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Syria's Assad accuses France of 'hysteria' for calling to put him on trial

Damascus is furious after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said she thinks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stand trial for his role in the Syrian war.
A large poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is decorated with paper flowers during the opening of the 42nd International Flower Show in the Tishreen park in the capital Damascus on June 22, 2022. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP) (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

PARIS — France reiterated on Thursday its stance against rehabilitating ties with Syria after Damascus qualified a call by Paris to try President Bashar al-Assad for his role in the civil war as ‘’hysteria.’’

Interviewed on Tuesday on French television channel France 2, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna answered "yes" when asked if Assad should be put on trial, adding that "the battle against crime, against impunity is part of French diplomacy." 

Three Syrian nationals, all former or current advisers of Assad, were charged on March 29 in France with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes. The French prosecution argues that the three Syrians were implicated in the disappearance and deaths of a French high school counselor in Damascus, Mazen Dabbagh, and his son Patrick back in 2013. 

The affirmation by Colonna sparked Damascus' irk. A statement issued by the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said, "We have recently followed the hysteria and isolated and detached positions of French diplomacy, which has lost its senses after the historic decisions of the Arab summit in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it comes to Syria. The backward French diplomacy must review its positions." The statement then accused France of seeking to "restore the legacy of the colonial era."

The Paris-Damascus exchange continued on Thursday. Asked whether Paris might change its position on rehabilitating ties with Damascus following the re-acceptance of Syria into the fold of the Arab League, spokesperson of the French Foreign Ministry Anne-Claire Legendre said that "nothing justifies normalization." Legendre pointed out that no advancement has been registered in establishing a political reconciliation process in Syria that would lead to durable peace in the country, as advocated by 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and there has been no real advancement in battling Syria’s drug-trafficking problem or in the manipulation of the refugees. "Assad remains the enemy of his own people," added Legendre. 

Legendre reiterated how important it is for France to stand against impunity. Still, she declined to comment on whether the decision to bring Syria back into the Arab League would influence France’s relations with other Arab partners, primarily with Saudi Arabia.

She simply stated that "these were sovereign choices made by these states. The minister also pointed out that this decision [to bring back Syria into the Arab League] was not unanimous even within the Arab League, and this is obviously a subject we are raising with them."

France severed all diplomatic ties with Syria in 2011. The French Foreign Ministry made it clear on multiple occasions that it has no intention of changing its stance vis-a-vis the Assad regime. Similarly, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in early May, after the publication of the decision on Assad and the Arab League, that nothing has changed about the European Union’s position toward Syria.

“The current sanctions are still in effect, and the basic condition for normalizing relations with the Syrian regime is a political change in the country,” stated Borrell. 

That being said, France and the EU find themselves in awkward positions. Assad is now part of the Arab League, a body the Europeans are eager to maintain strong relations with. After its rapprochement with Iran, in view of American efforts to normalize ties with Israel, and on the backdrop of its involvement with Lebanese politics, Saudi Arabia has become a key regional player. If Riyadh is now chumming up to Damascus, Paris and Brussels must decide how they intend to deal with it.

This is even more true as the EU prepares its Brussels VII Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The European ministers discussed the upcoming conference earlier this week when they met in Brussels. The June 15 conference is slated to bring together humanitarian donors, NGOs, UN agencies and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Representatives of the Assad regime have not been invited.

A statement issued by the EU ahead of the conference noted that “after 12 years of violence and war, the Syria crisis remains one of the largest and most complex humanitarian emergencies of our times.” 

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