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France divided over cooperation with ‘butcher’ Assad

© AFP / HO / SANA | A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on January 15, 2015 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad giving an interview to the Eterarna Novina Czech newspaper in Damascus.

Video by Kate MOODY

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2015-03-02

Four days after French MPs went on an unofficial trip to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, much to the chagrin of President François Hollande, a bitter rift is growing among French politicians on how to deal with the Syrian leader.

Despite the vast gains made by the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria, the French government’s line has been and remains that under no circumstances will it cooperate with Assad in the battle against the Islamic militants.

But it is a policy that is being increasingly questioned by French MPs, even those within the ruling Socialists’ own party.

On Wednesday, the dissent turned into outright defiance as lawmakers Jacques Myard and Jean-Pierre Vial of the centre-right UMP, François Zocchetto of the centrist UDI and Socialist Gérard Bapt headed to Damascus where three of them held direct talks with Assad. Bapt says he was not part of the meeting.

The trip sparked an immediate rebuke from Hollande.

“I condemn this initiative,” he said. “I condemn it because French lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to meet with a dictator who is the cause of one of the worst civil wars of recent years.”

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, said that “for parliamentarians to go without warning to meet a butcher.... I think it was a moral failing”.

Bruno Le Roux, head of the Socialists in the National Assembly, even went as far as to demand Bapt’s resignation.

‘Diplomacy is not the art of speaking with your friends’

But the scolding has failed to silence the rebel MPs.

Myard, a notoriously outspoken politician, issued a lengthy statement on Friday detailing the reasons for the trip and questioning the government’s claim to a moral high-ground.

“This trip succeeded in angering the highest authorities of the French state – if the subject was not so serious, I could laugh,” he said.

“Diplomacy is not the art of speaking with your friends but of trying to find political solutions to a civil war that has already resulted in more than 200,000 deaths.”

Refusing to negotiate with Assad was “100 times worse than a moral failing”, he said.

“It is a geo-strategic political mistake which can only lead to the continuation of the civil war, with all the horrors that come with it.”

How to deal with Assad has presented France and other western governments with a moral and political dilemma for some time now.

On the one hand, Paris, which cut diplomatic ties with Syria in 2012 and was ready to lead air strikes against the regime in the summer of 2013, does not want to be seen cooperating with a dictator accused of multiple war crimes and human rights abuses, nor one at war with a moderate Syrian opposition backed by France.

On the other hand, with the civil war in Syria having ground to a bloody stalemate and the grip of the IS group showing little sign of loosening despite air strikes by the US, France, Britain and others, the need to change strategy seems ever more pressing.

Furthermore, with the January terrorist attacks in Paris, in which one of the gunmen claimed allegiance to the IS group, another dimension has been added to the debate. The battle against the IS group is no longer only a matter of foreign policy; it could have direct consequences on security at home, too.

Talking with Assad ‘could be only solution’

Perhaps the French government’s strong reaction to the MPs’ trip to Damascus comes from the fact that they have thrust this difficult and divisive debate further into the limelight.

The trip “at least had the merit of raising the sensitive issue” of a renewed dialogue with Assad, noted Rachida Dati, a member of the European parliament for the UMP and former justice minister under the Nicolas Sarkozy government.

“Four years after the Syria conflict began,” she said in comments to French newspaper Le Parisien Dimanche on Sunday, “Daesh (the Islamic State group) has established itself and is growing day by day. In such a situation, is re-establishing a dialogue with Assad the only way to find a political solution to this conflict? Yes, perhaps. It is something we have to think about.”

Florian Philippot, vice president of right-wing National Front, welcomed the MPs’ trip as “healthy”, telling BFMTV his party would reestablish diplomatic ties with Syria if it was in power.

However, the French government is standing firm.

In a joint column for French daily Le Monde Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his British counterpart Philip Hammond dismissed any possibility of cooperation with Assad.

“[Assad] represents injustice, chaos and terror. We, France and Britain, say no to all three,” they said.

The government, for now at least, has popular opinion on its side – though only narrowly.

An Ifop poll published in French newspaper Journal Du Dimanche on Sunday found that 61 percent of people disapproved of the MPs’ trip to Syria, while 56 percent were against resuming a dialogue with Assad.

Date created : 2015-03-01

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