In shift to ‘realpolitik’, Macron drops French calls to oust Assad
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President Emmanuel Macron has said France no longer sees Bashar al-Assad’s departure as a pre-condition to resolving the Syrian conflict, ending his predecessor’s intransigent stance on the “Butcher of Damascus”.
France will drop its long-standing call for the Syrian strongman to go, because there is as yet no “legitimate successor” and his removal could lead to further instability, Macron said Wednesday. But if Assad dares use chemical weapons or target humanitarian corridors, the French military will respond immediately – and, if necessary, alone.
That, in a nutshell, is the Syria policy unveiled by France’s newly elected president in a wide-ranging interview with several European newspapers. It marks a change of tack from the stance espoused by his predecessor François Hollande, whom Macron advised before becoming his economy minister.
“The real change I’ve made on this question, is that I haven’t said the deposing of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for everything. Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor!” Macron told the Guardian and seven other dailies.
“My profound conviction is that we need a political and diplomatic roadmap,” he added, without elaborating. “We won’t solve the question only with military force. That is a collective error we have made.”
Until now, France has been a staunch backer of the Syrian opposition, or what is left of it. It has demanded the conflict be resolved through negotiations brokered by the United Nations and based on UN Security Council resolutions. And it has steadfastly requested Assad’s departure, in the short or medium term, as a condition of any peace deal – a stance critics say was too intransigent and left France isolated.
“President Macron has opted for realism on the Syrian dossier,” said a French diplomat in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s understood that there is no point in France insisting, alone, on the removal of President Assad, a condition it will never be able to impose on Russia and Iran,” he told FRANCE 24, referring to Assad’s two main protectors.
The diplomat added: “In order for France to find a place at the negotiating table and end its isolation on this issue, […] there is a price to pay: namely putting Assad’s fate on the back burner.”
As commentators noted on Thursday, that price is a hefty one for France, a country that for the past six years has refused all dealings with the “butcher” in Damascus. In a series of tweets, senior reporter Pierre Haski noted that Macron’s stance on Assad, while consistent with his statements during the presidential campaign, signaled a “major shift in French diplomacy” and “threatens to shock public opinion”.
It is not "embracing", it is stating a fact. Any policy should be based on facts, however unpleasant they may be. https://t.co/KeijJq1qKQ— Gérard Araud (@GerardAraud) June 22, 2017
Rejecting claims that the Élysée Palace was “embracing” Assad, the French ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, tweeted: “It is not ‘embracing’, it is stating a fact. Any policy should be based on facts, however unpleasant they may be.”
But Macron’s comments prompted anger and dismay from the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella organisation of opposition groups, whose member Ahmed Ramadan spoke of a “tragic fall for morality and humanity”.
No regime change
Macron’s stance brings him closer in line with the Syrian policy pursued by the current administrations in Washington and Moscow. Regarding Russia, he spoke of “convergent views on Syria” in “fighting terrorism and avoiding a failed state”. And in pledging to retaliate in the event of chemical weapons being used, he said “France will be perfectly aligned with the US in that respect.”
The French president noticeably made no mention of the part played by the United Nations, whose attempts to broker peace deals have failed both at the Security Council and in repeated talks in Geneva.
Macron, 39, said his priorities were, “One, a total fight against terrorist groups” – requiring close cooperation with Russia – and “Two, stability in Syria, because I don’t want a failed state.” He added: “Stability for Syria in the medium term […] means respect for minorities. We have to find the ways and means for a diplomatic initiative that respects all those principles.”
He did not detail how he plans to achieve this, other than ruling out regime change as a way forward.
Blasting recent Western interventionism, Macron vowed to put “an end to the kind of neoconservatism that has been imported into France over the last 10 years.” He said: “Democracy isn’t built from the outside without the people. France didn’t take part in the Iraq war and that was right. And France was wrong to go to war in Libya in this way. What was the result of those interventions? Failed states where terrorist groups prospered. I don’t want that in Syria.”
Enforcing red lines
However, the French president did pledge military action should his red lines be crossed. “If chemical weapons are used on the ground and we know how to find out their provenance, France will launch strikes to destroy the chemical weapons stocks,” he said, repeating a threat made last month after talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Versailles.
Macron warned of the lessons of 2013, suggesting that former US President Barack Obama’s decision not to enforce his own red line had emboldened others to do as they please. Alluding to the conflict in Ukraine, he attributed Putin’s intervention there to “the fact that he saw he had people facing him who had red lines but didn’t enforce them.”
France’s youngest ever president suggested he knew better than Obama how to enforce his threats, adding: “When you fix red lines, if you don’t know how to make sure they are respected, you’re choosing to be weak. That’s not my choice.”