France weighs its Syria presence, cooperation with Russia

As the United States leaves Syria, France seeks an appropriate balance between its own military presence, relations with Russia and maneuvering between Turkey and the Kurds.

al-monitor A French Rafale fighter jet takes off from the flight deck of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, operating in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Dec. 9, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Stephane De Sakutin.

Jan 13, 2019

On Jan. 2, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first phone conversation of 2019. The two leaders discussed Syria in the light of the planned US withdrawal, and the French president emphasized three points.

First, he said the fight against the Islamic State must be carried on in order to avoid any resurgence of the terrorist group. Second, he stressed that the Kurds, who have been the spearhead of the battle against the terrorists on the ground in Syria, must be safeguarded, and their rights recognized. Finally, he underlined the necessity to strictly enforce the Istanbul agreement of Oct. 27 “to ensure a durable cessation of hostilities in Idlib province.” 

Although the Russian president agreed with the two first points, the third one remains a point of friction between Paris and Moscow, especially since Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has now taken over almost all the Idlib region.

These outlined priorities reflect a balancing act for France in Syria in the context of the coming American withdrawal.

Having lost their US umbrella, the Kurds find themselves exposed to Turkey’s wrath. So does France, which is stuck between its military cooperation with the People's Protection Units (YPG) — the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish democratic confederalist political party — on the one hand, and the necessity to not provoke Turkey by extensively cooperating with the Kurds. This delicate dichotomy has been one of the characteristics of France’s approach to Syria since the beginning of Paris' discrete military involvement in the Arab republic.

Sympathy for the Kurds has led to some stormy episodes between the French and the Turks. In April, after Macron had hosted a delegation of the PYD in Paris, Ankara disclosed French special forces’ locations in Syria, including the Lafarge cement plant. However, this did not prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from inviting Macron, along with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin, to Istanbul in late October to tackle the issues of Idlib and the fate of the Syrian refugees. Istanbul was the first time France sat at a discussion table about Syria on a parity basis with Russia, and it was made possible by Turkey. In return, Paris supported Turkey’s stance on Idlib — i.e., no Syrian government military operation — and on the question of the refugees.

Paris finds itself in a tricky position today, now that the US buffer between the Turks and the Kurds is set to disappear. After President Donald Trump said in December that US troops were to leave Syria “very soon,” a French military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that this situation would create a critical problem for France’s special forces in Syria. “It’s not only about logistics. Should they leave, we will have to figure out what to do in a relatively short lap of time.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on a French TV channel Jan. 10, “France will militarily withdraw from Syria once a political agreement is reached.”

This remark has significance. First, French officials rarely comment on the military presence of France in Syria as there is no legal basis for intervention in the Arab republic. Second, Le Drian, who served as defense minister under President Francois Hollande, commented on military affairs while serving as minister of foreign affairs. All this raises the question of what would happen if a political road map is set in Geneva tomorrow and if, in the meantime, the Islamic State is able to retake control of a sizable chunk of Syrian territory. Would the French troops leave anyway?

Trump’s decision means the clock is ticking for France, which has to readjust the framework of its military presence in Syria. The equation is tricky for Paris. On the one hand, the Kurds cannot be just ditched; on the other hand, France does not want to make any move that could be subsequently interpreted as a gift to Damascus. A normalization of the relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still largely seen today in Paris as undesirable.

Although France has abandoned the idea of a preliminary resignation of Assad, it nevertheless seeks the advancement of other important goals with regard to the political settlement of the conflict. In this respect, the departure of Staffan de Mistura from his appointment as UN special envoy for the settlement of the Syrian crisis in December has been discreetly welcomed by those, in Paris, who found the diplomat too complacent with Moscow and the regime. However, some in Paris could be tempted to bet that a likely Turkish military offensive in northern Syria will eventually reshuffle the map and put an end to the Astana format by triggering tensions between Ankara on the one hand and Moscow and Tehran on the other. However, this theory about such a clash has been around since the advent of the Astana process.

Should an agreement occur between Damascus and the PYD — who have critically reactivated their talks during the past weeks — it is expected that France will endorse the Turkish stance on Idlib and on the issue of Syrian refugees while keeping a low profile on Turkish expansionism in Syria. However, in the context where some Gulf Cooperation Countries — namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — along with Egypt are set to reopen their embassies in Damascus to block Turkish influence, France risks finding itself at odds with its partners in the Gulf when it comes to Syria. Only a limited degree of cooperation remains possible between Russia and France in Syria in the humanitarian realm, as demonstrated by the assistance provided by Paris and Moscow last summer. However, it makes little sense to expect French-Russian cooperation in Syria to gain more traction. The obstacles have more to do with mutual perception: Paris thinks Moscow punches above its weight in Syria while Russia only sees France as valuable second-rank partner in the Syrian context.

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