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08DAMASCUS868 2008-12-03 14:28:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
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1. (C) In the wake of the visit of French President
Sarkozy's advisors (reftel), diplomats in Damascus are
sensing that the SARG may be preparing to renege on its
commitment to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon and to open
embassies in each other's capital by year's end. According
to Spanish Ambassador Juan Serrat (protect), the SARG has
slowed down the ambassadorial selection process because of
its unhappiness with recent developments on the UN Special
Tribunal for Lebanon. The SARG reportedly believed that the
French had agreed to slowball the Tribunal, in part to avoid
any possible embarrassment for the SARG in terms of the
Tribunal's lines of inquiry and in part because, Serrat
argued, the Tribunal's inquiries would also exacerbate
tensions among Lebanese factions. With the news that the
Tribunal may be entering a new, more active stage in March,
2009, the SARG reportedly believes that they have been let
down by the French and should therefore slow down their own
implementation of commitments reach during Sarkozy's
September visit to Damascus.

2. (C) Turkish Ambassador Halit Cevik (protect), who enjoys
good access to SARG officials, was more inclined to blame the
delays in naming an ambassador on bureaucratic inefficiencies
and tangled relationships. Noting that, in his experience,
even decisions made at the Presidential level can be subject
to long delays in execution, Cevik argued that the Syrian MFA
has only a thin layer of talent -- essentially Vice Foreign
Minister Faisal Mikdad and Deputy Foreign Minister Abdel
Fatah Ammourah -- who would be qualified for the Beirut post.
When the search is widened beyond career diplomats, he said,
there is still a limited pool of possible nominees. Added to
that is the SARG's continued debate over the best personal
and religious profile (Christian, Sunni, etc). All these
factors make the SARG decision-making process even more
glacially-slow than usual.

3. (C) Serrat told Charge that he believes that Vice
President Farouk al-Sharaa is attempting to use the
ambassadorial selection process as a means of weakening
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim. Muallim is closely
identified with the rapprochement process with France and
other European countries, a trend that Sharaa has not avidly
supported. With disappointment (and potentially anxiety)
over the Tribunal developments, Sharaa and "other
hard-liners" have argued with some success that "Syria would
be giving something away for nothing" if it were to appoint
the ambassador before year's end. Moreover, Serrat
speculated, the SARG now believes that making such an
important gesture by the end of December would be wasted,
given that the new U.S. administration would not yet be in
office and a new Israeli government would not have been
elected and formed. The French, according to Serrat,
delivered a tougher message than they had shared with us
(reftel) and had told the SARG that if the ambassadors were
not named by December 14, the EU Association Agreement deal
could be in jeopardy. Even if the parties still signed it
(the EU deputy external affairs commissioner is due in
Damascus for the occasion), the ratification process would be
negatively affected by the SARG's failure to keep its side of
the bargain. In reaction, the SARG hard-liners are supposed
to be arguing that an EU Association Agreement that provides
limited developmental assistance (approx. 30 million Euros,
according to Serrat) is hardly an adequate trade for Syria
formally relinquishing its claims to territory they believe
is historically part of Syria. This latter argument, Serrat
said, is a line of reasoning also being pushed by the Russian
Ambassador in Damascus.

4. (C) Comment: As Serrat points out, the sudden visit by
Sarkozy's foreign policy advisors would indicate a sense of
urgency on the part of the French regarding the Lebanon
commitments. For months after Sarkozy's September 4 visit,
both Syrian officials and foreign diplomats waved aside
questions regarding the SARG's intention to come through on
its commitment. It seems now that serious doubts have arisen
and, as the hard-liners reportedly argue, the EU Association
Agreement may not provide sufficient leverage to overcome the
SARG's inclination to raise the price for good behavior on
Lebanon. Suggestions that further progress on Lebanon (and
presumably other regional issues) may have to wait for the
formation of a new Israeli government are particularly
worrisome and open the way for counter-productive Syrian
behavior regarding the Tribunal, the IAEA consideration of
the Al-Kibar issue, Palestinian reconciliation, and Lebanese
elections. From our vantage point, we cannot assess whether
there are also delays on the Lebanese side that may be
playing into Syrian decision-making.