Surprise Reversal? France’s New Stance on Syria

Thursday, 3 August, 2017

Franceline Beretti

In an interview given to several European newspapers last June, the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron took a new position regarding Syria and the future of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad: France no longer sees his departure as a priority to bring peace back to the country. “Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor”, Macron added.

This was the first time France made its new political position official. Macron has completely reversed what is described, on the website of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the “consistent” French position regarding Syria. There have been precedents in the fluctuating relations between the two countries: in 2008, after the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Bashar al-Assad to attend the French National Day parade in Paris on July 14. The media coverage was impressive: some newspapers even went so far as to explain that Syria was a modern state and that the Syrian leader and his wife Asma al-Assad were highly educated and close to the Western world. But the honeymoon between France and Syria ended in 2011, when the Arab Spring swept North Africa and the Middle East and the Syrian protests demanding the removal of president Bashar al-Assad were violently suppressed. 

François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, had since the beginning of the conflict supported the Syrian National Council, one of the groups opposing the regime, and made Bashar al-Assad’s departure a condition for any political solution. In August 2013, after the Ghouta chemical attack near Damascus killed hundreds of people, François Hollande was even ready to use military force against the Syrian regime in a joint operation with the United States of America. But Barack Obama hesitated and decided to ask Congress' permission. Hollande tried to convince his European partners during the Vilnius Summit that military action was justified, given the various massacres carried out by the Syrian regime – in vain. The Syrian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fayçal Moqdad, criticized the “shame” of the French position, reduced to being “Washington's vassal”.

From mid-2014, France participated in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), first in Iraq and then in Syria. But while fighting terrorism, Paris did not forget the responsibilities of the Assad regime: the Paris public prosecutor opened a formal investigation for crimes against humanity against Bashar al-Assad, based on pictures of more than 11,000 people who died under torture in Syrian prisons. Even after the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, when ISIL claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings and shootings, François Hollande repeated that al-Assad “cannot be the solution to the conflict” and again demanded the Syrian president’s departure from power. He showed true political courage, maintaining his position despite the shock produced by the terrorist attacks that showed ISIL to be public enemy number one in French public opinion. On his website, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs still insisted: “The absence of a political transition and the indefinite continuation of the rule of Bashar al-Assad are only worsening the divisions in Syria”.

Indeed, the French position has become more and more difficult to maintain over the past two years. In November 2015, François Hollande went to Russia to convince Vladimir Putin to take part in a military strike against ISIL – the same Putin who has been the Syrian regime’s greatest supporter and who declared, with Assad, that the Syrian opposition was made up of terrorists. Hollande’s request was all the more delicate since relations between Paris and Moscow had deteriorated over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the Russian leader accepted, opening a new form of military cooperation with France and his allies in Syria. In his public statement announcing the agreement, François Hollande nevertheless reminded Putin that, for him, Bashar al-Assad still had no place in Syria’s future.

So why is Emmanuel Macron choosing to reverse positions that French diplomacy maintained for years? Some of his advisers have used the word “Realpolitik”. After six years of war and more than 300,000 casualties, it appears the French approach has failed to deliver peace and stability. There is also the Libyan example: since the ouster and death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 the country has become a failed state torn apart by conflict among different armed regimes. 

The refugees coming to Europe from the Libyan coast have pushed the French government to avoid any further destabilization in Syria and to rally around Bashar al-Assad’s very simple thesis, according to which the Syrian leader is the only bulwark against chaos in the Middle East and its consequences for Europe.


Franceline Beretti, Freelance Journalist