Time for France to take the lead on Syria

Time for France to take the lead on Syria

Bulletin article
Edward Burke
25 May 2012

Western policy towards Syria is a mess and needs to be rethought before it is too late. Lebanon is sliding into conflict and jihadist and other extremist groups have increased their presence in both countries.

The Gulf states, with tacit US support, have started arming Islamist militant groups of which they have limited knowledge and control. Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers in South Lebanon say that they see the conflict in Syria spilling over to the Lebanese border with Israel. Under President Sarkozy, France was unable to exert influence in Lebanon or Syria – countries where Paris used to have significant clout. President Hollande can do better.

The shortcomings of the the West's approach are now clear. First, Western countries ruled out military intervention in Syria, granting a reprieve to President Bashar al-Assad. Second, President Sarkozy and other Western leaders cut off political dialogue with the Syrian president, declared his days numbered and withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus, thus giving up the chance to negotiate with the government. And third, the West refused to arm the Syrian opposition, offering only 'nonlethal' aid such as communication systems, which do little to turn the tide against the regime. Government services and the economy have been crippled by the violence and international sanctions. Anybody tempted to protest or revolt has now done so. And still the regime endures.

After almost a year of violence, the UN Security Council belatedly dispatched former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to negotiate a ceasefire with Syria and to establish a dialogue aimed at 'political transition'. But Annan was given few inducements with which to influence the regime's behaviour. Damascus knows that it has committed crimes against humanity – including torture, summary executions and the burning of villages reported by Human Rights Watch and others.

Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group has observed that "the more one is implicated in worsening regime violence, the greater the price to be paid in the event of its collapse." These men will not just lay down their weapons out of goodwill; they have to be dealt with to avoid further disorder across the region. Even if they surrendered unilaterally and accepted being brought to justice (a very unlikely scenario), there is currently no credible alternative to take over the government of the country and to oversee a process of transition, justice and reconciliation. The best course is a dialogue that puts the Syrian government, different opposition groups and their international sponsors in the same room.

France, with a new leadership in the Élysée coupled with a repository of diplomatic experience of Syria unavailable to other Western countries, can help. President Hollande should ask the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to call an international conference on Syria that includes senior representatives from the regime and its allies. Before doing so, France should sound out Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, on what would be an acceptable deal to ensure the most stable transition out of violence for Syria.

A French approach will probably be appreciated by China, which has few direct interests in Syria but is concerned about the wider repercussions for its growing engagement with other parts of the Middle East, including the Gulf. Russia and Iran will take some pleasure from a perceived climb-down by the West. But both countries are likely to engage seriously with Paris in order to avoid Syria and Lebanon falling into anarchy. Each stands to suffer from an escalating conflict. Moscow could yet lose its only significant ally in the region – Syria – in the ensuing chaos, while Tehran could be dragged into a proxy war in Lebanon which may irreparably damage its nuclear talks with the West, risking a military attack from the US.

In making the case for dialogue to its allies Paris should also enlist the support of Israel which is said to be increasingly alarmed at the radicalisation of Syria's youth, bellicose opposition rhetoric regarding the Golan Heights and the prospect of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons falling into the hands of extremists. The enemy you know may be better than a failed state that is home to extremist non-state actors. Nor is the descent of Lebanon into civil war in Israel's interests – a takeover by the militarily superior Hezbollah militia would prompt calls for a re-invasion of Lebanon, leading to another prolonged Israeli occupation.

Any credible plan from Paris must include an incentive for the regime to change its behaviour. The West should drop any demands for the immediate toppling of Bashar al-Assad. If the regime commits to free and fair parliamentary elections, the West should also suspend some economic sanctions. An elected Syrian parliament should then draft a new constitution. Given the entrenched position of the regime, the West cannot expect an immediately happy outcome to such a transition process; the current Syrian military leadership will not give up its power over all aspects of domestic and foreign policy. But it may allow its future influence and discretion to be checked by a reformed judicial system. In the same way as Turkey's democratic transition took time, an initial balancing between the president, the military and a democratically-elected parliament in Syria is probably the best that can be hoped for in the short-term. How and when to bring war criminals to justice will remain a question that Syrians and the West will have to grapple with over a longer period of time.

A realistic attempt by France to negotiate a political transition will be welcomed by many in Syria and Lebanon. A phased, compromise transition between the government and opposition groups is probably the only way to avoid worse chaos in the future. This does not mean offering a carte blanche to a brutal regime that has engaged in a litany of appalling war crimes. But neither the Syrian people nor the West can afford to let the current trend continue – there is too much at stake in terms of lives and strategic interest.


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