Not so long ago France seemed to be at the forefront of foreign policy making. It may well have been the case that François Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was almost effusive at times. Indeed that effusiveness made him few friends where he often most needed to have them. London and Washington were most certainly not welcoming after only his first visit to either. What was often notable was that whilst Sarkozy decisions tended to be in the direction of irritatingly quick decisiveness they seem to have veered off in the direction of Hollande indecision through to no decision. Syria is proving to be a rather good example of the dither long enough and we’ll get away with doing nothing approach that Hollande appears to have adopted.
Hollande has failed to live up to election campaign promises of tougher efforts to ‘chase’ Bashar al-Assad from power. Bernard-Henri Levy, a well known intellectual and champion of foreign intervention in Libya, slammed President Hollande's policy on Syria as too passive on at the beginning of August and said the French leader should work outside the UN Security Council. France has a history in the region and some people like Levy believe it gives this country extra leverage.
Syria supposedly falls under the category of countries within the sphere of influence of France for historic reasons. Around two years after the end of the war in 1918 and in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed between Britain and France during the war, Britain took control of most of Ottoman Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the southern part of Ottoman Syria (Palestine and Jordan). France controlled the rest of Ottoman Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Alexandretta) and other parts of south eastern Turkey. In the early 1920s British and French control over the territories was formalised by the League of Nations' mandate system. France was allocated the mandate of Syria in 1923 which then included modern Lebanon and Alexandretta (Hatay) in addition to what is now Syria. The French mandate of Syria lasted until 1943. Then two independent countries emerged from the mandate period, Syria and Lebanon, and Hatay had joined Turkey in 1939. French troops completely left Syria and Lebanon in 1946. French Mandate authorities were responsible for the early development of Syria's armed forces, however by the mid 1940s, for a number of reasons, the Syrians developed deep distrust of the French particularly and Western Europe generally.
So how does this give France any kind of leverage? Well, that is in the mind of those who believe it. The Mandate years are little different to colonial control except that rather than the country having been occupied by France, it was handed over military authority of a former part of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. So, thereby none of the guilt of colonialism hangs over the ‘relationship’. This might be an explanation for Hollande’s apparent softly-softly approach that is almost indiscernible.
In August France took over the chair of the Security Council for one month. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France would soon outline plans for a new push by the Security Council to solve the impasse. When asked about Fabius' plan, Levy said: "Let's wait, and hope." We are still waiting.
Early in August Hollande said that France was pushing hard for a political end to the conflict in Syria after the conservative opposition, although they did little whilst in office until May, caused an angry response from the government by calling for rapid foreign intervention. But still nothing happened.
A few days ago Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone between the Turkish border and Aleppo might be considered. Hillary Clinton had suggested the same some weeks ago. It is hardly an original idea. So far, it may be noted, there was little to nothing heard from Hollande.
Last Wednesday Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that France is providing the Syrian opposition with ‘non-lethal’ military aid. Speaking on BFMTV-RMC radio he said France had responded positively to a request for help from the rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. ," Ayrault said: "On the military level, what we have done is we have responded to a request by the Syrian National Council and the Syrian resistance to provide a certain number of non-lethal elements... means of communication and protection”. He restated the French position that there was no question of France becoming directly involved in military action in Syria without UN backing. He also reiterated France's position that Assad must step down, the day after Syria's deputy prime minister stated that the regime was open to discussion about the Syrian president's departure.
On Monday, François Hollande outlined his foreign policy goals to an audience of around 200 ambassadors in Paris. The Syrian crisis was high on the agenda. He simply reiterated what has been said here already. Thus far little reportage has indicated that either the Security Council or France has moved toward any decisive action since or as an outcome of that event. It simply seems as though Hollande is leading an either slow moving or stationary process. Nothing appears to be happening. Meanwhile, each day we read about many more women and children dying, 200 here another 100 there.
Perhaps believing in French influence, Hollande has now called on Syria's opposition to form a provisional government. He said that France would recognise it once that government is formed. The French press are of an opinion that Hollande is clearly annoyed by the reservations China and Russia have expressed in taking a tougher line against Assad at the United Nations. Syria’s opposition remains badly disjointed. It is still unclear whether a provisional government could be formed at all in the near future. Nonetheless, Hollande’s words are believed to be the first along these lines because they appear to give some momentum to the creation of a government at a time when there is no consensual international mandate for concerted action. France is also supporting Turkey’s idea of ‘free’ or ‘buffer’ zones.
However, in the real political world these are just ideas. They have been floated by other countries, picked up and slightly modified by Hollande. They are not gaining the international support they need, nor are they attracting news media attention outside of France. What is really happening? Why is France not joining the body of international exchanges of ideas about what should happen so that a genuinely consensual settlement can be reached before the war spreads, as has already begun, into the Lebanon and creates a wider regional problem?
Is it that Hollande genuinely does not know what to do and is making up as he goes along? That makes him less than competent to steer French foreign policy and be part of the world community. Is it that like so many other high principled people who cannot listen to reason, he believes Syria is somehow still within the French sphere of influence and therefore their government will listen to him? So far they have not listened to anybody. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and one of the most experienced diplomats in the world resigned as special envoy to Syria some months ago. If he failed, how then could France succeed? What is holding France back from joining many other countries whilst also not taking the hard oppositional line to direct action China and Russia have adopted? Is Hollande simply an enigma in his time, somebody we just cannot figure out and probably many of his country men and women as well or is he simply out of his depth?