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French shift on Syria could open doors in Russia

France’s newly elected president has indicated he is open to talks that could leave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, bringing the country closer to Russia’s stance.
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) give a joint press conference at the Chateau de Versailles before the opening of an exhibition marking 300 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries in Versailles, France, May 29, 2017.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX385T3

In a recent interview with the European press, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron outlined some of the key principles that shape his foreign policy regarding Europe, the Middle East and Russia. Macron, who assumed office May 14, is ready to tackle security issues stemming from Middle East instability. His approach may pave the way for a greater convergence between Paris and Moscow.

The June 21 interview at Elysee Palace came three days after the victory of his centrist/liberal political movement, La Republique en Marche, in legislative elections.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met June 20 with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. They discussed Syria and Ukraine in an atmosphere depicted as constructive by the French press, which emphasized that the objective of Le Drian’s visit was to alleviate tensions with Moscow on key international issues. The trip was a follow-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Versailles less than a month earlier.

Both meetings provided a glimpse of what Macron’s approach to Russia and the Middle East could look like: more realistic and less biased than actions undertaken during his predecessor’s tenure.

During his presidential campaign, Macron cautiously abstained from openly adopting any pro-Russia stance, contrary to Marine Le Pen (the candidate of the far-right National Front party) or, to a lesser extent, Francois Fillon (the candidate of the rightist Republicans). This initial caution now allows Macron greater flexibility in his approach to Russia. In his interview, Macron rejected the “imported neoconservatism” that has guided France’s foreign policy during the past 10 years, especially in the Middle East and North Africa regions. 

Since the “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011, France has been one of the most interventionist countries in Middle East developments. In 2011, Paris and London led the campaign in Libya. In 2013, France was ready to carry out airstrikes in Syria following the use of chemical weapons, while adopting the toughest stance during negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. 

On the issue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the administration of previous President Francois Hollande adopted the “Assad must go” approach, which evolved after the 2015 Paris attacks to a “neither Assad, nor Islamic State” standpoint, and effectively paralyzed France’s role in Syria. Macron slammed the 2011 intervention in Libya, which created chaos and a failed state. In his interview, he outlined a key shift — which he called an “update” — on the Syrian issue: France officially renounces “Assad must go” as a precondition for peace talks. Actually, this change toward Assad can be described as a U-turn, to the extent that it means Paris gives up the ultimate goal of regime change in Damascus.

This shift may have been inspired by the conclusions of the Avicenne Report, a 60-page dossier prepared by a group of French diplomats, journalists and experts on Middle East issues. The report was published in March, during the French presidential race, and recommended avoiding interference and intervention that disrupt social cohesion without suitable remedies.

Or the shift could be the result of advice from Dominique de Villepin and Hubert Vedrine, two former foreign affairs ministers known for their Charles de Gaulle-inspired, pragmatic vision of France’s foreign policy. Macron is believed to consult them.

What dividends does Macron expect from this policy “update,” and how does Russia fit into the picture? France has three main priorities in the Middle East: to reassert French influence, eradicate terrorism and cope with the stream of migrants — an issue that politically undermines not only France, but the EU as a whole. Syria, where Russia is a key military and diplomatic stakeholder, lies at the intersection of all three objectives.

An enhanced partnership with Moscow regarding Syria would help Paris get back into the diplomatic game while also distancing itself from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Compared with the uncertainties of US foreign policy stemming from the election of President Donald Trump, Russia’s actions in Syria look far more predictable and consistent to France. Moreover, in past years Washington has been reluctant to recognize any political role for France in Middle Eastern issues, especially concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From that perspective, a rapprochement with Russia could provide more room for Paris vis-a-vis Washington. Moreover, some observers have criticized France for its alignment with the Saudi agenda, especially regarding Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Here again, teaming up with Russia would allow the French to offset their partnership with Saudi Arabia.

France and Russia share a set of common goals in the Levant: Both have seen a fair number of their citizens join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, both oppose the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction across the region, both are willing to fight terrorism and both have supported the Syrian Kurds. However, these convergences should not be overstated, for they don’t indicate that France and Russia share the same strategic agenda: Paris seeks to regain its influence in the region, whereas Moscow has already achieved this goal following its military intervention in Syria. Should Macron’s moves bear fruit, they would also provide France with a greater role in Syria’s reconstruction.

From Moscow’s perspective, having Paris onboard could enhance the inclusiveness of Russia’s diplomatic initiative on Syria, especially regarding representation of Syrian minorities in the future government, a goal shared by Russia and France. Furthermore, it would balance Turkey’s place in the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, as Ankara is today the only sponsor for the Syrian opposition in the ongoing peace talks.

Should a French-Russian rapprochement on Syria succeed, it might reverberate in other regional issues. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, France and Russia support the two-state solution, while pursuing independent but not-contradictory approaches. In Libya, Paris has demonstrated a discrete but growing interest in Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who leads the eastern government in Tobruk, while Moscow has teamed up with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to help him fight Islamist groups. Finally, in the Gulf, France and Russia possess complementary levers that could prove useful to foster a constructive dialogue between Iran and the Sunni petro-monarchies.

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