Breaking with his predecessor’s hyperactivity and inaugurating a ‘normal presidency’ was one of the central campaign pledges of French Socialist Presidential candidate Francois Hollande.

Image courtesy of Cyclotron, © 2012, some rights reserved.

And indeed – nearly four months into his mandate, the difference between him and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy could not be starker. Whilst the latter was routinely accused of blind ‘activism’, Hollande has hitherto done his best to keep his promise – to the point of pursuing a fully-fledged wait-and-see policy, most notably in the field of foreign affairs.

It was thus not without a well-considered side swipe at his successor that Sarkozy recently drew a parallel between Syria and Libya in an attempt to fuel the debate about military intervention in Syria. In a common statement published on the 8th of August, Sarkozy and Abdel Basset Sayda, President of the self-proclaimed Syrian National Council, urged the international community to take ‘rapid action in order to prevent massacres’. What added to the explosiveness of Sarkozy’s advocacy of military intervention was the fact that France’s take-over of the UN Security Council’s presidency had coincided with Hollande’s accession to power.

If only Sarkozy had opted for a more felicitous timing. An entire country was about to depart on vacation, their “normal” President included. In the meantime, however, even the most blatant political provocation was bound to fall on deaf ears. It was thus not until the X. Ambassadors’ Conference held on the 27th of August 2012 that Hollande made a serious effort to belie his critics in finally taking a stand on the Syria question.

Affirming that the ‘situation in Syria was unbearable for the human conscience, unacceptable for the security and stability of the region’, Hollande excluded a political solution with Bashar Al-Asad while at the same time emphasising that France could not recognise a Syrian provisional government until it enjoyed the full support of all opposition groups. Hollande furthermore declared his intention of imposing buffer zones on Syria. With regard to a potential intervention, he declared illicit any intervention that has not been sanctioned by the Security Council. Only the use of chemical weapons would constitute a ‘legitimate cause for a military intervention’ – a policy in line with that of the United States. He also deplored the paralysis of the UN Security Council caused by Russia and China’s consistent use of their veto rights, a situation which, according to him, might ultimately ‘lead to the Council’s circumvention’ and its fading into insignificance.

In the light of this, a rapid Libyan-style international intervention under the aegis of France seems rather unlikely, at least for now. This was enough for Philippe Juvin, National Secretary of the UMP, Sarkozy’s former party, to qualify Hollande’s Fabian policy on Syria as ‘criminal’.

And yet, Syria is not Libya. Owing to precisely this difference, taking a clear and unambiguous stance on the Syria Question is difficult, if not impossible. If the French position is unlikely to change fundamentally in the months ahead, this is for a number of reasons.

Most importantly perhaps, Syria’s population is far from being as homogenous as Libya’s, both in terms of ethnicity and religious beliefs. Arabs constitute a majority of 90.3%, followed by Kurds, Armenians and other ethnic groups, which account for the remaining 9.7%. This diversity of Syria’s population is in turn reflected in the different groups’ religious beliefs. 74% declare themselves as Sunni Muslim, 16% belong to a different Muslim denomination (Alawite, Bashar Al-Assad’s denomination, and Druze) and Christians account for 10%. Additionally, there are several Jewish communities (excluding the Golan Heights). Syria has furthermore welcomed a considerable number of refugees from bordering countries.

In many respects, this extremely diverse societal make-up is somewhat problematic. Not only has it allowed the ruling Ba’ath Party to stay in power by exploiting existing antagonisms, it is also one of the principal reasons for the Syrian opposition’s inability to form a universally recognised transitional government. This has been enough to stir up a lively debate on the actual nature of the conflict – justly so. Whether it is defined as a civil war or merely as an internal political conflict determines nothing less than the legal framework for action (or inaction) by the international community.

Syria is furthermore of pivotal significance from a geopolitical perspective. Whilst it is not as oil-rich as Libya, it constitutes a strategically invaluable gateway between West and East, or more specifically between what has been termed “rim-” and “heartland”[1]. Over the years, Syria has thus become not only an important transit country for gas and oil pipelines, but also home to a Russian base located in Tartarus. Any form of unilateral action could therefore be easily (mis-)understood as an intervention driven less by humanitarian concerns than geo-strategic interests, an ill-disguised act aimed at protecting or widening a country’s sphere of interest. It is also from this perspective that the Russian and Chinese vetoes must be appreciated. Rather than an expression of the two countries’ respect for international norms, their vetoes could be interpreted as a manifestation of a doctrine that prohibits the intervention of alien powers in their countries’ spheres of interest. Clearly, the “Great Game” is anything but over.

Despite numerous parallels, the situation in Syria is thus fundamentally different from Libya. Accordingly, the question of intervention, whether direct or indirect, is much more complex than it might initially appear. Little does it help that two French idiosyncrasies render the moral dimensions of a French-led intervention particularly delicate.

Springing from the French Republic’s self-conception as the birthplace of human rights, responding to civil society’s demand for political participation and protecting it from arbitrary exercise of state power is considered a moral duty. On the other hand, Franco-Syrian relations are heavily encumbered with a historical mortgage. Syria is not only a product of Franco-British deliberations over the former Ottoman provinces of the Levant[2], but was also under French mandate until 1946. In order not to reopen old wounds, France must therefore not be seen as encroaching on Syria’s sovereignty.

In light of this – and against the background of an ever-rising death toll – France is facing a dilemma in which geopolitical interests as well as the “responsibility to protect” – from which is deduced the right and moral duty of intervening – are juxtaposed with the imperative international norm of non-intervention.

There remains for the French President the titanic task of translating this dilemma into the context of political practice. In excluding any form of ‘rapid action’, as was demanded by Sarkozy, Hollande has opted for a policy which privileges prudence and respect for the Security Council’s verdict over the humanitarian imperative. Of course, this means neither that France is indifferent to the woes of the Syrian people nor that its foreign policy course has been set in stone once and for all. And yet, there is little reason to believe that France was going to disavow this position in the months to come.

It is clear from the outset that there cannot be an easy solution to a conflict which has assumed the dimension of outright civil war. Whilst intervening powers may accelerate the process of transition, it is by no means guaranteed that they will succeed in establishing a stable political order. After all, the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq have sufficiently demonstrated that even the greatest powers lack the ability to exercise effective control over an occupied region – not only militarily, but also ideologically.

Ultimately, there can only be one possible solution to the current conflict: establishing a government which, as stipulated by Hollande, imperatively enjoys universal recognition. In other words, it is not until Syria’s splintered opposition has overcome its disunity, arguably Al-Assad’s most lasting and most lethal legacy, that the prospect of sustainable peace emerges.



[1] see Halford Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman

[2] Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916