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Paris Preparing ‘New Initiative’ on Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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French President Emmanuel Macron. (AFP)

Paris – France is working on devising a political-diplomatic initiative on the war on Syria. To that end it has been intensifying contacts on all sides, whether with the United States, Russia, members of the European Union or countries of the Arab Gulf.

Official French sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the initiative will be announced at the appropriate time by President Emmanuel Macron, who wants to take Paris and Europe back to the scene of contacts after they have been marginalized in recent months.

They were marginalized with the launch of the Astana talks and Moscow’s semi-unilateral approach, whether on the military or diplomatic fronts, said the sources.

They added however that the French initiative needs time to “ripen” and its announcement is depends heavily on the situation on the international scene. It is also linked to the “ability to establish a new reality in which Russia and Iran realize that maintaining their current policy in Syria will be more costly to them than accepting a real political solution.”

Attention is now focused on the means to reach this “new reality” given that attention to the military operations has taken precedence over the political aspects of the Syrian conflict.

The main obstacle, said the French sources, is the United States because its State and Defense Departments have not yet completed their “revision” of Washington’s policy on Syria.

“The US does not have a political vision for the situation in Syria,” they added.

The sources said that the American policy has not gone beyond stressing the need to combat ISIS and terrorism.

Washington, the obstacle, could later turn into a helping factor if the administration of Donald Trump wanted to “translate the policy of containing Iran into reality.” It should start doing so in Syria.

Paris does not believe that the US is stalling in its revision of its policies because the administration of former President Barack Obama took up to six months to rewrite its policy on Afghanistan.

Until Washington “returns” to the scene, the Trump administration has ordered its diplomats to continue pressing for support for UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the Geneva talks, said the sources.

Washington however is not the only obstacle on the Syria scene as European countries have their own concerns. British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered an electoral defeat that may see her leave her post. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is gearing up for elections in three months and Italy keeps moving from crisis to crisis, stated the French sources.

Europe therefore sees in Paris a crutch that it may lean on over the Syria file.

The Arab Gulf too has become distracted from the war in Syria. It was initially preoccupied with the conflict in Yemen and now it is embroiled in the diplomatic crisis with Qatar.

The Syrian opposition is also divided politically and militarily, which does not help the cause of those seeking to support them. The regime in Syria has meanwhile succeeded in portraying to the world that the war pits it against extremists, whether from ISIS or al-Nusra Front.

Paris believes that the series of Geneva talks are “running around in circles” and therefore cannot be relied upon to reach a political solution. The Astana talks, which were a product of Russian efforts, are not better of, continued the sources.

The Astana talks have resulted in the emergence of two camps that are involved in the Syrian conflict, said the sources. On the one hand there is the camp of Russia, Turkey, Iran and Jordan and on the other, there is a camp that includes Americans, Russians and Jordanians. They have several differences, such as Turkey’s demands that its forces not be targeted in attacks or Iranian-backed militias’ reluctance to respect the de-escalation zones. Other disputes center on the demarcation of borders and the return of refugees back to their homes.

The French sources said that the disputes that have emerged at Astana reveal that Syria today is truly divided between a Turkish region, regime-controlled one, a third controlled by ISIS and a fourth by the opposition forces.

Paris believes that as long as a new political dynamic to reach a political solution is not launched then attention will be focused on how to practically manage these regions, added the sources. The main question is however how can this fragmented reality be transformed into a basis for launching a political project and provide international pressure than can find this desired dynamic?

This is what Paris is seeking and what Macron wants to work on.

Despite the bleakness of the scene and based on the talks he held with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the French sources said that “there is room to maneuver that we can work with.”

They revealed that Russia demonstrated that it is willing to exert efforts to resolve the Syrian file. What price it wants in return remains a mystery. Iran meanwhile appears to be very committed to its stances and is unrelenting in its absolute support of the Syrian regime, which France believes is weak.

“The success the regime has achieved are not really its own, but they were possible through Iran’s militias and others that Iran is leading under Russian cover,” said the sources.

Four main excuses to convince Moscow

At this point, Moscow once again appears as if it is the “mother of all knots” that should be worked with because its position on Syria could be decisive. Paris therefore wants to “persuade” Moscow to employ its influence in Syria to push for a solution.

To that end it first wants to convince Russia that the regime will not be able to impose its control throughout Syria before several months. Even if the war does end, the refugees will not be able to return to their country and the reconstruction process will not take place without a political solution, explained the sources.

The third excuse is that implementing Trump’s policy in Syria of containing Iran will create tension and possibly even lead to a war that is wider than the one raging at the moment. The fourth excuse to be used to convince Russia on Syria is that all of the above will harm its interests. Contributing to the solution today, will be less costly than continuing in its old policy.

Will Paris succeed in persuading Moscow? This question is difficult to answer today, but it is certain that if the current game in Syria persists, then its results will be catastrophic on the country, region and beyond, said the French sources.