad Is [Merely] Playing for Time, Waiting for the End of Bush's Term in Office
Columnist 'Ali Hamadi of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, which is affiliated with the March 14 Forces, criticized Sarkozy's invitation to Al-Assad, arguing that it sent a negative message to the moderate Arab camp and rewarded [Syria's] conduct. He wrote:
"It is not true that the official invitation extended by French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad... marks the [end of] the era in which the Syrian regime interfered in Lebanon's affairs by political and diplomatic means [as well as] by bloodshed and terrorism, [and the beginning of a new] era, which began with Syria's facilitation of the Doha agreement and of Michel Suleiman's election for president...
[The handshake, a picture posted on the front page of the Syrian, daily Syrian al-Watan, on July 13, 2008]
"[The truth is] that the Syrian regime remains as it was. All the talk of transformation is nothing but erroneous assumptions among Western diplomatic circles in general, and particularly in European [diplomatic circles]. The most dangerous aspect of this misguided diplomacy is that those who practice it will soon wake up to [find] a new reality prevailing in the Eastern Arab region.
"The lifting of the siege from the Syrian regime coincides with the partially successful coup [staged] in Lebanon by the Wilayat Al-Faqih Party [i.e. Hizbullah], which effectively took over the capital, Beirut, and threatened the other regions as well.
"The new reality on the ground shows that this party – which is the military arm of Iran's plan in the region – is [merely] a tool for turning the direct confrontation with Israel into an internal Lebanese [conflict], with the [ultimate] goal of imposing [Hizbullah's] rule over the entire country...
"If this arm of Iran takes full control of Lebanon, on the international level it would mean that the regional sponsor [i.e. Iran] would gain legitimate access to the shores of the Mediterranean and would take root in Lebanon, at the heart of the Arab East, only 300 kilometers from Europe. This, [in turn,] would mean placing some European cities... such as Athens and Rome, within range of Iran's Shihab 4 missiles...
"We say again that [France's] excessive openness towards President Assad will [only] harm Lebanon, just as Israel's vague negotiations with Syria will eventually lead Sarkozy to the same conclusion as his predecessor, Jacques Chirac [who maintained an anti-Syrian policy]...
"All signs indicate that Assad is [merely] playing for time, waiting for the end of [U.S. President] Bush's term in office. Sarkozy's invitation to Assad... is therefore a very unfortunate move, which sends a negative message to the lovers of freedom in Syria, to those who are fighting for Lebanon's independence, and to the [entire] moderate Arab [camp] – [and this message is] that the West, and especially Sarkozy's France, prefer to reward [Syria's] conduct."
Al-Arabiya TV Chief: "The French President Has Driven the Region from Stalemate to Clash"
Al-Arabiya TV director 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed likewise criticized Sarkozy's new policy. He wrote in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "...In my opinion, the French president has driven the region from a stalemate into a state of clash, and has encouraged Damascus to take a more rigid [stance] on prominent issues… When Damascus gives the signal, Hamas will renew its rocket fire from Gaza. The Turkish[-mediated] negotiations [between Syria and Israel] are not serious, as the Israelis themselves admit, and the situation in Lebanon has grown more grave, the [internal] conflict there becoming more dangerous.
"[In short,] Sarkozy has strengthened one camp [i.e. Syria and Hizbullah] at the expense of the other, creating a more dangerous situation..."
"Syria Has Not Changed; It Merely Creates Crises and Then Solves Them"
In another article, Al-Rashed wrote that Syria's ingenious policy had convinced the entire world that Syria had changed. "It was not by chance," he wrote, "that the red carpet was rolled out in honor of the Syrian leader. Indeed, it was the result of a series of initiatives which Assad undertook in recent months and which provided the French host with justification to invite him, and opened the gates of the Elysee Palace to Assad…
"Syria's ingenuity must be acknowledged and should not be discounted. Damascus engendered crises and [then] came up with solutions. [Syria's] fingerprints can be found in Beirut, Doha, and Gaza. Syria's partner, Hizbullah, invaded West Beirut so that Damascus would intervene to stop the invasion. Syria's friends in the Lebanese opposition refused to elect Michel Suleiman, even though he had for some time been the consensual candidate for presidency – only to have Damascus intervene and facilitate his election during the ceremony of [the signing of] the Doha agreement…
"The same thing happened in Gaza. Syria's friend Hamas escalated violence against Israel only to have Damascus intervene and order it to stop. [Damascus] ended by once again ordering its friends in the Lebanese opposition to stop sabotaging the formation of the Lebanese government only two days before [Assad] took off for Paris… Syria has inculcated into the [popular] consciousness [the idea] that it has changed – while in fact, it has not. It [merely] creates crises and then solves them."
Syrian Daily: France Finally Realized Where Its Interests Lie
'Issa Al-Ayoubi, columnist for the Syrian daily Al-Watan, welcomed the Syria-France rapprochement. He said that while previous French prime minister Jacques Chirac had severed relations with Syria in 2004 following a conversation with U.S. President George Bush, Sarkozy did the opposite: Following a conversation with Bush in 2008, he renewed relations with Syria and sent two of his most prominent aides there.
Ayoubi stressed that Syria's positions had not changed in the interim: Its support of the resistance remained, as did its strategic alliances [i.e. with Iran], its support for the "liberation and resistance forces" in Lebanon [i.e. Hizbullah] and in Palestine [i.e. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad], as well as its strategic decision to opt for peace. He added that France's position had not changed either, and that the Zionist lobby remained as strong as ever.
However, Ayoubi claimed that two other developments had brought about a shift in France's policy, and prompted the inviting of Assad to France. The first development was that France had finally "realized where its real interests lay... and had [mustered] the courage to acknowledge and express them. This [courage] is one of Sarkozy's unique qualities, and if he stays [on the path] of constant self-criticism and courage to admit [mistakes], he may become an outstanding leader of his country."
Ayoubi continued, "[The second factor that brought about a change in France's policy] is the collapse of the American neocons' plan, which some, who realized that [a policy of] imperialism and constant wars had no future, had foreseen. Others, thinking that [the world] had entered the American Age, had bought into [this plan] and had followed it blindly. They forgot that those who give in to the present forfeit their future."
"Like Putin, Sarkozy Realized that Great Leaders Not Only Manage Crises but Also Have a Long-Term Vision"
Ayoubi went on, "That is the way of history: The future is forged by those who [carry out] resistance in the present. Sarkozy, like Putin before him, realized that great leaders are those who do not only manage crises but also have a long-term vision. France's present situation is no worse than Russia's situation was when Putin wrested power from the gangs and mafias. [He got a country with] broken down institutions, severe economic and social problems, ideological strife, and burgeoning crime that permeated all sectors of society. [Despite these problems,] he held on and did not capitulate to U.S. dictates. Thanks to his steadfastness, the mafia heads fled [the country and found refuge] in Israel, New York, and London..."
Syrian Opposition to Sarkozy: "Demand that Assad Free Political Prisoners"
In a letter to the French president's office, the Damascus Declaration councils in North America and Europe expressed amazement and concern over the inviting of Assad to Paris. They called upon Sarkozy to demand that Assad free all political prisoners, stop the arrest of opposition members, respect international human rights conventions, stop the torture of prisoners in Syrian jails, respect the independence of the Syrian judiciary, and lift the emergency law in Syria.
Al-Bayanouni: "We Take Note of Sarkozy's Disregard for the Interests of the Syrian People"
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood head Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni lamented the glamorous welcome extended to Assad in France. He said: "Any international openness towards the Syrian regime deals a harsh blow to the Syrian people. We take note of France's disregard for the interests of the Syrian people." Al-Bayanouni accused France of giving preference to its immediate interests, and added that France's position would help promote neither openness within Syria nor stability in the region.
 Wilayat-e Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent) – a guiding principle of the Islamic regime in Iran.
 Al-Nahar (Lebanon), July 17, 2008.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 24, 2008.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 13, 2008.
 Al-Watan (Syria), June 19, 2008.