Unexpectedly, without warning, on the 21st of last June, the new elected French president issued a press statement, which was unsymmetrical to the official French position on the Syrian issue, particularly on the Syrian regime, if not contradicted it. The given statements worried the Syrian opposition and led to further problematic interpretations of how relevant, such sudden statements were to the French policy towards Syria in the foreseeable future.
In his meeting with a group of European newspapers’ representatives, Macron received questions about some current European and global issues and the French position towards them including the Syrian issue. He stated that he didn’t see a legitimate alternative for the current Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, clarifying that the Syrian president was” the enemy of the Syrian people not the enemy of France” , and he stated: ” France doesn’t consider his departure as pre condition to solve the conflict in Syrian”. He added that ” the priority in Paris is to concentrate on fighting terrorism entirely and to ensure a better future to Syria”. Macron also explained that such matters would require a political and diplomatic Road map, and couldn’t just be solved by sending troops. As for his priorities, he said that they were clear, which was a full war on what he called as terrorist groups.
These statements angered the Syrian opposition, considering it was the first time the French government took a position that favoured the Syrian regime, at least theoretically and visibly, which contradicts the firm stance of the four former French presidents who have served since Assad took power in 2000. More importantly, this new position was radically different from the strong position, which was taken by France towards the Syrian regime, as it used heavy weaponry against unarmed civilians, who started the peaceful uprising of March 2011.
The French president’s statements – where France’s position was considered to be one of the most influential supporters of the Syrian revolution- stirred a storm of denial and pessimism amongst the Syrian opposition. It puzzled analysists and speculators and raised fears that the new French position would prompt other countries from (the friends of the Syrian revolution) group to do the same.
The French ministry of foreign affairs had quickly responded to clarify the president’s statements, trying to contain any possible negative consequences, and stated in an official statement: ” the Syrian president can’t resolve the ongoing military conflict alone. Paris doesn’t intend to put the matter of toppling him at the forefront of the upcoming talks”. It explained that ” France had two plans regarding its position of the fate of the Syrian president Bashar Alassad. The first: France does not seek to make Assad’s departure as a precondition for the talks. The second points out that that the Syrian president can’t resolve the current conflict on his own”.
During his election campaign, Macron’s positions were substantial and un friendly towards the Syrian regime, unlike the post of the right and left wing candidates, Mary Lupin and Melanson. hHe considered Al-Assad as the enemy of the Syrian people, and any further use of chemical weapons against his people would lead to sending French troops to Syria, which was interpreted by the press that Macron was preparing for an upcoming war in Syria.
There were various attempts to understand the French president’s statements, especially the ones relating to the departure of the head of the Syrian regime being the no priority, with some attributing them to political, economic, or even security reasons.
Some say that regardless of the intentions of President Macron, good or bad, his statements revealed the shallowness of his diplomatic and political experience because he believed that these declarations would remove any obstacle in the way of political solution, namely the survival of Bashar al-Assad in power. His belief is tested and proved practically untrue.
In contrast to these interpretations, there are more realistic, coherent, and logical explanations. Macron’s statements echo a range of political and strategic data, accumulated French diplomatic experience, ability to measure international power balance, ability to make a breakthrough on sensitive international issues, of different levels, conditions, and potentials.
It is necessary to understand the realistic direction that France sees and the demands of the stage. A pre-made ideology does not govern macron. He is acting as a professional politician, both internally and externally, establishing for a new political concept, which was evident during his election campaign and is very different from his recent statements.
Here, one needs to review the pragmatism of French politics and recognise its legitimacy, its flexibility without compromising its stability, and the “values of the Republic” which, in one way or another, continue to govern that policy. In addition to President Jacques Chirac being the only Western leader to take part in the ceremony of Hafez al-Assad’s funeral on 10 June 2000, he singled out his son Bashar in a friendly reception in the Elysee in 1998, hoping that the son would be different from his father and move Syria to a new phase of reform.
France proposed the idea of political reform to the Syrian regime and worked with Assad sincerely and enthusiastically in the hope that the corrupt, repressive security system would be changed. However, this stage was terminated soon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, when Chirac realised that Bashar Assad was beyond help, and may be more bloody and violent than his father, especially after being accused of involvement in the crime. France had turned that page and settled on its position, which has continued through Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande, and even Macaron.
When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as President of the French Republic, in a move interpreted as a desire to break with the Arab policy of his predecessor, he tried to restore dialogue with Damascus, and considered – in June 2007 – Bashar Assad as a major player in the region, and decided to give him another chance. Sarkozy could claim all the credit in bringing Al-Assad back to the international scene when, on 14 July 2008, he invited him to attend the military parade in celebration of the National Day, together with world leaders, and Paris opened its gates to him. His last official visit to Paris was in December 2010. Sarkozy himself had visited Damascus in September 2008 and again in January 2009. But Assad did not benefit from all of these opportunities; he continued to elude his policies with France, and lie to them, manoeuvring against its interests, breaking his promises of good relations while reinforcing his dealings with Iran.
With the launch of the Arab Spring, Paris tried to advise Assad, but he refused firmly. On 11 July 2011, hundreds of Assad supporters – practically his intelligence men – attacked the French Embassy in Damascus, three days after the French Ambassador visited the city of Hama, which was witnessing significant unrest.
France has strongly condemned the suppression of demonstrations in Syria and has tried with other countries to extract a resolution of the Security Council condemning the brutal repression of civilians in Syria. Russia has always stood against France’s firm position against Assad and his war solution, and used the veto several times against French draft resolutions to limit the brutality of the Syrian regime.
France has been the most enthusiastic European country in calling for a firm stance against the Assad regime. In 2012 it called Assad to step down, then called for military intervention after the use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta in 2013, and in 2014 opened an investigation into the acts of torture carried out by the regime.
Regarding the previously mentioned topic of President Macron’s remarks, there was a stream of opinion that linked his statements to his desire to establish a good relationship with Russia and his pursuit of it. Some believed that there was a possibility that he thought these mitigating statements toward the head of the Syrian regime would help to get closer to Putin, who was waiting for these magic words, ie (the unnecessity for the departure of the head of the Syrian regime in the transitional period.)
In this context, few days after the president’s remarks, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Laudrian said in a lengthy interview published in the French newspaper Le Monde on 6 July: “There is an opportunity for a constructive dialogue with Russia” regarding Syria, and Paris and Moscow should move forward towards resolving this crisis. “We will be able to progress successfully in the Syrian file if we commit ourselves to a new methodology based on outlining robust and agreed basis to build new bridges among the various parties involved in the conflict, without resorting to rhetorical premises,” he said. Regarding the head of the Syrian regime, she said that “Paris and Moscow have to agree on their future role in the Syrian equation, on the horizon of a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Practicality demands not to impose the departure of Assad as a precondition for political negotiations.”
However, the French minister denied that Macon’s remarks had anything to do with France’s pursuit of rapprochement with Russia, saying: “Have you ever heard the Russians say that Assad represented the future of Syria?” He tried to explain to critics that France would not be more royal than the royalty (Russia), and it would not accept Assad in the future of Syria, but his presence in the transitional period might facilitate the political solution.
On 29 May, Macron had a lengthy meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Versailles Palace. He tended to ease the Russian-French rivalries. Some believed that relaxing his position on the head of the Syrian regime might also be a helpful factor in improving relations with Russia.
This attempt at rapprochement with Russia is also governed by a tight relationship between France and the United States, which refuses to let Europe have a significant role in the Syrian arena and seeks to distance it from the quotas, especially after the American-Russian rapprochement. France feels that in order to preserve its share and to remove the terror, and to the rest of the European countries, it is necessary to declare a less rigid position, a diplomatic position that can be interpreted in many ways, leaving Assad’s fate open for possibilities.
Some analyses linked the French president’s remarks to his financial and business background which puts interests over principles and linked his actions to a gas deal signed by France with Iran. Total announced a $ 5 billion deal, under which it acquired 51% of the output of the South Gas field in Iran, in partnership with a Chinese company, who acquired 30 percent, leaving the Iranian Oil with only 19 percent of the output of this field.
This principle, in the political and international logic, is a concept of necessity. France has the right to pursue its economic, political and strategic interests independently of the interests of other countries and for its president to look for the benefits for his own country. But many criticise this principle, saying that benefits should not be paid for by a public denial of the principles of human rights, and not at the expense of France’s leading role in promoting individual and public freedoms at the world level, especially the Francophone. It should not be preserved by legitimizing the head of a regime killing more than half a million of its people, destroyed an important country in the Middle East, exported the problem of millions of refugees to neighbouring countries and to Europe, and broadcasted terrorism to some European countries.
These interpretations and analysis are not necessarily accurate, neither false, as it is difficult for France to change its position on the Syrian regime radically, if not impossible, especially as it leads a unified European front in this area, which also includes Germany and Britain. It is also unlikely to accept Al-Assad to stay, as it is aware, similar to other countries, regional and Western, that the head of the Syrian regime no longer has any support in Syria or outside. France knows that he is still there only because of the help of Russia and Iran, and they own him. It also knows that is impossible for the majority of Syrians to accept him as the president of the future Syria, and the amount of blood that has been shed cannot be erased with out him removed to compensation the millions of Syrians affected. France’s tole in Syria, a country of democracies, will not be possible if it maintained a friendship with a criminal regime, which is monitored by the French from inside.
In the same press release, Macron reminded the reporters of the Khan-Sheikhon incident when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, saying: “When you draw red lines and then fail to enforce them, you have decided to become weak,”. He spoke of the chemical attack of 2013, and the Obama’s administration evasion, which (weakened France), and encouraged Putin. He addressed the Syrian regime when he said: “If we can identify the sources of chemical weapons stockpiles, France will strike and destroy them”, which is further evidence that France knew that the Syrian regime was the one who possessed chemical weapons and it was declaring war if it was used again.
In this context it is right to mention another recent statement by the French Foreign Minister Laudrian in which he said: “We are realistic on two levels, and we are aware that Assad’s departure should not be imposed as a condition for starting negotiations. We are also mindful of the fact that the solution to the Syrian crisis will not be with Bashar, and I do not imagine how the refugees whom he displaced would think of returning home without any change in Syria “.
The French vision to bring back the diplomatic and political initiative around the Syrian file is based on four pillars, according to the Minister Laudrian: “First, to combat all types of terrorism. Second, the absolute and total prohibition of the use or manufacture of chemical weapons. Third, to ensure the distribution of humanitarian assistance. Fourth, to achieve a political solution with the participation of all Syrian components, with the support of the United Nations, especially the permanent members of the Security Council and the States of the region. ”
What Macron said about Assad’s survival in the transition period is not new. The majority of countries concerned with the Syrian issue have said it. Almost two years ago, the departure of the dictator was no longer an essential condition in the discussions in Geneva, Vienna or Munich, and his fate was deliberately vague in all these conferences, in international resolutions related to the Syrian issue in general, and even in the position of the United Nations and its Special Envoy.
The agreement of all states, including sponsors and close to the opposition parties that the fight against terrorism is their priority means that the political solution is not yet ripe and that the view of the regime and the position of its survival is not conclusive. More precisely it awaits consensuses which may result in mutual pressure, and that is still not decisive and cannot be relied on.
The essence of the French president’s statement that he “does not see a legitimate alternative to the Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad” is a repetition of a statement that has long been heard by Syrian opposition bodies, most of which had been met by his predecessor, Hollande. He meant what he said, as there is no available alternative to Assad to carry the responsibilities of the post-Assad era and that his experience and meetings confirm the incapacity of the Syrian opposition and their committees to rule and manage the countries affairs. The Syrian opposition tried to ignore the essence of this statement, and put forward different and far-fetched interpretations to escape the exact meaning, a thing that the independent Syrian opposition figures have flagging for the last 6 years.
In Macron’s opinion, the presence of Assad, regardless of his criminal action, is a temporary guarantee of the state not collapsing. For Syria to enter into chaos may threaten to turn it into a failed state, and the West’s convinced that any additional confusion will carry with it more terrorist organisations and operations that could hit Europe. Even the regime’s militias could transform into transnational terrorist organizations in the event of the overthrow of their president by external force.
The statement “I do not find a legitimate alternative” does not necessarily mean that the Assad regime is legitimate. This fact is settled for France because Macaron said that the people would not accept a ruler who committed all these crimes. He is also addressing the Syrian opposition because, in his opinion, the Syrian opposition is not qualified to be the alternative, and unworthy of assuming responsibility for the transitional period. He explains the viability of seeking alternatives amongst the regime and other parties and opposition figures and calls on them to reform themselves, unite, expand, and combine the platforms of Cairo and Moscow, to be accepted by the world as a legitimate opposition worthy of leading the transition.
In the last meeting of the High Commission for the Negotiations with President Macron on 17 June in the Elysee, the French President gave similar statements to the European press, albeit with less enthusiasm than the previous ones, with regard to the clear position of the regime’s head and its survival, terrorism, and the Syrian opposition and its weakness.
Macron informed the president of the Supreme Body of Negotiations that the primary concern at this stage for France, and even most countries in the world, is to combat terrorism and he explained at great length its dangers in Europe and the world. This means that the political solution and the suspension of the Syrian massacre are now postponed until terrorism is eliminated, or at least it is not a priority, and not only for France but for everyone.
Senior French officials have repeatedly told Syrian opposition leaders that Assad’s departure should not be a precondition before the start of negotiations on a political solution or before the commencement of the interim phase and that the acceptable time frame could be discussed during the negotiations.
The French president’s statements, although shocking and different from what the Syrian opposition was familiar with, are grave and realistic. For six years, the Syrian opposition has not been able to present itself as a unified front, or a credible and reliable alternative to taking power or even to play a significant role in the transition process and the future of Syria. The majority of the Syrian opposition leaders offered the worst of any political opposition. Differences, lack of coordination, inability to unite and harmony, as well as prevailing of individualistic and private interests and much political illiteracy, have always surfaced.
Hence, we cannot blame the French president for the deterioration of the Syrian opposition state to this level, and perhaps subjective, and objectivity condition has joined to deliver the Syrian opposition to the degree that prompts others to derecognize them and alternatively recognise a killer regime. On top of the self-factor, which in summary is that the opposition lacks any political awareness, is corrupted, and apportioned, the subjective factor is also active. The promises made by the opposition were mere statements that were not accompanied by any serious action or pressure to compel the regime to comply with the resolutions of international legitimacy, to stop the violence and murder, or force it to accept a political solution and embark on a mandatory but controlled political transition. The French cannot tolerate the abysmal state of the opposition as much as the Americans and the Russians can.
Simultaneously, France said that it had the initiative to resolve the Syrian issue, without giving any further details. This suggests that France is seeking to remind the other parties that it is still a major player in the Middle East and Syria in particular. Syria was under the French mandate in the past, making it the only country that shares a history with Syria, having an advanced knowledge of the social, political and sectarian structure in this country. It may now seek to be a mediator between the Russians, the Americans, and the Syrians, but it will need a high level of tactic to pass or make it viable.
According to preliminary leaks, the French initiative will include a gradual settlement of the political transition in Syria, with Assad remaining with limited powers, and the fight against terrorism remaining as a priority that will force the opposition and the regime together into an armed confrontation with extremism, leading to an understanding of the political process, and taking into account both Geneva and Astana.
Mostly, the impact of the French initiative will be insufficient if it does not receive American support. France can not solely solve a complex international issue such as the Syrian one, where interests, conflicts, strategies, ideologies, and human beings are intertwined, and many regional and far away countries are caught up.
France is the only country that did not turn its back on its obligations towards the Syrian revolution, while the majority of the countries (friends of the Syrian people) withdrew from the political scene related to the Syrian issue. The positions of the Western capitals were affected by the American negativity and were limited by verbal condemnations of the regime’s crimes. At the same time, the Gulf states are preoccupied with a very complex political crisis amongst themselves, following the recent visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, while the French position continues with its strength and keenness.
Thus, the French signals differ from those of the US. Former US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford had talked about the American administration’s deception of the Syrians; the government that wanted to keep the fence surrounding Israel, to be its protector, and to be caught up in the deception of the regime that promoted the dangers of (terrorism) to the Syrians.
It is unlikely that there will be a strategic change in the French policy towards the Syrian regime and its head, but the tactical change is possible, and it is the interests of France and not the interests of the Syrian opposition. Therefore, in the next stage, the majority of the responsibility lies with the Syrian opposition, to mitigate the effects of the tactical changes and push it a little to its advantage.
The Syrian opposition must be aware of the previous rationales and learn from what the French have said. They should learn from any country that is keen to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis that guarantees regime change in the transitional phase, or any state seeking to implement the first Geneva resolutions that ensure the removal of powers from the head of the Syrian regime in the interim period, and to make every effort to provide, institutions, committees, and personalities to be able to assume the historic national responsibility. They should not be ashamed of revealing and confessing wrongdoing, and to reject the corrupt and false members, and seek to restore their lost political decision, which has become the property of others. The opposition should work hard to train the military opposition and unite it, to be really able, together with the political opposition, to form an alternative to the murderous regime, and provide a clear vision, informed and mature, supported by attitudes about the future of Syria, and confirm beyond doubt its commitment to the community and the territorial and political unity of the country.
What is required is courage and speed from the Syrian opposition to unite itself, so that it can scream together in the face of the world, asserting that the Assad regime is a criminal, that has no place in Syria’s present and future.