Today's Despot Is Tomorrow's Statesman

Millions believe Bashar al-Assad plotted murder. Now France is honouring him

How are the mighty fallen, we used to say. Now we turn it round. How did the fallen become mighty again? Remember the "mad dog of the Middle East" -- Reagan's stupid clichAf(c) -- the "terrorist" sponsor who even sent a shipload of guns to the IRA? A certain Moammar Ghazzafi -- there are 17 different ways of spelling his name in Latin script -- was the crazed leader of Libya who wrote a mind-numbingly boring volume of pseudo philosophy called The Green Book and who wanted to mock the White House by calling his own palace the Green House until someone tipped him off that this would mean he would look even more of a cabbage than he already was.

Then suddenly, he gave up some imaginary weapons of mass destruction and Anthony Blair, now the commercial director of World Faith, went out to fawn over him in Tripoli and he was called "statesmanlike" by the absurd Jack Straw and then he was invited to Paris by the even more absurd Nicolas Sarkozy where he right royally made the French president look like a twat by behaving in an extremely unstatesmanlike way.

And now -- bingo -- Sarkozy has done it again. This time it's Bashar al-Assad, another presumed "sponsor of world terror" - this twaddle comes from Washington, of course -- who will (if he accepts the invitation franAfASSaise) be in Paris on Bastille Day to take his place in the reviewing stand at the end of the Champs ElysAf(c)es. The man whom millions of Lebanese believe plotted the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut on 14 February 2005 will thus be receiving one of France's highest honours: to stand beside the French president as he reviews his military forces.

Le Canard EnchaAfA(r)nAf(c), my favourite French newspaper, carried a wonderful cartoon this week in which an extremely good likeness of Bashar asks Sarkozy and the gorgeous Carla: "What is it exactly, your 14 July?" And Carla replies: "It's the end of a tyrant." And Sarkozy, almost lost for words, then adds: "Er -- a king." Well quite. And both apply to Bashar, whose succession after his father's death in 2000 did rather suggest that Syria was now a caliphate (as Egypt will become if Uncle Hosni is succeeded by his son Gamal Mubarak). But seriously, how did Bashar, a hate-figure of the United States and an adjunct to Bush's crazed notion of the "axis of evil", get on the guest list? Sure he's been asked to attend France's spanking new "Union of the Mediterranean" (along with Ehud Olmert), but there's more to it than that.

For one thing, both he and Sarkozy smell American failure. The American disaster in Iraq -- and in Afghanistan (a movie coming to your local cinema soon) -- and its total failure to produce a peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the loss of Lebanon as its protAf(c)gAf(c) (now that the pro-Syrian Hizbollah can veto America's friends in the parliamentary majority once there's a cabinet) means that France can move in among the wreckage for a second crack at le mandat franAfASSais.

The tribunal to judge Hariri's murderers still does not exist and even Walid Jumblatt, my favourite Druze nihilist, has been in Saudi Arabia to ask the king to keep pushing for the court. He did the same in Washington, chatting to Bush and Gates and the rest along the same lines. But the United States has failed in the Middle East.

Bashar is thus to be allowed back into the civilised West, which Jacques Chirac once encouraged him to visit before feeling betrayed after Syria's apparent involvement in Hariri's murder. My own suspicion is that Baath party security was involved in the mass assasination, but not Bashar. Either way, it's only 17 months since Chirac's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy turned up in Beirut for the funeral of young Pierre Gemayel (assassinated, the usual fingers pointing towards Syria yet again) to announce that Chirac was "the best defender on earth of Lebanon's sovereignty". Now, it seems, Sarkozy is the best defender on earth of Syria's sovereignty. And of Bashar.

Of course, all this is presented in what I call the politics of candlelight. Olmert may meet Bashar al-Assad, the French tell us, and thus further their indirect peace talks. It's time to bring Syria in from the cold -- which is why two of Sarkozy's top henchmen have been in Damascus, buttering up the Syrian president in the hope he won't turn down the trip. France will be able to encourage Bashar to behave in Lebanon, open an embassy in Beirut, delineate the Lebanese-Syrian border, blah, blah, blah. It's a reward, too, for Bashar's support for the Doha conference which ended -- up to a point -- Lebanon's latest bout of sectarian sickness, albeit to the advantage of Sister Syria herself.

Now the Lebanese parliamentary majority is groaning about Bashar's visit. So is France's largest Jewish organisation, although not very successfully; last time the Syrian president visited Paris, it symbolically blamed him for the Nazi Holocaust of Europe's Jews, which ended well over a decade before Bashar was born. Now even that elegant old butterfly from Libya is objecting to the "Union of the Mediterranean". Yes, the "statesmanlike" panjandrum Ghaddafi denounced the whole shebang with the immortal words: "We are not dogs to whom they throw bones." Sarkozy should have guessed. This was, after all, the same Ghaddafi who turned up at a non-aligned summit in old Yugoslavia -- this from a former Serbian diplomat friend of mine -- with a camel and a white horse, the first to provide milk, the second to ride through the streets of Belgrade en route to the conference. He got to keep the camel. The horse was banned.

But that's how things go when you see yourself as a "guide" -- Ghaddafi's description of himself; oddly the very same term used by A Hitler -- and there really is no knowing what happens to wayward folk when they climb on our wheel of fortune. We gave Kurt Waldheim an honourary knighthood, then withdrew it when we found out he had a dodgy Second World War past. We took away Ceausescu's knighthood when he was executed on Christmas Day. We loved Saddam when he tortured and killed all his communists -- when mayor of Paris, Chirac fawned over him too -- and when he invaded Iran, then hated him when he invaded Kuwait and were happy to see him hanged 17 years later.

Fear not, such a fate will not await Bashar. He will honour the downfall of the tyrant-king and he will no doubt receive economic help from France. And thus his people will not have to eat cake.

--Robert Fisk


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