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Syria Seven Years Later - Lessons Learnt by France

Syria Seven Years Later - Lessons Learnt by France
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the Sarkozy administration was already waging war in Libya, had proved incapable of dealing with the Tunisian revolution, and one of its historical allies in the region, Hosni Mubarak, had just fallen in Egypt. Promptly, French authorities condemned the cruel repression against pacific demonstrators led by Assad’s regime forces. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Alain Juppé, was the first foreign personality to declare that Bashar al-Assad had lost any kind of legitimacy. Calling for his departure would become the mantra of the French approach in the following years, under both presidencies of Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande. 

From abroad, French presidents’ fierceful discourse against Bashar al-Assad may have come as a surprise. When back in August 2013, the question of a Western intervention arose after chemical weapons were used in Ghouta, French leaders were convinced they had to get involved. Barack Obama’s last-minute U-turn completely traumatized them. How can such a firmness from France be explained? Of course, initially, in the midst of the crisis, Sarkozy’s government might have simply believed they were positioning themselves on the right side of History. Did French diplomacy also underestimate the regime’s resilience, as some analysts suggest? It would be misjudging French diplomats’ empiricism, as their judgments have fluctuated according to the evolution of power balances, as it was the case for most observers.

"The conflict’s development was a sour experience for French officials."

The reasoning underlying French behaviour is elsewhere: it lies in a good knowledge of the nature of the Assad regime, based on a long-term experience. On the one side, France tried to reach out to Mr al-Assad twice: under the presidency of Mr Chirac and later under that of Mr Sarkozy. Assad failed to keep his word on both occasions. It was therefore hard to imagine French officials advising Mr Hollande to offer a third chance to the man of Damascus. On the other side, the French sensed from the earliest stage of the crisis that such a regime would respond to protests with violence, dismissing any concessions, and that this limitless violence (“Assad or we burn the country down”) would foster terrorism. The first disagreements with Moscow arose on this basis, as Russia immediately offered unconditional support to the regime. Mr Lavrov told his French counterpart that the legitimate Damascus government had to be backed up against islamist terrorists, while Mr Juppé tried to explain to his Russian interlocutor that is was precisely by defending Assad that the West would eventually yield a tremendous terrorist issue. 

The conflict’s development was a sour experience for French officials. First of all, the Syrian tragedy highlighted the limits of what countries like France can do in this type of situation. Once it was clear that Assad’s regime would abide by no political settlement and that the protests would turn into an uprising, France, alongside its American, British and regional allies, contributed to support rebel armed groups. However, such support remained limited as many feared the sophisticated weapons might end up in the hands of jihadists. Meanwhile, French authorities continuously supported the opposition in its quest for a representative political structure. They also sided with the United Nations in its attempts to mediate the conflict, de facto agreeing to engage negotiations with Assad. They wanted to believe in the chances that Geneva’s June 2012 statement or later December 2015 UN resolution No. 2254 would pave the way to a settlement. These several paths ended up in a stalemate, mostly because the regime, as the French initially predicted, never even considered the possibility of negotiations. 

"From Western renunciation in 2013, to the rise of the Islamic State, to finally the Russian 2015 military intervention, France’s room for maneuver was increasingly reduced"

From Western renunciation in 2013, to the rise of the Islamic State, to finally the Russian 2015 military intervention, France’s room for maneuver was increasingly reduced. Paris was marginalized first by Russo-American initiatives, back when Mr Kerry was running after Mr Lavrov, and later by Russo-Turkish-Iranian initiatives, when the three countries created the Astana process. As other Western capitals, Paris’s action essentially refocused on the fight against the Islamic State. Another mantra arose: the French’s nemesis is Daesh, while Assad is that of his people. 

Finally, a last setback was waiting for the French, this time regarding domestic affairs. Under the Fifth Republic, the main lines of foreign policy generally tend to be consensual, although it might have been less the case under the Sarkozy administration. The consensus mainly broke down because of Syria: in parallel of the pro-Assad “fifth column” present in all countries, a protest movement emerged within the political sphere, in the media and amongst commentators. At the end of Mr Hollande’s mandate, this trend had become dominant. The President’s line and that of his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, was accused of lacking realism, of being too pervaded by moral considerations, aligned with the United States, insufficiently open to dialogue with Moscow, even too tough on the Assad regime. This argumentation was of course almost entirely unfounded. For instance, the Hollande administration had almost always disagreed with Obama’s and continuously searched ground for negotiations with Moscow. The Russians, as demonstrated by President Hollande’s visit to Moscow in November 2015, were the ones to show no interest in listening to the French. Even if wrong, these accusations were fueled by French renowned personalities such as Hubert Védrine or Dominique de Villepin, who drew a bizarre link between Syria’s policy and a so-called excessive tendency to privilege the military option.

"In this context, what is President Macron’s approach?"

In this context, what is President Macron’s approach? On one side, Emmanuel Macron is largely inspired by the criticism of his predecessor’s policy. He had often repeated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure should not be a prerequisite for negotiations and that “democracy cannot be enforced by external forces”. He went as far as declaring  that “no  legitimate successor to Assad has been introduced to him”. He has vowed to renew contact with Russia and doesn’t seem opposed entertaining some kind of relation with the regime. On the other side, he drew two red lines: one on the use of chemical weapons, the second on humanitarian access. He even mentioned the threat of unilateral military intervention if these red lines were to be crossed. 

As is often the case, the new administration’s stance is being reviewed according to the circumstances. The President loathes sensitive or moralizing language: he spoke of “incapacitating moral stances”. Nevertheless, he quickly recalled the criminal nature of Damascus’ tyrant. Besides, confronted with the tragedy currently taking place in Ghouta, France is one of the first countries to have tried to make humanitarian considerations prevail. Mr Macron is personally involved in this fight. For those who do not endorse Mr Védrine’s perspective, the bottom of the problem for France in the Syrian crisis has not been the positions adopted by its leaders but rather the absence of adequate means to act. Yet, the Macron administration is precisely working on acquiring such tools: Paris avoids the temptation of funding Syria’s reconstruction for as long as Assad will be in charge, which would amount to turning down a potential leverage. Meanwhile, the French sustain their military presence, along with the US and others, in the area liberated from the Islamic State in North-East Syria, thus securing a token for the future. 

"Seven years after the first spark of the crisis, the French are clear on their country’s limited abilities, but have also learnt the limits of cynicism, even when labeled as realistic"

Seven years after the start of Syria’s revolution, the scale of the disaster, of human losses, of sufferings and destructions profoundly upsets ordinary French people, even if the fate of minorities - Christians and Kurds - remains a vivid issue in their mind. Former President François Hollande came out of his self-imposed reserve on 12 March in a interview to newspaper Le Monde, in which he implicitly blames his successor for not doing enough. This interview benefited from a wide echo, which doesn’t prove that people endorse Mr Holland’s critics but rather that the Syrian issue is still touching a raw nerve among the French. 

In the meantime, the conflict’s nature is evolving. Syria has become the battleground for Turkish, American, Israeli, Iranian and Russian confrontations. The risk of an escalation between foreign powers is increasing. The country’s division into several separate areas of influence seems to be crystallizing. All of this reminds the public opinion of the Cold War era. Besides, Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad seems less and less legitimate in the sight of events like the tragedy of Ghouta and appears to fall within the scope of a broader open confrontation against the West. In Washington, a feeling of exasperation against Russia’s policy, Iran’s actions and the regime’s endless cruelty is growing. 
In this context:

  • For Emmanuel Macron’s France, it might be envisioned, with the available means, to: (1) contribute alongside its allies to stabilize the Eastern area of the country and to encourage a reconciliation with Turkey (a vital priority for the West), (2) try to catalyze the growing fury in Washington in an agenda aiming to protect the populations under the regime’s authority (chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings, inhuman treatments of all types…), whilst (3) maintaining the dialogue with Russia and regional powers open in order to contain escalation risks and to prepare for the potential moment when the different players will come to  feel the need of  a political solution. 
  • Public opinion in France will probably strongly support any effort from the President and his government to play a useful role. Seven years after the first spark of the crisis, the French are clear on their country’s limited abilities, but have also learnt the limits of cynicism, even when labeled as realistic. It can be concluded that they are not necessarily waiting for “results” from their government, but are at least expecting a clear direction to be set  and loyalty to their country’s attachment to the defense of human rights. 
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