In cooperation with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Paris, Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies held a workshop on May 24, 2022, to discuss several topics related to the role of France in the Syrian conflict beginning from 2011 until now.
The workshop opened with a presentation on contemporary Syria where the revolution’s failure to achieve political change has weakened the various groups and divided the country into four regions all of which suffer from poor economic and security conditions and are run by governments that lack legitimacy. This failure has caused the migration of large numbers of young people to Europe and the return of ISIS to the Syrian desert. It has also turned the regime-controlled areas into a huge factory that produces and smuggles drugs into nearby countries and into Europe.
The conflict in Syria is being treated as a humanitarian crisis instead of the political deadlock that it is. By doing so, Europe has distanced itself from the Syrian problem to avoid conflict with Russia. In Syria, the opposition forces have fragmented, while the military factions along with the coalition have lost credibility at the international level and are now at the mercy of Turkish politics.
The presentation was followed by a review of France’s policy during the years of conflict and the factors that affected it. France was the first to deny Assad’s legitimacy and the first to offer political, diplomatic, and military support to the Syrian people who have been aspiring for change.
Meanwhile, the US, who is seeking to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran, has maintained an ambiguous attitude. This coupled by pressure from Israel to keep Assad in power has had a negative effect on both France and Europe’s position and prevented them, during the 2012 period, from seizing the opportunity to impose a political solution based on the Geneva Declaration of June 2012.
The Western stance has led to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition; the rise of Salafist and jihadist movements; the absence of strong democratic institutions that oppose Assad; and the appearance of jihadist factions loyal to Iran, who support the regime against the Syrian people. Additionally, the West has turned a blind eye to Assad’s use of chemical weapons and allowed him to survive.
Over time, several factors have turned the conflict in Syria into an opportunity for France and other Western countries to declare a fight against ‘terrorism’: The emergence of ISIS as a subversive element in the Syrian conflict; Russia’s occupation of Crimea, which as of 2014 has made Ukraine a European priority; Russia’s entry into Syria in 2015; and the Paris bombings in the same year.
The year 2016 had an enormous impact on the Syrian cause. The West stopped seeing the conflict in Syria for what it is, a tragedy of a people suffering under a fifty-year tyrannical rule. Instead, they started treating it as a humanitarian issue. This has been reflected in the policies of France and other Western countries, who after leaving Syria’s fate in the hands of Russia, are not focused — under the pretext of political realism — on the need to eliminate Assad anymore. This is despite Europe’s refusal to normalize his regime or to lift the economic, political, and diplomatic siege imposed upon him.
This development, especially the West’s unreadiness to back its diplomatic speech and behavior with military force, has led to a complete stagnation at all levels. There is a real need for a political solution in Syria. A political dilemma — for the Syrians and the peoples of the region as well as Europe — needs a political process by which the Syrian people could achieve the freedoms and the dignity they desire.
After the presentation, there was a discussion about the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the Syrian conflict. The invasion and the response of Western countries to it have led to changes in international relations whose political and economic effects continue to spread and exacerbate. However, its effects on the Syrian issue are not yet fully clear. It is true that Russia was forced to withdraw some of its forces from Syria, but its invasion of Ukraine has not changed the West’s attitudes towards the Syrian conflict and the Russian role in it.
America desires to change Assad’s behavior, while France and Europe are limiting their attention to the humanitarian side of the problem. Hence the question of whether the Ukrainian war will push the West to punish Russia and its ally Iran in Syria by withdrawing its support and endorsing the implementation of the international resolutions or not. Could such a decision encourage the Friends of Syria Group to organize and advocate for change?
At the end of the workshop, the discussion revolved around the future role of France and Europe as the situation in Syria gets more and more complicated. Initial steps partial but valuable could be taken to deliver a definitive solution down the line. Europe could insist on delivering aid to the Syrian people from across the border; prevent Russia, who is using blackmailing techniques, from providing aid through the regime’s institutions; impose strict follow-up on the fate of aid that is being managed by the regime; and initiate the trial of Syrian war criminals before the European courts with the guarantee that they will not go unpunished. All of this would allow — over time — the transitioning to a civil and democratic system feasible. It is possible for France and the European Union to consider implementing such a political process, especially since this solution would benefit the European countries in terms of limiting immigration and protecting national security.
In cooperation with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Paris, Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies held a workshop on May 24, 2022, to discuss several topics related to the role of France in the Syrian conflict beginning from 2011 until now.
The workshop discussed the following four points:
1) The current situation in Syria
2) The role France has played in the conflict in Syria so far
3) Possible effects of the war in Ukraine on the conflict in Syria
4) The role that France could play in promoting a political solution.
The workshop participants included 20 French diplomats, academics, and researchers and 15 Syrian academics and researchers residing in France. This paper presents a summary of the discussions that took place. The workshop reflected differing views on some of the discussed topics.
The current situation in Syria:
Despite the hope that revolutions bring, the Syrian upheaval has failed to deliver the political change it had aspired for. The Arab Spring in Syria has become a crisis too close to the brink of disaster on more than one level. All parties to the conflict, whether the regime or the opposition, have become weak and exhausted and dependent on regional and international support. Nowadays, Syria is divided into four areas of control each with its own illegitimate government. There is an absence of stability and security everywhere. The four regions suffer from poor economic conditions and deterioration in living standards, and the worst of these are the regime-controlled areas. This has caused large numbers of young Syrians to migrate, especially towards Europe, even though military operations have seized since 2019. On the other hand, ISIS has returned to the Syrian desert, while the regime-controlled areas have been turned into a huge factory that produces and exports drugs into countries of the region and into Europe. The production and exportation of these drugs are managed by Hezbollah and some of the institutions of the regime.
Even though the crisis in Syria is first and foremost a political crisis, its nature is being misrepresented by the international community. This is the biggest contradiction in the Syrian conflict today. The world’s attention has shifted from the political to the humanitarian. Despite the direct intervention in 2014 by foreign ministers of actor countries like Russia and America to discuss the steps needed for a political solution, there is much less interest in the Syrian issue today. Political actors with military presence on the ground are taking part in all deliberations and are controlling the political scene. Whereas France — and the European Union in general — are unconcerned with the Syrian crisis and from what is taking place in Geneva. Instead, their focus is on avoiding conflict with Russia, and they are not looking for a solution that could alleviate the prolonged suffering of the Syrian people.
Since the start of the uprising in March 2011 until today, the absence of a strong political institution that could represent the Syrian people and the opposition there is one of the most important features of the conflict in Syria. The opposition forces are still fragmented, and the military factions, as well as the coalition, have become subject to Turkish policy, not to mention that they do not have enough credibility in the eyes of international players.
France’s policy during the years of conflict and the factors affecting it:
At the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, which was part of the Arab Spring, France’s position was generally in line with that of other Western countries, in that it supported the Syrian people’s aspirations for change. This was clearly shown in the conferences of Friends of Syria Group in which more than 120 countries participated. France was actively supportive of the Arab uprisings from their inception and was the first to declare that “Assad has lost legitimacy.” It provided political support as well as limited military support to the Syrian opposition, especially during the initial phase, and was more enthusiastic than it is today about punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013. When the opposition got a seat in the Arab League, France thought that it should also take Syria’s seat at the United Nations as well and called for the opening of an office for the opposition in New York to enhance its role there.
On the other side, the Americans were ambiguous and hesitant in their attempt to achieve a political transition in Syria. This is the most important factor that has shaped the position of France and Europe on the conflict. America was facing many pressures: appeasing Iran during the nuclear negotiations; Israel’s opposition to the removal of Assad; Russia’s resistance to change in Syria; and the absence of an alternative in the event of a political transition in Syria.
Due to this ambiguous attitude, the opportunity that the year 2012, a milestone in the conflict, could bring was lost. Western countries missed the chance to bring about real change via a political solution, since they did not exert enough pressure to implement the June 30, 2012, Geneva Declaration approved by Russia, Europe, and the USA. The Declaration lays out an adequate formula for a political transition involving three sides: the opposition, the regime and various groups representing Syrian society. Although Western countries approved the Geneva Declaration, they did not oppose Moscow’s attempts to impede its implementation when it imposed a veto on it at the United Nations. The failure to seize this opportunity, i.e., to implement the Declaration, led to multiple complications in Syria and prolonged the conflict. It allowed the entry of new players into the political scene, turned the crisis into an unsolvable problem, and became one of the reasons why France and Western countries changed their attitudes towards the conflict in Syria.
The military and political fragmentation of the opposition and the consequent predominance of the Salafi and jihadist characters over it, in terms of appearance, nomenclature, language, slogans and behavior, especially since 2013, played a major role in further complicating the conflict. Despite the international will during the early years to achieve a political transition in Syria, an alternative has not been found yet. The questions that are being repeated are: Where is the opposition? Will it be able to control Syria if the regime collapses or will chaos prevail as in Libya? The weakened opposition in Syria has given Russia a good excuse to confront the West. Today, there is no one there to represent the Syrians, and there is no Syrian “Zelensky.” Further, the Western countries, who are supposed to be on the side of democracy, do not care about establishing strong democratic institutions for the opposition. They have left them at the mercy of the Arab nations and other countries in the region, who are equally uninterested in building such institutions in Syria. The conditions of the opposition remain the same and the same questions are being asked today.
On the other end, Hezbollah forces have established themselves in Syria since the second half of 2012 followed by extremist forces, such as Al-Nusra/Al-Qaeda, whose objectives are a far cry from the goals of the uprising. By 2013, it became clear that the nature of the Syrian conflict had undergone a fundamental change.
The US administration‘s unfavorable stance became apparent when it refused to punish the regime for using chemical weapons, even though France supported this punishment. At the time, Obama stated that he would not interfere in any war without the approval of the United Nations. However, it was well known that the Security Council would never approve such an outcome due to the Russian and Chinese rights of veto. This was a message to Assad. The West was not going to interfere, as in Libya, and was not intending to arm the opposition forces with surface-to-air missiles that could attack the regime’s air force. Air strikes are Assad’s singular leverage point, which have allowed him to destroy cities, displace their residents, and expel the Free Army and the Islamic forces from them.
In 2013 and 2014, the emergence of ISIS and its transformation into an imminent threat, became the main issue for the West. As a result, the goal of overthrowing Assad’s regime was replaced with a fight against terrorism. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine became a European priority, while Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 caused the Russian position on Syria to become more important than before. Meanwhile, Russia aims at alienating the Western camp and weakening the role of the Security Council. Its vision is restricted to a political solution as it invokes the issue of “sovereignty” to exclude any intervention by the West or by the Arab community, leaving the Syrian people at the mercy of a tyrannical regime that has committed many massacres against them. In November 2015, the Paris bombings played a big role in France’s position as they made the fight against terrorism a priority. Public opinion was important for elections and terrorism was seen as a fundamental issue in France.
Since 2016, Turkey’s position has played its own role in changing the attitudes of Western countries. It has also made the relationship between France and the West, in general, with Turkey more difficult. After the Kurdish PYD forces took control of the area east of the Euphrates — under the protection of US forces — Turkey’s priority has been to fight the threat posed by PYD to Turkish national security.
After a period of high tension between Russia and Turkey — due to the Turks downing a Russian plane on November 24, 2015 — the two countries agreed that Turkey would prioritize coordinating with Russia rather than the Western countries of NATO : the handover of Aleppo, the de-escalation zones, the Astana and Sochi processes, and the Constitutional Committee. These steps impeded the Geneva process and the role of the United Nations and reduced the impact of the role of France, Europe, the US, and the international community.
Since 2016, France’s interest — and the West in general — in Syria has declined. When it comes to the Syrian issue, the West has been reactionary for the most part. It lacks vision, planning and follow-up. It has been observing Russia’s behavior in Syria to see if it is going to expand its presence or withdraw. France has been at a loss, while Europe and the US have both left the Syrian conflict to Russia and are no longer searching for a solution. Instead, they are focused on managing the conflict. This indifference has marginalized the Geneva Declaration and the United Nations process and strengthened the Russian – Turkish – Iranian collaboration represented in the “Astana and Sochi” processes. The Syrian issue is now marginalized, no one is looking for a political solution, and it has all become very complicated.
The decline of France’s interest in the Syrian conflict crystallized during the presidency of President Macron as France upended its strategy. It started communicating with all the parties involved in the conflict equally and began basing its decisions on a profit and loss model rather than on the values of the French Republic and contemporary France. Currently, France’s policy in Syria is based on weighing the costs of dealing with the regime. It is worth mentioning that there is no tangible benefit to the French government in being close to the Assad regime.
The French media today reflects the French government’s waning interest in the Syrian issue. In the first three years of the conflict, the French as well as the international media focused on Syria to a great extent. This ended with the emergence of ISIS in 2014 when their attention shifted towards this group, especially after the Paris bombings. Their motto was “ISIS First” instead of “Assad’s Departure First.” Then at the end of September 2015, the French media shifted its focus to the Russian intervention. Today, Syria is back in the news as the media links the actions of Russia in Ukraine to its actions in Syria.
However, Assad’s regime can only be seen as an enemy of France because of France’s democratic and humanistic values. Although it is natural for France to be interested in seeking a political solution in Syria, if possible, and to support the implementation of Resolution 2254, the reality of the situation is what prevails. France as well as the rest of the European Union and America see that the fall of Bashar al-Assad is no longer a possibility at the present, and that the regime is staying in power for now. Despite that, the Europeans are still committed to rejecting normalization with the regime, maintaining the economic, political, and diplomatic siege, preventing any breach of the siege, and refraining from financing Syria’s reconstruction, until a political solution is achieved and until UN resolutions 2118 and 2254 are implemented in full. They also demand that the Syrian regime releases detainees, provides humanitarian support for Syrians in need and delivers humanitarian relief — regardless of Russia’s opinion — and promotes dialogue that includes all parties: the opposition, the Kurds, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
However, this realistic approach to the problem in Syria has proved unhelpful, for all it does is maintain the problem. The focus must be on establishing political legitimacy and not perpetuating divisions by supporting existing forces.
If we were to follow the course of the conflict, we would see that by not threatening to use force the West has sent a message of reassurance to Assad. This has emboldened him and caused him to be more adamant in his ways. For example, had a few missiles been launched near Assad’s palace, the conflict would have taken a different course. Other interventions — none of which were sought — include the introduction of anti-aircraft missiles, which over the years could have limited the destruction and forced the regime to comply with UN resolutions. If there had been a real blow by the West, the regime would have retracted. If France and Western countries had adopted Turkey’s views on the safe zone, the situation in Syria would have been different today. There are many experts who share the opinion that the reluctance of Western countries to take strong steps to impose a political solution, such as pressure on Moscow to implement the Geneva Declaration 1, has led to a further deterioration of the situation. It has turned the country into a humanitarian tragedy and a political dilemma for the Syrian people, the peoples of the region, as well as Europe, and the world in general.
Effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the conflict in Syria:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought about changes in international relations: The West has made it clear that its relationship with Russia has entered a new and difficult stage; dialogue has turned into an indirect clash; and normalization with a Russian-controlled regime is now increasingly problematic. Russia is interested in Syria, and even though it was forced to withdraw a large part of its forces, no one is expecting it to leave. If it is possible for it to stay, it would do so.
Moreover, Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria was advantageous for Iran, who hastened to occupy the areas which Russia withdrew from and started strengthening its presence in them.
At the other end, seeking to take advantage of the conditions created by the Ukrainian war, Turkey has announced that it is preparing to start an operation in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces / SDF to expand its area of control in northeastern Syria.
As to the role of Israel in all of this, the war in Ukraine has created a dispute between it and Russia and has put Israel, who does not want to stop its strikes against the Iranian militias in Syria, in a difficult position.
The Western media has now returned to reminding us about the atrocities committed by Russia in Syria, especially in Aleppo. However, the intention is not to revive interest in the Syrian issue, but to undermine Russia’s reputation as part of the West’s strategy in dealing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While we find thousands of Western journalists on the ground in Ukraine, Syria has received a very small fraction of this attention even during the height of the war i.e., before 2015. This is not to say that there are no western journalists covering Syria at all. The few who do — and some even visit Syria — are not interested in the Syrian crisis and in the ways in which it could be resolved. They are reporting on the jihadists or the Kurds and their issues.
Had Syria received even a fraction of the support that the West has given to Ukraine, the situation would have been very different today. Had they provided the Syrian opposition with the needed capabilities to achieve early change in Syria, the massive material and social destruction would have been spared, and Syria would have been in a different place today.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not changed the West’s attitudes towards the conflict in Syria nor towards the Russian role in it. The US administration still claims that its goal is to change the regime’s behavior, even though it knows that the regime is incapable of changing its behavior. Further, the US administration has the Caesar Act still suspended, and France and the West have limited their attention to the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, terrorism, and the re-emergence of (ISIS) in the Syrian desert. The Astana and Sochi conferences are still being held with the aim of circumventing the Geneva process; the Constitutional Committee is still having its fruitless shuttle meetings; and Special Envoy Pedersen is still making failed efforts to achieve progress. The time has come to replace Pedersen and the process as a whole and to return to a comprehensive negotiating table in accordance with Geneva 1 and Resolution 2254.
On the other hand, it is difficult to anticipate the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on international politics and the Syrian issue. Even though everyone is keen to keep the conflict limited to Ukraine, the invasion will inevitably affect the West’s relationship with Russia and will open the door to the following questions: Will the Ukrainian war push the West to punish Russia and its ally Iran for their presence in Syria and drive them to withdraw, because the costs of the Russian presence in Syria will be too big? Will this force Russia to return to the negotiating table instead of the dead-end Constitutional Committee? Will it be forced to propose the implementation of United Nations resolutions 2118 and 2254 and provide support to achieve this? If this is an option, then what is required is an institutional effort organized by the elites of the fragmented Syrian opposition and what remains of the Friends of Syria Group.
A look into the future and the role that France and Europe can play:
As a result of the complicated situation in Syria today and the absence of any serious effort to reach a political solution based on legitimate international resolutions, as well as the lack of progress on the issue, the future of Syria remains uncertain. It may take a few more years to see if anything can be done. France, as well as Europe and America, do not think that the current situation allows them to take major action, especially that they are preoccupied with other issues, such as confronting Russia in Ukraine and fighting ISIS who has made a comeback in Syria and Iraq.
On the other hand, a partial effort could be undertaken to pave the way for a larger initiative that could bring about change. For example, Europe could insist on delivering aid to needy Syrians across the border; refuse to submit to Russia’s blackmail, which seeks to provide aid to the north through the regime’s institutions; track the humanitarian aid provided through the regime to ensure it is delivered to the people who deserve it; call for the reform of the work of regional United Nations organizations, who manage significant funds, to ensure commitment to neutrality towards the regime; demand that European courts initiate the arrest and prosecution of Syrian war criminals — witnesses and documents exist, but activating trials requires a political will; work to prevent the violation of the siege imposed on the regime and prevent normalization with it; and to isolate Syria from the Human Rights Council, as they have done with Russia.
When politicians perceive an initiative as doomed, they do not act. But surrendering to this reality will not bring about change, a change which might very well become a reality. The most important matter that remains in Syria is to reach a political solution to end the suffering of the Syrians and to remove the dangers that the current situation generates, especially the reproduction of (ISIS) in the Syrian desert. Terrorism, which has been imported to Europe, will not be eliminated without eliminating its sources, mainly through achieving a political solution based on real political transition in Syria. This transition will also put an end to the world’s main source of drug manufacturing and export today. The Assad regime and Hezbollah have been relying on the narcotics trade as a major financial resource and a tool by which to blackmail Europe, the Gulf States and Turkey by threatening to flood the world with drugs. This means that France, the European Union, and America must be urged to work harder on launching an initiative that could produce a solution in Syria. Most importantly, France and the European Union could adopt an independent policy towards the Syrian crisis and not allow the United States to control their strategy towards Syria.
 1) The regime-controlled area, 2) The area east of the Euphrates controlled by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” known as the SDF, and the Kurdish PYD forces, 3) The three Turkish control areas in northwestern Syria, 4) The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham control area (formerly Al-Nusra) in Idlib Governorate.
 In December 2016, the opposition withdrew its forces from eastern Aleppo under the new Russian-Turkish understanding and handed the city over to the regime. In January 2017, the Astana peace process was launched, with a tripartite Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership, and in May 2017, the de-escalation plan was implemented with a Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement in the four areas that were controlled by forces opposed to the Assad regime. Matters ended with the regime taking control over these areas with Russia’s support. This was followed by the course of the Constitutional Committee in tandem with the entry of Turkish forces into Syrian territory, after the operation Euphrates Shield in 2017, then Operation Olive Branch in 2018, and Operation Peace Spring 2019.
 The Western medias’ focus today is on individual artistic, scientific, and cultural successes and activities, such as the opening of restaurants and student academic excellence. The prosecution of regime criminals is also receiving clear media attention.