Syria, twenty years later

Triumphal Arch, Palmyra © PP

“…Feel the East as we love France…”
Ambassador Paul-Marc Henry


This reflection on twenty years of evolving relations with Syria shall in no way engage the responsibility of the French Administration that I served or the persons who are mentioned.

Syria has become distant and not easy to understand, including for us in France, whose trusteeship originally favoured the gradual emancipation of the Alawites and was, not that long ago, the leading foreign power in Damascus.

Having been a French diplomat in Damascus, at a favourable and promising time for Franco-Syrian relations and also when these were starting to deteriorate, today I feel the need to talk about Syria. This leads us to look at the country in detail, to question the reasons for our growing more distant and reflect on the possible ways and means, even if this seems unachievable today, of returning to a more stabilising role in a region essential to our interests.


 Twenty years ago, the relationship between France and Syria was then optimal. Before his father’s death Bashar al-Assad had been received by President Chirac in Paris. This “baptism” had given the future leader legitimacy before he came to power. President Chirac was the only Western head of state to attend Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in June 2000. Outside Syria, Chirac had been criticised for this but within the country it had strengthened its very strong historical ties with France. Syrians viewed France without any party preference. President Mitterrand’s visit in 1984, the first by a French head of state since the country gained independence in 1943, had left its mark. On his arrival in Damascus, President Mitterrand summed up our consistent position stating that “nothing (could) be accomplished in the Middle East without Syria’s assistance“.

Shortly after Bashar’s election, there was a short ‘Damascus Spring’ which aroused a lot of hope in France. This had led to an outpouring of debates within the intelligentsia and the promotion of a number of reforms. It was a euphoric period for the relationship, because a road map had been drawn up. To mention just one of the projects – initiated by the two presidents – designed to modernise the government administration, a Syrian ENA [Ecole Nationale d’Administration – a competitive-entrance college which trains top civil servants] was created. This development, deemed premature by the outside world, was also thwarted by upheavals in the region.

However, to get a better understanding of the nature of the Syrian Arab Republic, we must also mention the place occupied in it by the religions, minorities and culture. On this land which had been Christian since the first centuries of our era, but had become predominantly Muslim, Damascus officially recognised eleven Christian religions.

Other minorities included Armenians who had long been settled in Syria, since Cilicia had been part of the Tigran kingdom in the second and first centuries BC. Since the fifteenth century, families had settled in Aleppo, where a large part of the community lived. The flow had increased with the 1915 genocide, which took place largely in the Euphrates region around the city of Deir-ez-Zor. The Alawites, like the Druze, were linked to Shi’ite Islam, but that community’s religious dimension wasn’t that easy to discern. Moreover, despite being Alawi, President Assad had married a British citizen of Syrian origin born in London.  At the time, the country’s relations with Saudi Wahhabism seemed calmer, whilst Crown Prince Abdallah, the future king, had a Syrian wife from the nomadic Shammar tribe, scattered from the Nejd to Palmyra and in other States in the region.

The Jewish quarter was in the heart of Damascus, at the end of the ancient Roman Via Recta, where Paul of Tarsus had converted. It had been reduced to a synagogue and a few dwellings, and the community dispersed, especially after the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. But none of the buildings had been desecrated, and the Syrians said that these would always be preserved pending a return.  In the National Museum of Damascus, the most beautiful items were figurative frescoes from the second and third centuries, still unique to this day, coming from one of the oldest known ancient synagogues. This substantial building, buried deep underground – which had protected it for so many centuries – along the ramparts of the Dura Europos on the Euphrates, the “Pompeii of the Syrian desert”, had been exhumed in 1930 and restored during the mandate.

There were repeated Kurdish uprisings in what was known as the “Bec de Canard” (Duck’s Beak) in the far north-east of the country. But the situation remained under control as they enjoyed relative autonomy. The Palestinians formed a large community. They benefited from having a status and seemed able to work unhindered. Finally, the Shi’ites were not clearly identifiable as such, except for large groups of Iranians, seen mainly at the airport and who came on pilgrimage to the Saida Zeinab mausoleum dedicated to a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed in the suburbs of Damascus.

Our cooperation with Syria was multifaceted and included political, economic and cultural exchanges. Our military cooperation was extremely modest. Every 11 November, a ceremony has been held at the French Al-Dumayr military cemetery outside Damascus – which holds over 4,000 graves, with a section located in a special area for Muslim graves – to honour the victims of the Cilicia War in 1920-1921,  Jebel Druze operations in 1924-1925 and Second World War battles. Ultimately, our aim was to help safeguard the region’s stability, which was clearly in our vital interest as a country bordering the Mediterranean.


Our relations with Syria began to deteriorate from 2004-2005 onwards. They had already seen some very significant lows, notably in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, but France’s national interest had prevailed and led us to renew our relations with the Hafez regime. The combination of several factors can explain this “monumental change”: opting for relying on youth and reform could not succeed by waving a magic wand, and people became impatient; the struggles at the highest level of the Lebanese State between President Lahoud, reputed to be close to Syria – who was trying to obtain a third term of office, which his country’s constitution didn’t allow him – and his Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (October 2000-October 2004) also had to be taken on board;  finally, and perhaps above all, France had said no to the United States for a new war in Iraq, through the voice of Dominique de Villepin at the Security Council.  For France the existence of weapons of mass destruction had not been proved and the UN’s detailed work (cf. Butler Commission; access to « presidential compounds crisis ») had not proved conclusive either. Virtually at the same time as the military operation lasting around twenty days, leading up to the fall of Baghdad in the first months of 2003, US pressure on Syria, accused of sheltering Iraqi leaders favourable to Saddam Hussein, increased. This new situation put us in a delicate position.

Whoever the sponsors were, never clearly identified – a presumed member of Hezbollah was, years later, sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by the United Nations Tribunal – the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri caused a clear rupture. Due to suspicion and international pressure, Damascus withdrew its troops from Lebanon. The crime took on a special dimension in France because of President Chirac and Rafik Hariri’s friendship.

The result, starting with the March 2011 uprisings in the wake of the Arab Spring, was Syria’s long descent into hell: the thresholds of a few thousand victims, then tens of thousands and finally hundreds of thousands, were crossed one after the other. The number of internally displaced persons and refugees from outside the country passed the million mark (NB: 1.5 million today in Lebanon alone, 90% of whom live below the poverty line).

In summer 2012, the overriding view was that the regime would not hold out for much longer. We had just closed our embassy in Damascus – and not broken off diplomatic relations – particularly because of security concerns.  It is true that ambassadors from Western countries had taken part in the first major demonstrations against the regime, particularly in Homs, and that this could not fail to cause a harsh backlash.

2013 was a pivotal year in the terrible Syrian tragedy (cf. 100,000 victims according to estimates made at the time), which took the horror another step further. Concurrently with the outbreak of violence on the ground, diplomatic efforts were also being made, mainly aimed at identifying the crucial people from both sides with a view to dialogue. But alarmist information was reaching the chancelleries about the use of lethal chemical weapons, initially in small quantities and without identification of their origin.

Indeed, Syria was overflowing with these weapons – “the poor man’s nuclear weapon” – with around twenty or so main stockpiles listed. But it was also necessary to take account of the possibility of manufacturing lethal capabilities from components which, individually, were harmless – for example certain agricultural products – but which together constituted what were known as “binary” weapons. In view of the extreme danger, should the international community – everyone agreed on this – not seize them?  Was it not appropriate to challenge the regime, which had the strongest capability in this area, to destroy its stockpiles and adhere to the relevant international agreements?

In spring 2013, this approach was not adopted, there was agreement on the objective, but not on how to achieve it or acceptance of the possible consequences of the undertaking. For some, the challenge implied, by definition, resuming talks with the regime, which would have restored its legitimacy; yet these same States were to meet again a few weeks later in Geneva with the opposition facing the representatives of the regime. For others, this was not possible, as it would have meant immediately abandoning the opposition, which for them obviously overrode any other consideration. The opposition, although extremely reluctant, ended up agreeing to the prospect of a diplomatic process, but with a prerequisite: the departure of Bashar al-Assad. This was obviously a non-starter.

The opposition, which would later turn out to be the main victim of this type of weaponry – whose use had been banned since the 1925 Geneva Protocol – did not then seem to be particularly concerned by the issue. But who was the opposition? The Financial Times found a formula to distinguish between the opposition of the “Funduks” (luxury hotels) and that of the “trenches” (general public). 

On 21 August 2013, news broke of a massive attack with chemical capabilities in the Eastern Ghouta, an urban area in the East Damascus suburbs where the loyalist forces had so far failed to contain the rebellion.  According to the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA), over 1,800 people were killed and nearly 10,000 wounded, mostly civilians. Countries hostile to the regime immediately blamed it for the tragedy and said they had a “body of evidence”. There were, inter alia, indictments by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), including against the “Islamic State” and other extremist groups and these were repeated throughout the conflict.  In addition to the ban on the use of such weapons, laid down in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the specific aim of the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was to ban the possession of such lethal means, with the arsenals to be dismantled within 10-15 years of the signing of the Convention. In October 2013, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully completing the large-scale destruction of the arsenals imposed on Syria.

In any event, President Obama, after a year earlier setting a “red line” on the ban on using such weapons, quickly realised the inevitability of a military intervention for which our country was preparing. The US President finally renounced the idea on 30 August 2013, while on 28 August the House of Commons had refused the British Government permission for an operation. This vote by one of the world’s oldest Parliaments was certainly a factor in the decision, as the President of the United States was not in fact sure of obtaining the consent of Congress.

The fact that Washington hesitated and finally gave up was for domestic American reasons. The first was that Barack Obama had been elected to end his country’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and that he did not intend engaging in a conflict with unpredictable consequences.

There was great suspicion of the Syrian regime on the chemical weapons issue, but it was difficult to obtain hard evidence. A definitive condemnation cannot be based on a suspicion and Colin Powell’s precedent in the Security Council in 2003 still loomed large in people’s minds. As in 2003, there was no international legality and the intervention would have been unilateral, and could not have been deemed a case of legitimate self-defence as provided for by Article 51 of the UN Charter. Finally, Obama may have feared that the military operation itself would result in significant destruction but not enable complete eradication of the incriminated arsenal, or even result in their dissemination. Viewed in this light, the apparent victor would have been defeated. What would have been the scale of the strikes? Would Syria have been “fossilised” or would the operation have been limited to destroying presidential palaces in Damascus and Latakia? Or would the State’s industries, structures and institutions have been sufficiently torn apart, proving a strategic turning point on the ground that would have allowed the most extreme forces to prevail? But who were we actually supporting? What did we really want?


Looking at Syria as it was, trying to understand what happened right up until the existence of peoples and entire communities was threatened and our interests in the region seriously damaged, is by no means a backward-looking exercise. It is about learning lessons for today and tomorrow.

Once again with hindsight, we realise that our history in the Levant has always been complex. In an era nevertheless deemed all-conquering and glorious, General Gouraud did not leave only good memories. The crushing of the 1925 Djebel Druze revolt which subsequently spread to Damascus, was ferocious. The resulting trauma is still vividly remembered today and the capital’s walls still bear the stigma.

Similarly, during this conflict, did we not go on believing for too long that a solution would ensue simply from the use of weapons ? In the future, will we have to return to a more classical diplomatic approach, fully respecting human rights and the UN Charter ? The issues of the Golan Heights – legitimacy of the Syrian government – and a fortiori the Sanjak of Alexandretta cannot be dealt with immediately. 

On the other hand, we have to accept the existence of a special link with neighbouring Lebanon, dictated by geography and history. Even more than before, Syria has an essential need for it: access to the port of Beirut being its economic lung. It should also be noted that Syria’s misfortunes have never served Lebanon, and today we have a devastating demonstration of this.

Let us hope that Syria, ten millennia old, will survive thanks to its history, which encompasses that of all civilisations, people and religion around the Mediterranean. In this respect, the country will have then to try to draw on its state structures which France helped to create. It will also eventually be compelled to aim being less dependent on ad hoc recourse to other regional powers. Attached to a tradition of relying only on itself, it will have nevertheless to take into due consideration a shifting regional context.

The treatment of a continually worsening humanitarian crisis is of utmost urgency. It is a threat to the Syrian nation and the region and a major challenge for us all. The international sanctions arsenal is certainly included in the UN Charter as a non-military coercive measure. The aim is not to challenge the principle, but the procedures agreed under international law must be strictly adhered to. Not to do so would undermine the very international system which we say we want to safeguard. Sanctions regimes, which are more acceptable when they directly target force structures – prohibiting arms transfers, preventing development of specific military programmes, equipping law enforcement/forces etc. – become intolerable when vulnerable peoples become their first victims.

Last October in Rome, the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus issued an appeal to “not (let) hope die” before the entire diplomatic corps and in the presence of the Secretary of State of the Vatican. The road to Damascus is not only synonymous with conversion, it brings us directly back to a clearer and more coherent line to what the Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, reported missing during the conflict, called “sua umaniste ed universale devozione“.

L’attribut alt de cette image est vide, son nom de fichier est Qasr-al-Heir-Desert-de-Palmyre-©️PP.jpg.

                                                                                      Qasr al- Heir, Palmyra © PP

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