Can Russia, France work together to settle Idlib?

Moscow, Paris and Berlin have recently intensified talks over Syria's Idlib, but so far there's been more disagreement and defeated expectations than consent and progress.

al-monitor French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the opening session of the Paris Peace Forum as part of the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of the First World War, Paris, Nov. 11, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes.

May 28, 2019

On May 21, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a trilateral phone discussion about Syria and Ukraine.

Escalatory fighting over Idlib was one of the issues that dominated the agenda. The Syrian regime has lately been engaged in a large-scale military assault against the terrorist groups entrenched in the area, with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham being by far the most active and dangerous one.

France’s posture on this issue, beyond its moral commitments, is based upon three pillars: the Sochi agreement signed in September 2018 between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the need to boost the formation of the Constitutional Committee; and adjunction of talks between the Small Group on Syria — composed of France, the UK, Germany, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt — with the Astana forum presided over by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Paris remains firmly opposed to any military solution in Idlib, and has called on all the stakeholders to stick to the Sochi agreement of September 2018 to safeguard this de-escalation zone. This has been clearly stated since the quadrilateral summit held in October 2018 in Istanbul that brought together Merkel, Macron, Putin and Erdogan upon the invitation of the latter.

Paris is one of the founding — and probably one of the leading — members of the so-called Group of Five that was renamed the Small Group on Syria following the inclusion of Germany and Egypt into the format. The Small Group affirmed in January the necessity of forming a Constitutional Committee under the auspices of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and urged the stakeholders to initiate as quickly as possible the drafting of the new Syrian Constitution. De facto, France has pragmatically taken for granted the outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi in late January 2018, although French officials have always been very skeptical about it.

The Istanbul summit and the formation of the Small Group are both something Paris takes pride in since they are supposed to enhance France’s posture on the Syrian dossier. After the Small Group gained traction, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian sought in late January to build bridges between the group and the Astana forum. So far, however, these contacts seem to have delivered modest results. One of the reasons could be the profound difference in the agendas of the two forums. While the former was created around humanitarian concerns as well as a strong consensus against the use of chemical weapons and the necessity to punish any actor using them, the latter is above all a place of discussion to tackle technical issues (de-escalation zones, exchange of prisoners and bodies, etc.).

High expectations regarding contacts between the Small Group and the Astana forum seem far-fetched. This situation is unlikely to evolve in a constructive way for three main structural reasons. First, in Paris high-level French diplomatic officials have been recently rotated and the process is likely to continue within the next few weeks. Hence, Macron adviser Philippe Etienne, known for his balanced views regarding Russia and Syria, is reportedly set to leave the Elysee Palace for the position of French ambassador to the United States.

A French diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity that, while at the Elysee Palace, Etienne many times prevented the adoption of “strange decisions” pushed by hard-liners against Russia. His successor has already been appointed; Emmanuel Bonne has a Middle East background, which may suggest Macron’s intention to put a greater emphasis on the Middle East-North Africa region in his diplomatic action. However, it remains to be seen whether Bonne’s views regarding Russia will balance those of the so-called French neoconservatives. The rotation of high-level staff has also taken place at the Quai d’Orsay — France’s Foreign Ministry — where Nicolas Roche has been freshly appointed chief of staff. He is known to belong to the hard-liners and to have a tough stand, especially regarding Russia and Iran.

Second, France’s positioning on the Syria dossier largely relies on its relationship with Turkey. Paris has been supporting the Turkish stance on the refugee issue, trying by the same token to alleviate Ankara’s concerns about the cooperation forged in Syria between French special forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The latter’s combat units are mostly Kurds coming from the People's Protection Units, which the Turks consider to be terrorist group.

On April 19, Macron had a meeting with SDF representatives in Paris, which angered Ankara. This fragile working relation between France and Turkey on the Syrian issue is based on the assumption that Paris and Ankara share to a certain extent interests in Syria — combating terrorism, concerns related to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, as mentioned, the refugee question. Yet France’s plan to gain a naval base in Cyprus, on the Greek part of the island, could jeopardize these shaky tactical convergences.

In November, the French Senate voted for a bill that would authorize the broadening of military cooperation between France and Cyprus, especially in the field of the logistical support, including the deployment of military and civilian personnel. In February, the French ambassador to Cyprus, René Troccaz, visited the Andreas Papandreou air base in Paphos and the Evangelo Florakis naval base near Limassol. His comments confirmed the interest of Paris in acquiring a permanent naval facility in Cyprus, and suggested that work to extend the naval base would be soon undertaken, and financed by France. Finally, on May 15, Cypriot Defense Minister Savvas Angelides met with his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in Paris, where they signed a letter of intent regarding the construction of the base.

France’s plan to gain a permanent naval facility in Cyprus is intended to support the deployment of French or European naval units in the eastern Mediterranean, a region largely perceived in Paris as a lasting flashpoint at the backdoor of the European Union. Furthermore, the objective is to check Russia’s naval activity in the area, which has been growing since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, before being catalyzed by the Syrian crisis. However, it is far from certain that this new French naval asset will be positively welcomed by Ankara, which plans to explore and exploit offshore natural gas in disputed area off Cyprus.

Therefore, Paris’ recent offer made to Turkey to temporarily dispatch French-Italian SAMP-T air-defense systems on Turkish soil could be seen as an attempt to alleviate Ankara’s concerns. By the same token, the French may hope that this offer will push Turkey to think twice before proceeding to the completion of the S-400 deal with Moscow.

This deal — and this is the third reason — is likely to trigger the activation of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act passed by the US Congress. The perspective of even greater US-Turkish tensions caused by American sanctions on Turkey is likely to damage the already fragile contacts between the Small Group and the Astana forum, further jeopardizing France’s chance to regain a diplomatic foothold on the Syrian issue.

For all these reasons, French and Russian cooperation in the Syrian context should not exceed the purely operational level in the foreseeable future. It should encompass mainly two fields: deconfliction measures above and off Syria, on the one hand, and the hunt for French- and Russian-speaking jihadis, on the other. A French military source who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution said the communication between the French and the Russian navies in the eastern Mediterranean during the deployment of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in March was “very good, even excellent.” At this stage, Paris and Moscow can only build on this practical relation. But not beyond.

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