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Bashar al-Assad Macron unveils France's new realpolitik for Syria

Recalibrating France's long-held policy of insisting that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must step down, President Emmanuel Macron has opted for realpolitik by making the fight against terror the top priority.

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French President Emmanuel Macron said the cooperation of the Bashar al-Assad's key ally Russia was needed to "eradicate" the Islamic extremists fighting Syria play

French President Emmanuel Macron said the cooperation of the Bashar al-Assad's key ally Russia was needed to "eradicate" the Islamic extremists fighting Syria

(SANA/AFP/File)

Recalibrating France's long-held policy of insisting that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must step down, President Emmanuel Macron has opted for realpolitik by making the fight against terror the top priority.

In an interview with eight European newspapers Thursday, he unveiled a revamped policy to address a conflict that has claimed more than 320,000 lives and created millions of refugees.

Warning of the potential for a "failed state" if Assad were forcibly removed, 39-year-old Macron said the cooperation of the Syrian leader's key ally Russia was needed to "eradicate" the Islamic extremists fighting Damascus.

"The real change I've made on this question is that I haven't said the deposing of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for everything," said Macron, who took office last month. "Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor."

He added: "My line is clear: one, a total fight against terrorist groups. They are our enemies... We need the cooperation of everyone to eradicate them, particularly Russia. Two: stability in Syria, because I don't want a failed state."

Macron's statements formalised a shift that had already begun in the wake of the November 2015 jihadist attacks in Paris, which were planned in Syria and executed from Belgium.

'Shame on France'

But Syrian opposition figures who have long looked to France as their leading supporter were outraged.

Under French President Emmanuel Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande, France was one of the most outspoken advocates of Bashar al-Assad's departure play

Under French President Emmanuel Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande, France was one of the most outspoken advocates of Bashar al-Assad's departure

(AFP)

"Shame on France, whose leader Emmanuel Macron does not see Bashar as its enemy or an enemy to humanity," tweeted Ahmed Ramadan, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella organisation of opposition groups.

Under Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande, France was one of the most outspoken advocates of Assad's departure.

Successive Hollande foreign ministers asserted that Assad and the Islamic State group (IS) were "two sides of the same coin".

The policy began to shift after the Paris attacks, which were followed by several others for which IS claimed direct or indirect responsibility.

Hollande began to place more emphasis on fighting the jihadists in Syria, while still saying that Assad could not "represent the future" of the war-torn country.

Diplomatic impasse

In another shift, Macron implicitly criticised UN-backed peace talks that are at an impasse in Geneva.

In the interview, he said "we need a political and diplomatic roadmap" -- he notably did not mention the United Nations.

Macron has previously said he was in favour of "building an inclusive political solution in a much more collective way" -- while regretting that none of the G7 states is party to parallel Syria peace talks under way in the Kazakh capital Astana initiated by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

A diplomat who requested anonymity told AFP: "We've been saying Assad must go for years and that has produced no result... Geneva is of little use... We can't go on like this."

Now, only a few months after accusing Moscow of complicity in "war crimes" during the recapture of eastern Aleppo by Assad's forces, Paris is seeking rapprochement with Moscow.

While the tone was strained when Macron met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin late last month in Versailles outside Paris, the French leader was clear about wanting to step up cooperation in the fight against terror.

His foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was in Moscow on Tuesday to consolidate the rapprochement in what was described as a "spirit of trust".

But Macron reiterated what he sees as non-negotiable "red lines" -- the use of chemical weapons and access for humanitarian aid.

He warned that France, which is part of the US-led coalition fighting jihadists with air strikes in Syria, would respond to the use of chemical weapons.

But he did not say how Paris would respond if any of the red lines was crossed, or whether any concrete demands were made to the Russians on that front.

"Macron is pragmatic, not given to soul-searching and manages his priorities," international relations expert Karim Bitar told AFP.

"He is not complacent about Putin or Assad. Let's say he's halfway between realism and cynicism."

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