The Syrian Observer talks to Michel Duclos, French Ambassador to Syria from 2006 to 2009 and currently a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne in Paris and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Mr Duclos provides us with a diplomatic perspective on the Syrian conflict.
This text is part of a series of interviews we are conducting on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Read our first interview with historian Nadine Meouchy here.
How would you define Bashar al-Assad’s foreign policy prior to 2011?
The Assad model is first and foremost that of a police state. Its priority even before the uprising was to maintain a grip on a majority Sunni population it viewed as implacably hostile, using the tools of oppression. Similarly, it needed external patrons, primarily Iran and to a lesser degree Russia to serve as an external insurance policy against the Syrian people.
Under Hafez al-Assad especially it also capitalised on an ability to cause trouble through its ties to multiple terrorist organisations; its pseudo-resistance against Israel, and its hold on Lebanon. As a result, for better or for worse, it acquired a second layer of protectors, effectively the US and Israel. At certain times, it extorted funds from Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries. In the Syria I knew (2006-09), the regime prospered under a de facto dual Iranian-Israeli protectorate. The Russians were not very visible. The Americans were angry.
Europe constituted a third, outer layer, which was less important in the eyes of the Assadists. What mattered here, too, was the security dimension: the regime expected French security services to keep Syrian dissidents exiled in France under surveillance, in return for handing over part of a jihadist network from time to time. And then there was the element of prestige: for a Syrian president to be received in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, or Madrid served to bolster his position internally.
Following the invasion of Iraq and especially the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Assad found himself isolated. He was pleased, therefore, when the Germans and the French, under Sarkozy, returned to him without his being forced to make any meaningful concessions. Today we have forgotten, but the real overtures he made were towards Turkey – no doubt under the influence of Qatar. That approach carried both political and economic risks in the form of strong penetration of Turkish businesses in Syria, as well as Erdogan’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood agenda.
Some argue that the decision of the western community to withdraw its ambassadors in early 2012 and impose sanctions was a mistake. How do you answer that?
In the 2012 context, the aim was to pressure the regime into making concessions to the opposition. What means did Western countries have at their disposal? They did not intend to resort to force as they had done in Libya. And so they were left with mainly symbolic tools: embassy closures and sanctions. That was before they began supporting the armed opposition – and feebly at that.
With regard to the embassy closures, let’s avoid repeating banalities: no French decision-maker could have risked leaving French officials at the mercy of a regime of killers and assassins. Let us remember Ambassador Delamare, the soldiers of Dakkar and the researcher Michel Seurat. Furthermore, maintaining a diplomatic presence in Syria would not have influenced the course of events. Should all links between intelligence services have been broken? Not necessarily, but let’s look at the facts: countries such as Spain, which chose to maintain a relationship between their intelligence services and Syria’s, gained nothing from it.
A few years on, the question arose: should we not re-establish ties with Assad? My response is simple: we must not engage with a dictator who has perpetrated mass crimes. Certainly not a country like France, where political identity is tied up with the law of human rights. Moreover, our historical experience shows it is not according to Western countries – at least not European – that the regime sets its course. It is futile to think that dialogue with it could be productive. France tried on several occasions under Chirac and Sarkozy without achieving anything. If France were to open dialogue in the current circumstances, it would simply lead to fresh humiliation.
Some in the US claim that Syria is not strategically important. At the same time, armies from around the region and the world are on the ground. How do you explain the level of internationalization of the Syrian conflict?
The entire American approach towards the region is centred on Iraq, Iran and the Gulf, with Syria a secondary concern. Syria, however, has turned out to be particularly important for the Islamic Republic of Iran; control over Damascus represents part of the “family jewels” acquired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Having a “Shiite corridor” to the Mediterranean represents a major strategic gain for Tehran, hence the Iranians’ heavy investment in saving the regime from the very outset of the uprising, leading to the involvement of Hezbollah.
The Russians had other reasons for becoming equally involved, especially after 2015 when Putin understood the United States would leave the field clear for him. The Turks – not without reason – considered their own interests to be directly threatened by the possible emergence of a mini-Kurdish state, an influx of refugees and the threat of terrorism.
To justify their inaction, American officials of the time explain that “regime change” was a bad approach that had mired them in all sorts of debacles over the course of the previous decades. It was the theme of Philippe Gordon’s latest book. When it comes to Syria, however, we can do an inverse reading; on at least two occasions, Obama saved the regime’s skin: when it allowed chemical attacks in the summer of 2013 to go unpunished; and when the American air force, in the spring of 2015, bombarded an armed group that would have threatened the Alawite coast had it overrun the northeast.
A solution to the Syrian conflict seems dependent on an agreement between the main international actors. How likely is that to happen ?
Both in theory and in practise, a solution to the conflict can only emerge from an alignment of interests among the main powers involved.
It is unlikely an agreement between all powers will materialise; the major actors have therefore sought partial agreements. The Russians, for example, wish to reach an understanding with the Turks and the Iranians through what is known as the Astana Process, before gradually bringing around Gulf countries and Arab states such as Egypt that are amenable to normalising relations with the Assad regime. The Europeans and Americans are initially relegated to the side-lines in this scheme, though they may come on board later. Another solution, of which some Americans and the Israelis dream should they have a policy, would be an agreement in return for the expulsion of Iran. The sought-after deal would be done behind the back of the Iranians. On my part, I can’t see Russia completely letting go of Iran; its entire success in the region derives from Moscow serving as an intermediary, without permanently antagonising any important actor.
In any case, the Assad regime’s capacity to resist is strong. It knows what it wants: to endure by preserving the hard core of its power, namely the security services. Assad believes his protectors need him more than he needs them. His relationship with the Iranian Supreme leader is one of vassal to suzerain. He adopted his father’s textbook in which one of the rules is to play one patron against another if necessary.
That said, I believe we must avoid mythologizing the omnipotence of the Assad model. This regime rules amidst ruins. Even a serious analyst – otherwise inclined to highlight the successes of the regime – notes that it controls only scant stretches of the country’s borders. Its hold on “useful Syria” remains tenuous. For now, its continuity may be expedient to both the Russians and the Iranians, but nobody knows whether the regime could survive a change of opinion in one or the other of its protectors. And then there is Israel: the Israelis always proceed on the assumption that it is preferable to keep in place the devil they know. They never understood that Bashar is no longer the devil they knew, for – unlike his father – he has invited a massive Iranian presence into Syria. Will they come to realise this one day?
What should we expect from the Biden administration?
Expectations are meagre, at least a priori. The near East in general and Syria in particular are not priorities for this administration.
Furthermore, it is staffed with old Obama administration officials, which raises an important question: are we headed towards an “Obama III” style policy? That would mean the Syrian crisis would be regarded as a subset of the Iran issue. For all his associates’ claims to the contrary, President Obama was prepared to go very far to win over the Iranians by not bothering them in Syria. It is true the context has changed; on at least two scores, we can expect to get a hearing from the new administration. For one, tolerance for human rights violations will be lower than it was under Trump. Secondly, Biden personally perceives Russia as a strategic adversary, and Russophobia has taken on new proportions among the American political class.
Here there is one point we may build on: Russia’s interest in Syria is to preserve the status quo and re-legitimise Assad through a phoney re-election, his readmission to the Arab League, normalisation of Syria’s ties with its neighbours, and reconstruction financed by Gulf countries. This, from a Russian perspective, is called a “frozen conflict”, which it can manage at minimal cost while safeguarding its key levers. It enables Russia to reduce its politico-military engagement in Syria and invest elsewhere, for example in Libya or Georgia.
Is this really what Washington hopes for? Should we not continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and raise costs for the Russians and Iranians? That was the merit of the “Caesar Act”, and of maintaining Western forces in the northeast alongside the SDF. I hope this policy will be continued by the Biden administration.
If you were to provide some broad guidelines on a diplomatic solution to the stalemate what would they be?
It may seem paradoxical, but if we wish to reach a diplomatic solution one day, we must not make that an objective. We should keep the diplomatic solution always in mind whilst speaking of it as little as possible. Why? Because the conditions for compromise are not in place. The priority must therefore be to work towards bringing these conditions about. It is useless, if not counterproductive, to act like beggars or partners eager to find a compromise at any price with the Russians or others.
In order for an international settlement to be possible one day, we must in my view set two lines of action. Firstly, to definitively brand Bashar al-Assad an international pariah. In this regard, the legal actions multiplying in Europe are encouraging – credit to German justice! At a time when certain governments appear to have resigned themselves to restoring ties, the de-legitimisation of the tyrant continues in international opinion. Diplomatically, therefore, the first task is to dissuade Arab and certain European states from normalising relations with the regime.
Let us recall Omar al-Bashir. He ruled over Sudan for thirty years with methods comparable to those of the Assad regime.
His indictment by the International Criminal Court did not prevent him remaining in power, but it cast a shadow over the final decade of his rule and limited his horizons. Finally on Apr. 11 2019, following massive protests and a final push from one of the regime’s external patrons – an interesting precedent! – the tyrant’s political career was brought to an end in a military coup.
The second guideline is to fully support Syrian society. That is very difficult when it comes to the society inside the country, where eighty percent of Syrians are living in abject poverty. We must demand UN and European agencies to redouble their support for average Syrians, including in areas under the regime, but without coming to terms with the Assadist apparatchiks or allowing them to turn international aid to their own profit, as is currently the case.
Is there not a contradiction in wanting to help the Syrian people survive and imposing the tough sanctions of the Caesar Act? The answer is no: Assad is responsible for the disastrous state of his country – not international sanctions. Moreover, the Caesar sanctions were designed to hit the leaders and not the people.
Then there are Syrians in diaspora, who now outnumber those remaining inside the country. The Europeans should do more to ease the hardships of Syrians living in camps and elsewhere in neighbouring countries; they must support the opening of schools and award grants to allow young refugees to study. The European Union and member states must also ensure the proper integration of millions of Syrian refugees in Europe, whilst encouraging them to remain loyal to their country of origin.
It has been said before that the opposition’s key defeat was in losing the narrative, while Assad’s principal victory was in the war of propaganda. This, too, can – and already is – being reversed. Much in Western Syria has been seen through the distorting prism of the security services, portraying Syrians as an indiscriminate mass of fanatical terrorists. Now that Syrian refugees live among us, another image is taking shape, as evidenced in Germany, and also in the American think-tank ecosystem. The Syrians among us most often integrate without difficulty, showing great courage in adversity. Many are successful – as Syrians elsewhere have always succeeded abroad. They are open and intelligent people of exceptional resilience.
My feelings in a few words? We must ensure Assad does not escape international pariah status and fully support Syrian society. The rest will follow.
Michel Duclos was interviewed by Jihad Yazigi.