The changing complexities of Syrian-French relations

It is indisputable, that France among other Western countries, has very strong historical links with Syria

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

After the violent Paris attacks the world witnessed few weeks ago, Bashar al-Assad voiced his main problem with the French, as well as the West; the lack of “mutual respect” as stated in his latest interview with Czech paper Literarni Noviny .

This “mutual respect” voiced by Assad, is regarding the independence of the countries outside the Western ora. Assad conveys an implicit feeling of inferiority that creates a division between “them” and “us,” the “West” and the “Middle East,” and Syria in particular.

Apparently, the exclusion of Assad from the West since the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, urged him to make the controversial statement that the Paris attacks brought European policies to account. Assad, indirectly is sending a veiled tease in an attempt to smooth the French President, François Hollande’s “emphatic no” to the Syrian government’s proposal to work with the U.S.-led coalition to combat ISIS.

Objective ally

Assad even went further by adding that countries should share intelligence concerning terrorism with them, and then hope that Hollande, who views Assad as an “objective ally” of the Islamist armed groups, will open the door for negotiations - especially after the alleged partner of one of the Paris attackers escaped to Syria via Turkey.

It is indisputable, that France among other Western countries, has very strong historical links with Syria, and the French culture. Its policy and language shape an important part of the Syrian history and its impacts on the modern Syria.

However, as other Arab countries who went through the historical experience of colonization, modernize, Syria should have been liberated from the mentality of the “colonized” and the “imperialist.”

Historically, and according to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in April-May 1916, Syria and most of the eastern part of the region were handed to France. Syria and Lebanon were under a French mandate. Accordingly, Syria was divided into three sovereign regions by the French, with separate areas for the Alawites on the coast of the Sanjak of Latakia, and the Druze in the south with Jabal al-Druze declared a separate unit under French protection in 1922 .

The Alawite and Druze states were administratively separate from Syria until 1942. But on July 26, 1920 France seized Syria as one of its colonies, after its occupation of Damascus, overthrowing King Faysal and his “nationalist government,” which the French feared due to the threats it posed in the “minority-inhabited areas and to cut its ties to the urban nationalist opposition in the peripheral regions.”

It is indisputable, that France among other Western countries, has very strong historical links with Syria

Fragile structure

The current divisions within today’s civil-war torn Syria echo the political divisions of its past. The difference is that presently Syria witnesses not only territorial division, but the division of people too. People are divided because of their different aspirations, conflicting political loyalties and their ideological and religious allegiances. Something which Assad denied in his latest interview with Foreign Affairs Magazine, as he still believes Syrians support the state as the “representative of the unity of Syria."

The French failed to boost Syrian nationalism, and the introduction of “self-government” under the French mandate in the 1920s, with very “little experience of unity." The unity was a façade created on a fragile structure of a state which is in need of social and political reform, which can lead to the birth of a democratic state, something that was not on the agenda of the French.

The era of the French mandate created a bad and destructive political habit that Syria picked up through time to internalize and feed for decades to come: political radicalization “the legacy of which was almost a guarantee of Syria's political instability." Political upheaval and instability was a dominant political feature of Syria until Assads came to power.

Sophisticated ally

With Assad’s rise to power, France was one of the western countries who viewed a birth of a new era in the modern Syria. The former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy vouched for Assad for protecting Christians in Syria.

Beside the quasi integrated communities in Syria, Assad has all the right components to be a sophisticated ally to France. Assad has a westernized wife with an elegancy that enabled her to dine and socialize with the French first lady Carla Bruni at the Elysée palace back in December 2010.

Asma al-Assad was voted by France’s Elle magazine as “the most stylish woman in world politics,” and Sarkozy viewed in Asma as someone modern who can assure the world that Assad is “not completely bad."

When the Arab Spring erupted in the Middle East, and the war in Syria in 2011, there was a shift in the French policy towards the region. France, with its own revolution between 789-1799 that forged present day France, could not entertain any political justification for the suppression of the legitimate will of the Syrian people for a political change.

Unlike other European countries, France started to pursue more “interventionist and U.S.-led foreign policy instead of acting with the international community or finding a solution in the frame of a platform such as the Union for the Mediterranean.”

The French President, François Hollande pushed France to precede other European countries to be in the same level of decision making and influence as much as that of the UK and U.S., France was the first western country which acknowledged the Syrian Coalition as a legitimate opposition to Assad, and sole representatives of the Syrian people. France backs up the exiled Syrian opposition groups, facilitates their formation and rise to power.

With the escalation of the Syrian crisis after the chemical attacks in 2013, France claimed that it had “information” of toxic gases being used against opposition targets. It went further by using its own government laboratories to verify that sarin had been used in a mass attack near Damascus in late August of 2013.

I believe Hollande was yearning an opportunity to join the U.S. and UK to intervene in Syria and bomb Assad, a motion that was ruled out by the Kerry-Lavrov agreement resulting in disposing and dismantling of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons.

Paris attacks

But France did not mediate to push for a political solution in Syria through the Geneva II talks, but instead continued to support the rebel groups, providing weapons until August 2014. And in my view Hollande viewed supporting armed conflict as an opportunity to align France and its policy with the world’s most powerful country, the U.S.. And so he stressed that arming the Syrian rebels was “a good understanding with Europe and the Americans.”

The Paris attack raised Assad’s hopes for a U-turn in the French policy and a possibility for Hollande’s change of heart towards Assad to be viewed as France’s ally in fighting terrorism.

Proclaiming that he already warned the West about these repercussions and the increasing danger of extremism channeled through Syria, Assad was not only trying to justify the violence in Syria of the last few years to fight terrorism, but he is also fishing for western support - including France - and with the help of Moscow’s peace initiative.

On the other hand, Hollande resists opening up any channel of communication with the Syrian government. Instead, he is enforcing the role of France on the international stage as a key player in “intervening in world hotspots and using its diplomatic weight to help solve crises.”

With no faith in the ability of Assad to “unite people” it is very unlikely that France or the West will have a U-turn in their policy towards the Syrian regime’s exclusion from any future political deal. With the absence of “main insurgent groups fighting on the ground in Syria.” any political agreements are unlikely to be implemented even if the west backs and blesses the Moscow sponsored peace talks.”

The recent rebels’ rocket attack on Damascus, demonstrates that unfortunately not only Syrian people are divided but also the political and the military oppositions. With the absence of the Syrian national Coalition, a very key opposition group in Moscow’s negotiations, it is very likely the prospects of any political solution will be doomed to failure.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

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