The battle for Aleppo, for which the Syrian army is preparing, has become a joint French-Saudi concern. Another concern that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius shared yesterday [June 11] with Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was how to avoid turning the upcoming Geneva conference into a defeat of the Syrian opposition. That concern is reasonable in light of the current balance of power following the military victory by the Syrian army and Hezbollah in Qusair.
The Saudi diplomatic-security delegation met with officials at the French Foreign Ministry. The French officials included the foreign minister and the officials responsible for the Syrian file. It was a joint French-Saudi mobilization to face the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis and to deal with what happened in Qusair and what is looming for the Aleppo countryside.
A diplomatic source described the meetings as “a comprehensive mobilization to face the unprecedented involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in the fighting and to examine ways to prevent a military defeat for the Syrian opposition.”
As the Geneva II conference approaches, all parties have started acting nervous. There are even doubts that the conference will be held at all. It is likely that the Saudi delegation warned its French partners about the danger of holding the Geneva conference when the Syrian opposition is divided and a significant part of that opposition is under Salafist and jihadist leadership.
The two parties agree on the risks associated with going to Geneva. After the Syrian opposition’s defeat in the central region, the French foreign-affairs spokesman said that it’s wrong if “one party goes to the [Geneva conference] very weak and the other party very strong.”
Last year, the hawks in the Friends of Syria group — led by France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — worked hard to impose a military balance of power in the opposition’s favor. After the first Geneva conference in June 2012, when the two conflicting parties were at a stalemate, the Friends of Syria group blocked a common interpretation of the Geneva accord that would have opened the way for a negotiated solution.
It seems that France and Saudi Arabia have learned a lesson from the Qusair battle. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Alliot said, “Qusair is a strategic location. So we are in front of a major change. We assess that it was a pivotal moment in the Syrian conflict” which calls for “strengthening the links with the Syrian National Coalition, and its armed forces in particular, during the upcoming meeting with Major General Salim Idris.”
Alliot raised the possibility that France may send weapons to the Syrian opposition. He said, “We have not made that decision yet, but we may do so because the European Union has lifted the weapons ban on the opposition and there is no legal provision — as we await the beginning of August — that requires France to deliver those weapons. The Qusair battle and what looms in Aleppo have created a new situation.”
France has started using the same discourse as Saudi Arabia. The French Foreign Ministry said that the French-Saudi meeting “discussed the growing involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in the fighting. Iran has become directly involved. And the Syrian regime’s army has become a proxy for Hezbollah.”