Since the end of September, the French air force extended the scope of its operations to Syria. This is a true strategic inflection but Paris, as its allies, still demands the ousting of Bashar Al-Assad.
On September 7, 2015, François Hollande announced that the French air force would strike targets on Syria’s territory. As for the ousting of Bashar Al-Assad, it is no longer a prerequisite to a political transition in Syria. This is a true diplomatic and strategic inflection but not a political reversal. Seen from Paris, the political settlement of the Syrian conflict excludes Al-Assad’s preservation of power.
First of all, France’s Syrian policy must be put into perspective. For a long time, Paris had an ambiguous relationship with the Baathist regime and its chief, Hafez Al-Assad, at the head of the main Alawite clan. At the time of the French mandate in the Levant, a close relationship with this ethnic and religious minority was developed. Afterwards, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and France’s will to play a role in this region still pushed in this direction. In 2000, when Bashar Al-Assad succeeded to his father, Jacques Chirac claimed to be his mentor and supported the so-called liberalization of the regime, but he didn’t succeed. The rupture between Paris and Damascus happened in 2004, and was worsened by the assassination of Rafic Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister and a personal friend of Jacques Chirac. The latter and George Bush both demanded the withdraw of Syria’s troops from Lebanon. Indeed Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2008, tried to develop a strategy of engagement with Bashar Al-Assad, but in order to separate Damascus from Tehran and break the Shia Crescent, in the context of the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The Arab Spring came to upset the geopolitical balance of forces in the region. In March 2011, the pacific Syrian uprising was savagely repressed. The French government firmly condemned this bloody crackdown and, in close cooperation with Washington, the European Union, and the Sunni states in the region, demanded the outright removal of Bashar Al-Assad. At this time, the fall of the regime appeared to be imminent and it seemed wise not to launch a military intervention. In order to avoid the disintegration of the state and the Iraq scenario, the Western leaders focused on the post-Assad. When François Hollande was elected in 2012, this political guideline was maintained: the ousting of Bashar Al-Assad was seen as the sine qua non condition of a political transition. After the use of chemical weapons, Paris was ready to strike the Damascus regime but Barack Obama gave the preference to disarmament under the control of the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Thus, when France joined the coalition against the Islamic State, in September 2014, François Hollande refused to strike Syria in order not to bolster Bashar Al-Assad’s power.
This «ni-ni» policy («Neither the Islamic State, nor Bashar Al-Assad») is now questioned. On September 7, François Hollande announced the intervention of the French air force in Syria’s airspace, and the air raid took place just before the United Nations’ General Assembly. In the meantime, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Ministry of Defence and a close friend of the President, discussed the inflection of the French strategy (Le Figaro, 19 September 2015). He explained this inflection by the Islamic State’s progression in Syrian territory and the existence of terrorist groups that are preparing attacks against France. Lastly, Damascus’ armed forces withdrew to the North-West of Syria (the “Alawite stronghold”) and the Homs-Damascus axis. Consequently, striking the Islamic State in the East of Syria would not be a mechanical gain for the regime. However, if the resignation of Bashar Al-Assad is no longer a prerequisite, it is still the point of arrival from a French point of view. Indeed, Paris has decided to start an investigation related to crimes against humanity committed by the regime.
In fine, the continuation of this demand is not a French singularity that would isolate Paris from its allies. Since then, London and Washington restated their positions: Bashar Al-Assad is a tyrant, and he cannot be seen as the legitimate leader of Syria. This harsh point excludes any true alliance between the Western coalition and the Russian-Shia front that is taking shape on the ground.
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics, Associate Researcher at the Thomas More Institute.