US President Donald Trump has said he wants to reduce the US presence there, while French President Emmanuel Macron has stepped up French engagement in the region. He hopes his pomp-filled Washington visit will help convince Trump to follow his lead.
Trump should listen. France worries that a US pull-out from Syria would risk turning what’s left of the country into an Iranian puppet state, a haven for Sunni jihadi terrorism, or both. It would also be a precursor to massive bloodshed while Bashar al-Assad finishes off his enemies, something France finds unacceptable.
France’s official goals in Syria – a negotiated end to the conflict that gives all the parties a credible stake in the country’s future, defeats terrorist movements, and pushes for as much humanitarian support as possible – are the right ones.
But while America’s leadership dithers over its options in Syria, Macron has displayed a combination of flexibility and toughness that serves France’s interests but should suit Trump’s too.
Macron’s position took shape soon after his election when, with cunning realism, he reversed France’s previous policy of making Assad’s exit a precondition to talks on the country’s future.
At the same time, he made a “red line” declaration, purposefully echoing the warning made but not enforced by former US President Barack Obama and French counterpart François Hollande. When it became clear the Assad regime had crossed that line, Macron declared he wanted an international effort to strike Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure, but signalled he would act alone if need be.
Trump too was eager for a show of force that contrasted with Obama’s inaction. The rest was easy. What comes next isn’t.
In France, the strikes were viewed positively. They damaged Assad’s WMD infrastructure and made Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had positioned sophisticated air defences in the region, look weak.
Macron’s approach to Syria isn’t all muscle. France has worked hard to be a pivotal power in the Syrian conflict and is pretty much the only party that can command the respect and attention of all the others. France wants to be seen as an honest broker, able to enforce red lines but also sensitive to the complex interests of different parties.
France is one of the most active countries in the UN on Syria issues. While aligned with the US and UK in pushing back against Russia’s provocations, France insists on dialogue and refrains from rhetoric that would anger Moscow.
In a TV interview shortly after the strikes, Macron emphasised that he spoke with Putin multiple times before and after.
France is also fighting to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, has links stretching back decades with Syria’s Ba’athist regime and Turkey and Israel are long-standing partners, despite France’s many differences with both.
IT enjoys good relations with many Sunni Arab Gulf countries; Macron just held a successful bilateral summit with Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Meanwhile, Trump, consciously or not, is grasping for a third way in Syria that is neither a complete disengagement that would make him look weak, nor a heavy presence that goes counter to his foreign policy instincts and would be unpopular.
He should let his French counterpart take the lead.