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Macron Seeks to Ease Syria Opposition Fears by Meeting HNC Chief | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a special congress gathering both houses of parliament in the palace of Versailles, outside Paris, on July 3, 2017. (AFP)

After his remarks on the fate of Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad sparked concern about a French shift in policy, President Emmanuel Macron sought on Wednesday to ease these fears by meeting with Riad Hijab, head of the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee, which represents a group of military and political opponents at UN-mediated talks between Syria’s warring parties in Geneva.

Macron had said that he saw no legitimate successor to Assad, provoking concern among the opposition.

Macron, a centrist elected in May, said last month he no longer considered Assad’s departure a pre-condition for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.

Former president Francois Hollande had backed the Syrian opposition, demanding the six-year conflict be resolved through a political transition that would eventually see Assad replaced.

While he described Assad as an enemy of the Syrian people, Macron said Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state. He also questioned the opposition’s credibility.

Hailed by some in France as a pragmatic stance to advance negotiations, the comments also caused unease among the Syrian opposition, former officials and humanitarian groups.

Macron on Wednesday appeared to try to refine his comments after speaking to Hijab.

In a statement the presidency said Macron had confirmed to Hijab that France supported the HNC in the Syrian peace talks being held under UN auspices.

“The president assured Mr. Hijab of his will to engage fully and personally to achieve an inclusive political solution in the Geneva framework,” the French presidency said.

Hijab’s office said that he had, in their conversation on Tuesday, reminded Macron that Assad had “lost legitimacy after being repeatedly responsible for using chemical weapons against his own people.”

“Assad’s presence in office helps spread chaos, strengthens the role of terrorist organizations, creates more sectarian militias, and fuels sectarian discrimination and hatred,” Hijab’s office said in a statement.

Macron’s comments on June 21 echoed Russia’s stance that there is no viable alternative to Assad. The French leader has sought closer cooperation with Russia and French diplomats say he wants to develop a “spirit of trust”, notably on Syria.

Russia’s foreign minister will be in Paris on Thursday to discuss the conflict.

Syria will also be the focus of the first face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, hosted by Germany, on Friday.

Eager to bolster his global legitimacy, Putin has been pressing the US to cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, where both Moscow and Washington oppose ISIS, but disagree about Assad.

Though defense laws passed in the wake of the Ukraine crisis bar the US military from cooperating with Russia, the two have maintained a “deconfliction” hotline to ensure their forces don’t accidentally collide on the crowded Syrian battlefield.

The Pentagon has steadfastly resisted proposals to work closely with Russia in Syria, out of concern the US cannot trust Moscow with sensitive intelligence information. But the problems posed by the lack of coordination in Syria have resurfaced following recent events.

The US has recently shot down several Syrian regime aircraft, leading Russia to threaten to shoot down any aircraft that flies west of the Euphrates River.