The visit on Wednesday by French President Francois Hollande to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will clearly show if there is any change in Moscow’s position on the crisis in Syria. Hollande met on Wednesday at the Elysee Palace with John Kerry, the new American secretary of state. Kerry briefed Hollande on the new U.S. diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Syrian opposition, and whether it will remain as it was at the end of Barack Obama’s first term, namely words of encouragement. On the eve of the Hollande-Putin meeting, Kerry will brief Hollande on his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Hollande’s visit to Moscow is certainly important for the Syrian issue. France’s intensive efforts to convince its European partners and the White House of the need to help the Syrian rebels and give them the weapons they need to fight a regime that continues to kill them should be praised. However, a single hand cannot clap. Without movement by the Europeans and the Americans, and a change in the Russian position, the bloodshed in Syria will continue, carried out by a regime that will not leave power or negotiate because it knows that negotiations mean the end of this regime. The statements by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Moscow drew the interest of the world’s media, but were not taken seriously by anyone. This is especially true of Kerry, who said that a regime that wants to negotiate will not continue to kill its own people. Perhaps al-Moallem was a bit embarrassed – if he understands the meaning of the word – by the Russian pressure he faced because of the barbaric behavior of the regime and the murder it has been carrying out, using Russian weapons. However, betting on the actual result of the Hollande-Putin meeting is a losing one, because of the stubbornness of the Russian president, who does not want any state to intervene in his regime if the Russian people rise up in revolt against their rulers. No one in the west takes seriously Putin's game of transferring power to his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and then taking it back via elections whose democratic aspect was suspicious. Hollande will certainly make every effort in his bid to convince Putin.
The French president, for those who have observed his performance up close, is skilled when it comes to personal relationships. He enjoys strong diplomatic skills and is very warm when he discusses matters with his interlocutors, strongly recalling Jacques Chirac. Hollande is the opposite of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as he is not obsessed with himself. He is closer to his opposite numbers in discussions and is funny, which makes it easier to build ties with them, even if conditions are extremely difficult. For example, despite the difficult nature of European financial issues, some European officials say that Hollande has been able to build warm and cordial relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite their differences. This trait is important in political relations, and it always reflected Chirac's philosophy in political dealings with leaders. It should be noted that Chirac in 2004 convinced Putin to abstain from voting on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which demanded a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. There are those who say that conditions were different back then. This is true, but the relationship between Chirac and Putin allowed the former to convince the latter to not use a veto during the vote. Al-Hayat newspaper witnessed the summit Chirac convened at the Versailles Palace with Putin and Merkel, and during his meetings Chirac did the impossible in order to convince Putin of the necessity of not wielding the veto.
Hollande may also do the impossible to convince Putin of the necessity of abandoning Bashar Assad. Perhaps the statement by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Moscow resulted from Russia's beginning to realize that the entire world, except for Assad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemns and blames the Russian stance, accusing the country of being complicit in the killing of a people so that its president to survive. This has become a burden on Putin, who has placed himself in a trap in taking such a position. The U.S., Europe, the Syrian people and influential Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia do not understand Russia's intransigence. If Russia wants to preserve its interests in Syria, Syria's future is not about Assad and his people but the Syrian people, which is in revolt. If the Russian stance is meant to show that Moscow is a superpower, it is not. Its linkages to and economic reliance on the U.S. and Europe do not render it a superpower, despite it having a veto in the Security Council. Thus, there is a slim chance that Putin will hear out his French visitor on Wednesday, and change his country's position, which is very bad for his interests and those of his country in the Middle East over the medium and long term. There is faint hope that Hollande will succeed, but as long as life goes on, there can be some optimism.
This article was published on al-Hayat newspaper on Feb. 27, 2013.
Randa Takieddine is a Lebanese writer and the director of Al-Hayat newspaper office in Paris.