PARIS (Reuters) – France and the United States worked together to oust Syria from Lebanon and, despite tactical differences due to divergent agendas in the region, they agree who is to blame for the current crisis — Hizbollah.
The born-again allies, their rift over Iraq a thing of the past, want to isolate and disarm the Shi’ite Muslim group, whose backers Iran and Syria underscore the wider strategic issues at play in the latest round of Middle East conflict.
Israel began its assault on Lebanon after Hizbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. Some 373 people have since died in Lebanon. At least 37 Israelis have been killed in Hizbollah rocket attacks and clashes.
Both Washington and Paris have accused Hizbollah of provoking the Jewish state and leaving Lebanon — a French-speaking Middle East state with historical ties to France — to bear the brunt of Israel’s riposte.
“The Americans have never been interested in Lebanon as such, (they) have always reacted regarding Syria and regarding Israel,” said Olivier Roy, head of research at the France-based CNRS institute.
“For the French, Lebanon is the priority. They have come to the conclusion that now Hizbollah is playing against Lebanon’s political and territorial integrity.”
Commentators agree the assassination of President Jacques Chirac’s friend Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister killed by a car bomb in February 2005 blamed on pro-Syrian agents, abruptly changed the French leader’s view of Hizbollah.
Chirac met grieving relatives in Beirut on the day Hariri was buried and his killing led directly to the anti-Syrian entente with the Americans at work now.
“With the current war, clearly Hizbollah provoked the Israelis, knowing that the Israelis were going to strike Lebanon,” Roy said.
“And that plays into Syria’s hands, so it shows that the problem right now is Hizbollah’s military power. So for different reasons, the French and the Americans have come together again.”
That said, there are still clear differences of approach between Paris and Washington over how to respond to the war.
The U.S. administration wants any ceasefire in Lebanon to remove the threat to Israel posed by Hizbollah but has no plans yet to meet with the group or its Syrian backers.
France — co-author with the Americans of the 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution that forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon — says broad-based negotiations are vital.
“We talk to everyone. We are everyone’s friend and, above all, we say the same thing to each side,” Catherine Colonna, the French minister for Europe, told France Info radio on Monday.
While Washington has not criticised Israel for its attack on Lebanon, Chirac has denounced it as “aberrant”.
Anxious to end the onslaught, France has called for a strong international force to take up position in southern Lebanon.
Lebanon expert Roland Jacquard, who has close links to the French establishment, said the country was already looking past the conflict to the rebuilding of Lebanon as part of its diplomatic push.
“We (France) will probably ask for some financial aid to rebuild Lebanon. I know that President Chirac has already asked some Arab heads of state,” he said.
“I know that for the past three days French diplomacy has been very active with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Emir of Qatar and Syria,” he said in a phone interview late on Friday.
France believes rebuilding the authority of an already weak Lebanese state — as much as the country’s physical infrastructure — is the best way to neuter Hizbollah.
“(France’s) concern is that Israel is in the process of destroying the Lebanese state. And the best way of countering Hizbollah is precisely to reinforce the Lebanese state, not destroy it,” he said.