In two days, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was able to torpedo the 70-year old US-UK alliance, set conditions for US President Barack Obama to be possibly ridiculed and, most likely, to leave French President Francois Hollande in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea. One may rightly dislike Al Assad, but nobody will deny his capacity to mess up the western camp.
To start with, UK parliament sent Prime Minister David Cameron to hell. Did the latter seek parliament’s approval knowing it could not be obtained? Nobody will say. But one thing is for sure: Either Cameron did it knowingly, and that is not showing courage, or he did not anticipate the result, which shows he doesn’t know his people well. Whatever the case, he received a slap in the face, which is never good for a politician.
Obama’s predicament vis-a-vis the war makes him more indecisive than ever, and he put the ball into the Congress’s court, acting like a tactician by making the Congress endorse his own policies, which is very smart as long as the Congress says yes. Yet, nobody seems to be able to predict what the Congress will say. If it says no, Obama will be in the worst possible situation: Either he goes ahead with his plans with no political support at home (and soon, abroad) or he doesn’t act, definitely losing the little credibility he has left.
As for the French, it is clear Hollande did not keep in mind the French people’s wishes by behaving the way he did — two-thirds of the country is against the strikes. On the ground, the frigate Chevalier Paul is said not to be equipped with missiles with the necessary range to hit Syria. The so-called Frem frigate is a very sophisticated vessel, which may play its part within a complete wing, but not alone. In other words, the French can anyway do very little by themselves in the case the US backs out.
On the French reasoning, a body of evidence is emerging. First, there is the traditional socialist dislike for wars, ‘which are bad because they kill people’. But if they kill them badly, then they are very bad wars, and the republic should intervene on humanitarian grounds and punish those responsible. Second, the way the Syrian issue has been internally managed by the government shows a progressive shift of power. Whereas neo-con diplomats have been very active at both the Presidency and Minister of Foreign Affairs’ cabinets, the ministry itself has apparently been bypassed.
The time is not for ambassadors to analyse, but for the friends of Israel to concentrate on facts — and pictures, which are all the more useful as they show the horrors. Lastly, it is not impossible that some arms manufacturers see a good opportunity — and Hollande pays attention to them.
In the end, ‘La Fayette’ is coming back to Uncle Sam and French-bashing may disappear in the US. What will then happen next? If the US Congress says no, which a number of observers seem to believe (but which is doubtful considering the damage it would do to US credibility) then Hollande will find himself definitely alone. A debate took place last Wednesday in parliament, but with no vote, as per the French constitution. Politically, however, it will indeed become increasingly difficult for the president to ignore public opinion.
Other countries in the region will not move against Syria, but Turkey may go on gesticulating without too many people caring about it. And war will take place.
French diplomacy could have made a difference, but it descended into sensationalism. Al Assad’s threats to France, which were expressed in an interview published on September 3 by Le Figaro, were not that necessary for those who know what that regime is capable of. But there is no excuse for those who missed the point, especially at a time when unpleasant surprises may arise soon from the northeastern borders of Mali, and France needs to face the same issues again.
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques) and the FACO Law University of Paris.