France and Russia Trade Jabs About Positions on Syria

Article Summary
Novice French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently said Russia isn’t committed to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, writes Mohammad Ballout. But Russia vehemently denied the claim, even as leaks suggest Paris’ and Moscow’s positions regarding the Syria crisis may be coming closer together. Which side is telling the truth? 

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has stated that he needs journalists to allow him enough time to answer their questions on the Syrian situation, as “he has not been a diplomat for a long time.” The French Foreign Minister, however, sparked controversy with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, regarding the discussions that were allegedly held between Moscow and Paris.

In an interview on a French radio station, Fabius said that Russia and France have reached a convergent view on the Syrian situation. However, Lavrov denied this claim during a press conference held in Baghdad later that day. Fabius said that talks are underway with Russia to prepare for a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria. “The Russians are not attached to Assad. They see him as a tyrant. They will not tie themselves down to such a strongman as he will undermine their power,” said the French foreign minister.

Lavrov responded from Baghdad denying that talks were held about Assad’s departure or post-Assad political scenarios. “If this was indeed said, it is not true. These talks have not taken place, nor will they ever. This contradicts our position. I repeat that all statements saying that we held talks about a Syria post-Assad are lies. We do not work to change regimes through unilateral talks at the United Nations Security Council or through political conspiracies,” said Lavrov.

However, Russia’s overwhelming denial of such claims seems to be a far cry from the information that has been leaked regarding Moscow’s actual position on Assad. Fabius’ claims match the statements made by Russian officials last week, who said that Moscow does not cling to Assad staying in power should he wish to step down. The dispute between the Arabs and Russians is not one over Assad’s departure, but rather over the right timing for his departure.

While Russia wants Assad to step down during a transition period, the West and the Syrian opposition seek to marginalize him at the beginning of the political process and remove him completely. “Those who will come after Assad will be from the opposition or from the ruling group, but not the ruling elite,” said Fabius.

Fabius’ statements were a mere declaration of Russia’s proposal. Russia believes that the transitional government should include members from Assad’s government as long as their hands are not stained with blood. These members may also lead the post-Assad phase through the central role of the Syrian military.

“The Russian support for Annan’s plan, which calls for a peaceful transition of power — regardless of the ambiguity surrounding the article calling for political dialogue between all parties — is clear proof that Russia has opted to push Assad out of the game,” said Fabius.

France and Russia alleged discussions about a post-Assad Syria would seem to be viable for both parties, especially given that a final solution for the Syrian crisis has yet to be reached. The interests of the Russians and the French in Syria are becoming increasingly convergent. Russian and French officials have called the current situation in Syria a state of civil war, and both fear that the civil clashes might turn into a regional war that would include Iran, Iraq and neighboring countries. Fabius himself recently described what is happening in Syria as a civil war. Potential discussions between Moscow and Paris would undoubtedly include interim post-Assad scenarios, as well as ways to organize Assad’s departure.

Fabius made his claims following the return of a French delegation from Moscow. Over the past two days [June 16-17], Jacques Audibert, a director at the French Foreign Ministry met with two officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Audibert also met with Jean-Claude Cousseran, an expert on the Syrian issue and with the French Ambassador to Damascus, Eric Chevalier.

Cousseran’s presence in the French delegation reflects the openness of the French Foreign Ministry and French President Francois Hollande toward the Russians. The French party recognizes that the road to Damascus must pass through Moscow, as the Russians are the only party able to communicate with the ruling group in Damascus.

According to a French diplomatic source, the discussions with the Russian party specifically addressed the conditions of the transition period, which will entail some members from the current government staying in power. One Syrian opposition member, speaking from Paris, said that the Russians who want Assad and some of his cronies to step down are working to preserve the status of the Syrian army as well as government institutions, so as to prevent the spread of chaos. “The Russians do not cling to Assad. However they are sensitive about who might replace him,” said Fabius.

Who is Lying? Fabius or Lavrov?

In the meantime, both parties are not wasting any time. While Russians support the Syrian regime, the French back the opposition. Yesterday [June 14], Le Figaro newspaper said that the Russians have established a radar base in the Syrian city of Kesab, located one kilometer away from the Syrian-Turkish border. The radar base is set up in a strategic area, located 800 meters above sea level. The radar station will allow Russians to monitor the movements of the US intelligence units and the “Syrian Free Army” in Antakya. The radar will also be able to survey missile defense bases in Malatya, and a US military base in Adana.

Moreover, Fabius also said that Paris will provide the Syrian opposition with equipment to help them communicate within besieged cities, and warn against Syrian army operations.

Found in: radar base, syrian crisis, syrian, sergei lavrov, laurent fabius, bashar al-assad

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