Wednesday, March 25, 2015

US and France need to see eye to eye on Syria

The rift between the United States and France over Syria is becoming more apparent by the day. However, the French position, while honourable, has had little real impact on the Syrian situation. That is why the discord is unlikely to have long-term consequences for relations between Washington and Paris.

The latest signs of disagreement came after the US secretary of state, John Kerry, declared that a solution in Syria would require negotiating “in the end” with president Bashar Al Assad. The statement caused an uproar in many countries.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was unsparing in his assessment: “[Negotiating with Mr Al Assad] would be an absolutely scandalous, gigantic gift to the terrorists of [ISIL]. Millions of Syrians who have been persecuted by Mr Al Assad would turn to [ISIL]. This must be avoided.”

While Mr Kerry was only echo­ing a long-standing view of the Obama administration that there must be a peaceful resolution in Syria, the context has greatly changed. There is a belief that the United States seeks a new political order in the Middle East, one that would grant a choice role to Iran in a new regional balance of power. This would allow the Americans to disengage from a place that has been thankless, and a drain on their resources.

In this context, Mr Kerry’s remarks were interpreted as an admission that Washington no longer truly seeks Mr Al Assad’s removal. Instead, the argument goes, the United States has ceded Syria to Iran, the de facto decision-maker in Damascus.

It’s difficult to fault this interpretation. A day before Mr Kerry’s statement, CIA Director John Brennan effectively admitted that the Obama administration did not want a collapse of the Al Assad regime, as this would give a boost to Islamic extremists.

“The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus,” Mr Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The director only echoed Barack Obama’s logic. Last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, Mr Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassuring him that coalition attacks against ISIL would not target Mr Al Assad’s troops. The letter described the shared US-Iranian interest in fighting ISIL.

The French position on Syria has been more consistent, but has also been shaped by contrary pressures. Cynics can argue that as France has a limited say over the course of events in Syria, it is easy to take a position of principle in opposing Mr Al Assad.

Perhaps, but France was willing to put its money where its mouth was in 2013, when Mr Obama was preparing to retaliate for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta. France was the major European military partner of the Americans. Yet when the US president changed his mind at the last minute, he left French president Francois Hollande in the lurch, informing him only after he had decided to accept a negotiated solution.

This was humiliating for Mr Hollande, and since then the differences between Washington and Paris have widened. Last October, Mr Hollande publicly backed a Turkish proposal to establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria. But the Obama administration rejected the idea, no doubt fearing it would undermine Mr Al Assad at a key moment in the campaign against ISIL.

In parallel, France has been more sceptical about a nuclear deal with Iran, in contrast to the Americans. While this has been explained away as France’s currying favour with the Gulf monarchies, the reality is more complex. Just as a new Middle Eastern order may help the United States extricate itself from the region, it could also generate chaos, to France’s disadvantage.

Despite Mr Hollande’s steadfastness on Syria, there have been some erratic signs from France as well. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, French security officials travelled to Damascus to look into ways of co-operating with the regime to address terrorist threats against France from jihadists in Syria.

There have been conflicting accounts over whether Mr Hollande pushed for this. Some observers say the president did not encourage it, but agreed to go along under pressure from his domestic and external intelligence establishments.

Syria sought a reopening of the French embassy in Damascus as a condition, but this was rejected by Paris. The Syrians conceded the point, and when a group of French parliamentarians visited Damascus in February, French intelligence officials accompanied them and met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau.

Ultimately, France has little choice. When the Americans sneeze it’s the French who catch a cold. One can sympathise with Mr Hollande. He has tried to stick to principles as security imperatives have imposed more pragmatism. Mr Obama, in contrast, has never put principle at the heart of his Syria policy.

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