As the Islamic State (IS) is weakening, France and Russia seem to be keeping each other posted on their respective agendas in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Ambassador Franck Gellet, Paris’ special envoy to Syria, paid a discreet visit Aug. 30 to Moscow, where he and Russian experts discussed the Syrian crisis.
- French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Moscow Sept. 8 and met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. They discussed Libya and Syria. Both sides have noticeably expanded their common ground on the Syrian crisis, especially regarding chemical weapons and humanitarian concerns.
- Both of those visits can be considered follow-ups to the May meeting in Versailles between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the summer, Macron gave an interview to European media in which he outlined a pragmatic approach for French diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa. He emphasized that Paris was no longer demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as a precondition to starting peace talks with his opposition — which seemed to disappoint most French diplomats. Yet, more recently, in a Sept. 1 interview on French radio RTL, Le Drian — who is known for being more pragmatic than his predecessors — seemed to endorse the old mantra of “Assad must go.” This statement could be connected to the speech Assad delivered Aug. 20 before Syrian ambassadors, in which he slammed Western powers and said, “There will be no security cooperation or opening of embassies or roles for some states that say they are looking for a solution until they cut their ties with terrorism in a clear and unambiguous way.”
A non-official French source who recently traveled to Syria and met with high-ranking Syrian officials told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that leaders in Damascus are not willing to consider France as an option for Syria’s reconstruction phase. “They will not ask for money from Paris," he said. "They would rather consider China, Russia and Iran. In the EU, only the Czech Republic might get some contracts, since it has not closed its diplomatic mission during the war.”
Paris is trying to reduce the diplomatic cost of its miscalculation in calling for Assad’s ouster, while finding a middle ground between maintaining its ideological posture on the Syrian crisis and being realistic about the possible consequences.
On one hand, Paris learned from the Iranian nuclear agreement inked in 2015 that being tough during negotiations didn’t keep French businesses from striking interesting deals with Iran afterward. Paris might be tempted to play a similar “hawkish card” in Syria, where economic opportunities look far less promising than in Iran.
On the other hand, Macron has said France and the United States are establishing a “contact group” for Syria. The group plans to hold its first session in New York during the current United Nations General Assembly meeting.
Little has been divulged about the new initiative, though Russia’s government-owned news service TASS reported Sept. 20 that the "contact group" plans to monitor Syria's stabilization once the conflict ends. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told TASS during the UN meeting that Russia is uncertain about the need for the group.
"It is difficult to determine at the moment how necessary and expedient this format is," he said. “Fundamentally, we have no objections against this, but there must be a clear vision of [why] it is needed.”
Other questions include who would participate in the group and how it might fit into the picture with the ongoing peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, and the Geneva discussions. The group could be part of Paris’ diplomatic damage-control strategy, which aims not only to save face in Syria for its “Assad must go” stance, but also to gain ground on some issues of greater interest to Paris.
Libya remains France’s key concern in the Middle East and North Africa for clear reasons. Libya is in the direct vicinity of Europe’s southern flank, and the country’s instability reverberates across the Sahel region and sub-Saharan Africa, where France has security interests, as demonstrated by its military intervention in Mali. With IS and French (or self-claimed French) jihadis being gradually eliminated in Syria, the Libyan crisis is a hot spot and a test case for Macron’s new efforts at pragmatic diplomacy.
In July, France caught many Libyan stakeholders by surprise by inviting to Paris for direct talks both Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter — who has had support from Russia, France and others and leads the “eastern” government in Tobruk — and Fayez al-Sarraj, the UN-backed prime minister of the so-called unity government in Tripoli.
Italy felt sidelined by the French initiative, and Libyan neighbors Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt displayed a high degree of skepticism, having laid down their own tripartite initiative in recent months. However, the current period provides France with a diplomatic window on the Libyan issue: Germany is holding elections, Britain’s foreign policy is monopolized by Brexit and the United States is focused on Iran while trying to prepare a new initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Furthermore, newly appointed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was Paris’ favorite candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon. Finally, France lobbied in favor of Ghassan Salame, who has succeeded Martin Kobler in the post of UN envoy to Libya.
Though Moscow has supported Hifter, Russia’s stance has complied with the UN’s framework for Libyan negotiations. The Kremlin has also backed regional initiatives spearheaded by Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. France’s approach seems to be taking shape quietly: Just a couple of days before his visit to Moscow, Le Drian was in Libya to push Macron’s negotiations initiative.
France and Russia no doubt are vying for power and influence in oil-rich Libya. But their agendas there don’t formally conflict and could actually coexist to a certain extent, since their aims are roughly equivalent: Solve the political crisis, ensure that a new terrorist harbor doesn’t emerge and provide their respective businesses with opportunities. Macron’s initiative on Libya is consistent with the 2015 UN-brokered agreement on a national unity government and therefore matches Moscow’s expectations regarding the need for a multilateral framework.
Aligning their respective assets and influence on the various actors of the Libyan stage could provide Paris and Moscow with serious ability to deliver tangible results.