Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron is the first Western leader to reflect the changed political realities in Syria caused by the recent advances of the Syrian army.
Specifically Macron has confirmed that removing President Assad from power can no longer be a priority, since there is no ‘legitimate successor’ to him. The priority must instead be fighting the ‘enemy’ – Jihadi terrorism – which requires the help of Russia.
This is how part of Macron’s comments is being reported by the Russian news agency TASS
I no longer view Assad’s removal as a precondition for anything, since I don’t see anyone who could become his legitimate successor
and here is how his further comments are being reported by Reuters
The new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a pre-condition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor…My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies…..We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them.
Not coincidentally, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has travelled to Moscow, apparently with instructions from Macron to search for ways to reopen a dialogue with the Russians about Syria. On that subject Macron had this to say both about a political settlement in Syria, and about his understanding of Russian President Putin’s perspective of the Syrian conflict and the fight against Jihadi terrorism there
My deep conviction is that there needs to be a diplomatic and political roadmap. We will not resolve this solely militarily…I don’t think he [Putin] has an unshakeable friendship with Assad. He has two obsessions, fighting terrorism and avoiding a failed state, and so that’s why convergent views on Syria appear
This is a significant change in France’s position. Under both Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande France has been the most hardline of all Syria’s Western enemies, to the point where at the time of the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack crisis President Hollande continued to press for air strikes on Syria even after US President Obama began to signal that he was giving up on the idea.
This is not a total reversal of France’s position. Macron is not saying that he accepts President Assad as Syria’s legitimate leader of Syria. Nor is he saying that he wants President to stay in office, and that his future should be decided exclusively by the Syrian people. Moreover Macron continues to make ridiculous statements about France ‘not tolerating’ Syrian use of chemical weapons despite the deserved ridicule this threat has previously elicited from Russian President Putin.
Nonetheless in publicly acknowledging that President Assad’s removal cannot be a precondition for a peace settlement Macron is the first Western leader to recognise reality and to break with the regime change orthodoxy the West’s leaders have up to now inflexibly followed.
I would add that though US Secretary of State Tillerson has on occasion also appeared to say that the US is no longer seeking regime change in Syria, Donald Trump as President (as opposed to Presidential candidate) has so far never quite done so.
Macron’s acknowledgement that regime change in Syria is off the agenda is of course no more than an acknowledgement of the obvious. With ‘useful Syria’ – the populous and wealthy region along Syria’s coast where the bulk of Syria’s population lives – largely under President Assad’s control, with President Assad’s army advancing rapidly into eastern Syria, and with Russia having established a powerful air defence system in Syria, there is no realistic possibility of President Assad being overthrown by force.
Nonetheless the fact that Macron is the first Western leader to break with Western regime change orthodoxy with respect to Syria does him credit, and is consistent with the well established French concept of raison d’État. It is the first genuinely hopeful step he has taken since he became French President.