Published April 24, 2018
France and the U.S. may have worked together to strike the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure on April 13. but the two countries have had different objectives. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to reduce the U.S. presence there, while French President Emmanuel Macron has stepped up French engagement in the region. Macron is now hoping his pomp-filled Washington visit will help convince Trump to follow his lead.
Trump should listen. France worries that a U.S. pullout 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 for civilians 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 not only 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 ouster a precondition to talks on the country’s future. At the same time, he made a “red line” declaration of his own, purposefully echoing the warning made but not enforced by former U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande. When it became clear that the Assad regime had crossed that line, Macron declared that he wanted an international effort to strike Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure, but signaled that 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, but what comes next isn’t.
In France, the strikes were viewed positively. They damaged, if not crippled, Assad’s WMD infrastructure and made Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had positioned sophisticated air defenses in the region, look weak. The episode also strengthened French credibility in the region. Shortly before the episode, Turkey had attacked various positions held by French-backed Kurdish militia, in an obvious test of the new French president’s resolve. France promptly reaffirmed its commitment to the region, and Turkey backed down.
Macron’s approach to Syria isn’t all muscle, though. France has worked hard to be a pivotal power in the Syrian conflict and is pretty much the only party to the conflict that can command the respect and attention of all other parties. 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 U.S. and U.K. in pushing back against Russia’s provocations, France consistently insists on dialogue and refrains from rhetoric that would anger Moscow. In a TV interview held shortly after the strikes, Macron emphasized that he spoke with Putin multiple times before and after.
France is also fighting to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive when Trump would scuttle it. The country has links stretching back decades with Syria’s Baathist regime. Turkey and Israel are long-standing partners, despite France’s many differences with both. And France enjoys good relations with many Sunni Arab Gulf countries; Macron just held a successful bilateral summit with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
All of these positions have been carefully cultivated and make France a key U.S. ally in any resolution to the conflict. France has vital interests in Syria: Islamic State, now in its death throes, has many French fighters keen to return home to wreak havoc there once defeated in Syria; France wants to ensure they are not able to do that.
Macron rightly feels that France cannot afford to defend the international community’s interests all by itself. 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 that he knows would be unpopular. He should let his French counterpart take the lead.