The Unlocatable Politics of Paris in Syria

Chirac, Assad and the Others: Franco-Syrian Relations since 1946 · Since the 2011 uprising, France has had to revise its policy towards Syria. In order to understand the mechanisms behind the current diplomatic situation, historian Manon-Nour Tannous reviews the bilateral relations between the two countries since the end of the French mandate on Syria (1920–1946) and provides answers to the main questions: what is the basis of Franco-Syrian relations? How can we explain their ups and downs and periodical crises? Which players are a party to them and which are the troublemakers?

Bashar Al-Assad and wife, Paris, 14 July 2008, French National Day.
SZ Photo/Giribas Jose/Alamy Stock Photo.

Syria is not an easy partner to deal with. Emmanuel Macron found this out in December 2017. In an interview on TV channel France 2, the French president expressed his conviction that the war against the Islamic State in Syria will be won by the end of February and that “Bachar will still be there.” For this reason, “We cannot say ‘we don’t want to deal with him. . .’ ” But at the same time, he added, the Syrian President “must answer for his crimes before his people and before the international courts.” Bachar Al-Assad has little use for complex thought and saw no difference between this statement and the François Hollande period. He immediately snapped back that France has no say in the matter: “France has spearheaded support for terrorism, her hands have been dripping with Syrian blood since the uprising began.” A declaration which Macron judged “unacceptable.”

A “Leverage Diplomacy”. . . Grown Rusty

And yet the French position contains the hope of reintegrating Syria into its foreign policy in order to take part in negotiations which have been dragging on for some time, first in Geneva and now in Astana (Kazakhstan). For France, it is clearly not so much a matter of restoring bilateral relations as of using Syria to regain a foothold in the Middle East. Thus, Emmanuel Macron has added a chapter to historian Manon-Nour Tannous book1. In Chirac, Assad et les autres, praised by Henry Laurens in his preface as “a model of scientific research,” the historian argues that French and Syrian decision makers have always sought to use one another without ever establishing a true relationship. For France, what was at stake was using Syria to make its presence felt in the Middle East, primarily to offset American power. While Syria wanted to use France to enter into a dialogue with the USA. In the words of a former executive of French foreign intelligence, quoted in the book: “Every country in that part of the world has only one ambition: a one-on-one dialogue with the US. But since they feel a bit weak, they seek an ally (French or English) to deal with the Americans on equal terms.” This is what Manon-Nour Tannous calls “leverage diplomacy.”

The lever grew rusty during the long break in diplomatic relations, which began in March 2012, near the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s term of office and a month before the presidential election. The same situation prevailed under François Hollande. For the moment, only France is trying to “unjam the lever.” Syria is less enthusiastic, in light of the very active diplomatic and military support it receives from Iran and Russia and declining US interest.

Yet history could well repeat itself, following the pattern in vogue for the past fifty years: each new French head of State wants to restore the ties with Damascus which have become undone. And so the diplomats swing into action again. But as soon as Syrian interests are really at stake, France obtains nothing and diplomatic relations may even be broken off. “These relations have their ups and downs and the confrontations will be as bitter as the attempts at cooperation have been significant,” the author observes. In the words of the political scientist Joseph Bahout, there is something pathological about this recurrent determination to be on good terms with Syria: “like any neurosis it is characterized by repetition.”

The “Lesser Evil,” an Old Idea

However fraught with trauma the history of the two countries, this endless cycle does not really have its roots in the past. After World War I, as part of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations granted France a mandate designed to “accompany Syria towards independence.” In point of fact, however, France exercised full colonial control, putting down rebellions with bombs, pitting the various communities against each other, and carving up Syria to create a new country called Lebanon for the benefit of the Maronite Christians.

This problematic past has always been lurking in the background, but Syria has made only sparing use of it. The present was more important. De Gaulle’s 1966 Phnom Penh speech criticizing the American war in Vietnam provided Syria with a first opportunity to play France against the USA. “Under Ba’athist leadership, Syria rejects the West dominated by American imperialism, but accepts it when General de Gaulle speaks for it,” as a dispatch from the French embassy in Damascus put it at the time.

François Mitterrand pursued this line and gave greater scope to the doctrine. France prided itself on a subtler understanding of the region based on history. A new concept surfaced, with a promising potential, that of “the lesser evil.” The political life of the country was definitely at a standstill and even after a series of terrorist attacks had rocked the country and the US was counting on the imminent fall of the regime, there was no doubt that Hafez Al-Assad would remain in power, as a succession of French ambassadors continued to report after 1979.

But the French also believed that repressive regime was capable of causing great harm in the region. Between 1981 and 1983, France was the target of terrorist attacks, in France itself and in Lebanon; the French ambassador, Louis Delamare, was assassinated in Beirut; bombs exploded in Paris, and in October 1983, 58 French paratroopers who were part of the UN peacekeeping force were killed in the explosion of their Beirut headquarters. These attacks were motivated by France’s foreign policy in the region, its support of Yasser Arafat and its presence in Lebanon, which Syria considered its own.

These acts of violence did not prevent François Mitterand, during a trip to Damascus in 1984, from demonstrating a political realism which was not devoid of irony. France, he declared, has been unable to find proof that these attacks were of Syrian origin, “and since President Assad has always maintained that this was not the case, I see no reason to doubt his word.” According to Manon-Nour Tannous, “This was not a period when efforts were being made to build a bilateral Franco-Syrian partnership, but primarily to mitigate the harmfulness of the other party—and perhaps derive potential dividends from this”. For France, these were meager indeed. “Its determination to defend Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity had to be reckoned with, but at no time was France in a position to curb Syrian ambitions to take over that country. Conversely, France was becoming gradually convinced of the importance of Syria’s role in the region, while in return, ‘Syria tolerated it in the role of a fringe player.’ ”

Successes and Failures of the Chirac Era

Jacques Chirac was a strong-willed president who wanted to revive the relationship. The author’s analysis is that this was the only time when France was able to reap some benefits from the ‘leverage’ system, a time too when there was an unprecedented collaboration between the two countries, which is why the last Gaullist president is named in the title of her book. But in both respects, the limits soon became apparent and a spectacular break ensued. Regionally, the Israeli operation “Grapes of Wrath” provided Chirac and French diplomats with an opportunity to play a key role. On 18 April 1996, 102 Lebanese civilians were killed when Israel bombed the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) where they had sought refuge. Damascus had 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon and did not want to lose face. And, of course, Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia based in southern Lebanon, was part of the picture, not to mention Iran.

Washington was on good terms with Syria but refused to have anything to do with Iran and Hezbollah. Paris had dealings with all the Arab protagonists as well as with Tehran. Thanks to Syrian support, the final arrangement was largely based on the French proposals: in particular there were to be no more attacks against civilian targets. France was a member of the Monitoring Committee alongside the USA, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Both countries were satisfied. The solution was favorable to the Syria/Hezbollah camp. Chirac opened a door to Europe. And the French president had acquired a role in the Middle East far greater than the actual weight of his country there.

Jacques Chirac then thought to permanently ensure the prestige of France in the Middle East by prodding Syria to adopt a less authoritarian form of government. He even saw himself in the role of tutor to the young Bachar Al-Assad who succeeded his father on 17 July 2000. There followed the astonishing attempt to transform the Syrian administration, modeled after that of the Soviet Union, into a French-style administration. At Bachar Al-Assad’s invitation, missions of French experts arrived in Damascus, undertook a sweeping audit, suggested economic, financial and tax reforms. . . One of these experts was Marie-Francoise Bechtel, the head of ENA, the French National School of Administration, who helped put together its local clone, the National Institute of Administration.

But this dream of reforms ran afoul of the realities of the Syrian power structure. The ENA head described to Manon-Nour Tannous the reception held for the French envoys by the Syrian minister of internal affairs with “fifteen members of the (intelligence) services in uniform lined up on both sides of the room.” Even if Bachar Al-Assad’s intention’s were sincere, it was impossible to reform the administration without political changes and so the attempt failed: such is the author’s analysis.

However, the real and spectacular break in Franco-Syrian relations was over Lebanon. By his rapprochement with the Syrian President, Chirac was hoping to loosen Syria’s grip on that country. Nothing came of it. Bachar Al-Assad obliged Lebanon to renew the term of office of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud who had been involved in the misappropriation of international financial aid which Chirac himself had been at pains to secure.

After the Break

The US invasion of Iraq had game-changing effects. Chirac tried to make Bachar Al-Assad understand that things were no longer the same. At the same time, after France’s spectacular refusal to go along with the invasion of Iraq, the French president wanted to patch things up with Washington. France took the lead in drawing up UN resolution 1559 urging Syrian troops to leave Lebanon. The assassination on 14 February 2005 of Rafic Hariri (after his resignation as prime minister of Lebanon) hastened the final break. Chirac had become a close friend of the victim. But the author feels that Chirac’s decision was rational and political, the French president having realized he had failed to change things in Syria. Yet no later than the summer of 2005 he declared that Syria “should by rights take its place in the normal interplay of international relations.”

The Syrian people’s uprising in March 2011 and the ferocious repression that followed brought about another split. Nicolas Sarkozy was not prepared to miss out on what he saw as a new episode in “the Arab Spring.” François Hollande accelerated the movement by recognizing the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) founded in Qatar in 2012 as “the future provisional government of a democratic Syria and put an end to the Bachar Al-Assad regime.”

With the 2011 crisis, writes Manon Nour-Tannous, “the foundation of leverage diplomacy collapsed: the French lack of interest in Syrian domestic politics, based on the conviction that authoritarian regimes tend to last, was seriously challenged.” For the moment, Emmanuel Macron’s ambivalent declarations make it impossible to tell whether we are on the eve of a new “convulsive reversal of relations between Paris and Damascus”. Unless perhaps the issue is no longer posed in the same terms. “The multiplication of players on all sides has diminished the importance of the Franco-Syrian relationship,” the author states.

  • Manon Nour-Tannous, Chirac, Assad et les autres. Les relations franco-syriennes depuis 1946
    Paris, PUF, 10/2017

1Manon-Nour Tannous has a doctorate in international relations and is a teaching and research fellow for the research chair in the contemporary history of the Arab world at the College de France; she teaches at Sciences-Po Paris, is a research fellow at the Centre Thucydide (Université Paris-II) and chairperson of the Cercle des chercheurs sur le Moyen-Orient.