France plots next move as Russia extends hold in Syria
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Western diplomats have been left scrambling to revise their Syria game plans as Russia accelerates its ruthless offensive in the country, with the French seeking leverage over Moscow as its manoeuvres threaten to destabilise the region even further.
Not even a week after Moscow launched its first air strikes in Syria, startling its Western counterparts and sending the UN General Assembly into a diplomatic frenzy, the Russians continue to swing at anyone who opposes President Bashar al-Assad, from alleged CIA-trained rebels to Islamic State group militants, even 'straying' into Turkish airspace.
Their offensive comes on the back of a dazzling performance at the UN's annual meeting of world leaders, which President Vladimir Putin and his cohorts dominated from start to finish, combining military action with a carefully orchestrated diplomatic crusade.
Painting itself as the only legitimate foreign force in the bloody four-and-a-half-year conflict and a crucial middleman between the West and the Syrian regime, Russia scolded Western powers for intervening in Libya and Iraq, as Russian jets pounded opposition targets in Syria.
The difference, Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on October 1, is that the Russians are “polite people who do not go where they are not invited”.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, Lavrov pointed to the consequences of “demonising” individual leaders by the international community.
“Saddam Hussein is hanged -- is the world a better place a safer place? Gaddafi is murdered -- is Libya a better place? Yes, there needs to be political change in Syria, no doubt about it, but there are priorities,” he said.
Under French conditions?
Lavrov's comments came as the Americans, followed by the French, conceded to Russia’s foremost demand in Syria: that Assad stay put.
While both the US and France have both branded Assad a war criminal and the root cause of the Syrian chaos, Obama used his General Assembly address to propose a “managed transition” for Syria, suggesting that while Assad must be gotten rid of eventually, his immediate disposal was no longer essential to the launching of political negotiations.
French Minister Laurent Fabius discreetly echoed that sentiment when he spoke of an “exit transition” the following day, in a confusing about-face for France just 24 hours after President François Hollande firmly rejected maintaining Assad in his own address to the General Assembly.
"In order for a political solution to work, we must find an exit transition,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday. "It's difficult because there are opposing positions. But that’s the role of diplomacy."
Fabius said France would be willing to cooperate with Moscow, but laid out three conditions in order for Paris to commit: Assad must immediately stop using barrel and chlorine bombs; the Russians must strike agreed-upon terror targets only; and there must be a political transition that “does not see Assad remaining in power at the end of it”.
Meanwhile, the Americans came across as less stringent in the face of Russia’s intent, with Secretary of State John Kerry focusing on “coordinated efforts” and flight-path deconfliction (measures taken to prevent any in-air collisions between the parallel campaigns), even as Obama slammed the Russian strikes as “a recipe for disaster”.
“I think where you might see progress between the US and Russia is in making sure that they don’t kill each other,” Jonathan Cristol, a Middle East specialist at the World Policy think tank, told FRANCE 24.
Cristol argued that after spending “a great deal of money and time” in Syria with very little to show for it, the US is reluctant to commit much more of either. France, on the other hand, has more incentive to act because it is directly affected by the migrant crisis in Europe, Cristol said.
“There are very few players than can take on Russia,” Cristol said. “So if the Americans want to take a break, it will really be up to France and the UK.”
So far, the UK has taken a backseat on negotiations -- British diplomats had quietly acknowledged that Assad might have to stay long before the Americans and the French were forced to admit the same.
A powerless Assad?
According to officials with knowledge of France’s strategy, one of the options the French are looking into is an entirely powerless role for Assad.
“If he absolutely has to stay, then they might give him six months, but they want to make sure his role is purely symbolic,” a Western diplomat told FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity.
But such a strategy could well see Assad remaining in power for an interminable period of time. “If there’s no specific timeline...I expect his departure will keep getting pushed back until everyone is used to him being around again,” Cristol said.
The Russians circulated a draft resolution last week calling for enhanced combat capacities in fighting terror groups in the Middle East, but the initiative was derided by Western diplomats as “nonsense trying to validate Assad”.
According to officials, the two rival coalitions have been drawing up a list of moderate regime members who they agree could remain in power.
But France is adamant that nothing will happen until Russia sends a “clear signal” on Assad. “France is ready to act with Russia, [but] it can’t be said one way or another at the start of the process that at the end of the process Assad will be maintained,” Fabius said on Wednesday.
Lavrov, meanwhile, joked with reporters at a Russian reception last week, “we’re not expecting a breakthrough, but we’re hoping to avoid a breakdown”.