French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently gave an extensive interview to Le Figaro on France's diplomatic orientations. Most of the Jan. 21 interview dealt with Middle Eastern issues, with emphasis on the Syrian crisis and Iran. Le Drian’s interview prepared the ground for the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an international meeting held Jan. 23 in Paris. Spearheaded by France, Great Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, or the Group of Five, the meeting focused on stopping chemical weapons attacks and denying impunity to those who use or enable the use of such weapons.
The Paris meeting was timely given that it took place a few days before a new round of (unfruitful) peace talks in Vienna on resolving the Syrian crisis and less than a week ahead of the Russia-sponsored Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi Jan. 29-30. Moreover, a few hours before the meeting, the United States had accused the Syrian government of a chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta.
Contrary to possible appearances, the Paris meeting was not aimed at torpedoing the Sochi gathering. Le Drian mentioned in his interview that France did not formally oppose the Russian initiative — something he repeated a few days later before the French National Assembly — but he also stated that the only legitimate framework for resolving the Syrian crisis remains the United Nations-sponsored Geneva process.
A French diplomatic source talking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity remarked, “Assad’s case was not at the core of the Group of Five meeting. He is just part of a bigger picture.” According to the diplomat, the international community cannot accept the banalization of the use of chemical weapons, be it in Syria or by North Korea. It should be recalled that the North Korean regime used VX nerve agent to kill Kim Jong-un’s brother in February 2017 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The diplomat added, “If we do not react, one day or another, these weapons will make their way to the streets of Paris.” This posture is very much consistent with the strong appetite for disarmament in France's diplomatic circles today.
At the same time, the Paris meeting could be seen as a new French attempt to regain a diplomatic foothold in Syria after President Emmanuel Macron’s failed initiative last summer to create a “Syria contact group” at the United Nations. France plays a key role in the Group of Five, along with the United States and Saudi Arabia. Yet, Washington’s position with regard to Sochi has been characterized by a certain detachment and is expressive of a broader US disinterest in the political settlement process in Syria, something deplored in Paris. Another French diplomatic source who also spoke on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the territorial collapse of Daesh, the Islamic State, is likely to fuel waning interest by Washington in the political angle of the Syrian crisis. He added, “Having the US on board with us would obviously provide our role with a greater weight.” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia had reportedly been pushing the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the Syrian opposition platform based in Riyadh, to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. The HNC ultimately voted against going to Sochi, however, derailing the Saudis' efforts.
Thus, through the chemical weapons initiative, better described as “diplomatic signaling,” Paris sought to demonstrate that it is sticking to principles divergent from the Sochi congress. The Group of Five embodies the limits of Paris’ diplomatic capacity on the Syrian issue and implicitly acknowledges Russia as the main arbiter of the crisis. Beyond the issue of chemical disarmament, the initiative is likely to remain short-lived.
On the Libyan front, France has been more proactive. In fact, it holds the highest priority for Paris in the Middle East and North Africa, but with few results so far. Guided by two main priorities — containing the flow of migrants and fighting terrorism — Paris has sought to bring together the various parties of the war-torn country. There were no significant outcomes, however, from last July's meeting between Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter and Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, in La Celle Saint-Cloud, near Paris, despite visits by Le Drian to Libya.
Macron recently visited Tunisia and in a speech before the Tunisian Assembly on Feb. 1 declared that the 2011 French-British co-led military intervention in Libya had been a “deep mistake.” This pragmatic acknowledgment of a strategic reality turns out to be a demonstration of Macron’s proclaimed “aggiornamento” (update) of French foreign policy, outlined last summer. Could such an aggiornamento occur on the Syrian dossier?
While during President Francois Holland’s tenure one of France’s goals in Syria was to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Macron has realistically accepted Assad’s presence, at least for the near future, which is a pragmatic step. Macron is not known for having adopted an openly hostile stance toward the Syrian president, even before he campaigned for the presidency. He therefore enjoys a kind of “diplomatic freshness” in regard to the Syrian dossier, allowing him political flexibility.
What has been made possible on the Libyan issue, however, does not yet seem feasible in Syria, where there are several irritants, including chemical weapons and what is perceived in Paris as Russia’s monopoly over the peace process.
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