When historians look back on the European Union’s July 17 move to sanction Syrian scientists and military personnel over alleged use of chemical weapons, it may be remembered as another failed half-measure by the West to pressure Syrian president Bashar al-Assad out of power. That’s because one man, new French president Emmanuel Macron, is potentially changing the game on the Syria question, having thrown Assad a life-preserver last month by declaring he sees “no legitimate successor” to the Alawite strongman.
Indeed, Macron may well be on his way to establishing himself as the globe’s preeminent foreign-policy realist.
“President Macron prides himself on his realism,” Art Goldmacher of Harvard, a longtime observer of contemporary French politics, tells the National Interest. “This is the basis of his approach to the economy, where he says that French industry needs to become more competitive, and to domestic security, where he insists that combating terrorism requires that more powers be granted to the police.”
But “it is also his principle in foreign policy, where he knows that France’s capacity to alter the facts on the ground in Syria is strictly limited. He believes that his predecessors overplayed their rhetoric and ended up forced to acknowledge their inability to follow through. This is a trap he wants to avoid,” Goldmacher says.
Macron’s Syria policy represents “a form of ‘reset’ in favor of realpolitik in the region,” adds Vincent Michelot of Sciences Po Lyon, also speaking to the National Interest.
But Macron isn’t just breaking with his predecessors, and he isn’t heading up just any European country. Should the United Kingdom actually leave the EU, the postwar tradition of Franco-German domination of the continent will likely resume. Already, Macron is arguably setting himself up to either rival or succeed Germany’s Angela Merkel as Europe’s central player. Michelot says that “the French president must be extremely cautious in not projecting the idea that he is taking over the leadership of Europe by pushing Angela Merkel aside.”
But on Syria—under Francois Hollande, who Macron once served as economy minister, France was the most belligerently anti-Assad country in the world, save perhaps Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies (though that’s dubious). Hollande, then-French president, last fall told the UN General Assembly and reporters in New York that the Syrian situation was well on its way to being remembered as a “disgrace” to the international community. Hollande’s government was the only major European country to support potential strikes against Assad in 2013, before Barack Obama withdrew American sponsorship, potentially averting an outright U.S. war in Syria. So any reversal out of Paris is major news.
For one, Macron’s decision cleaves France from the British. A United Kingdom official told me that what the French president does is his own prerogative, but London still sees no place for Assad in Syria’s long-term future. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been emphatic in his criticism of Assad, who is still holding fast to power during Syria’s seventh year of civil war. Johnson brimmed to reporters Monday about the UK’s role in securing the new sanctions.
“Eight people involved in the technical work on chemical weapons have been sanctioned so their movements will be restricted, their assets frozen,” Johnson explained. “You may remember we started this, the UK played a role and has been playing a role in this for months, and people have been sceptical of the EU’s ability to focus on this. I am very glad to see that.”
France agreed, but not out of any manifest desire—at least not from Elysee Palace—to force Assad out. What Macron said in June—“the new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a precondition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor”—simply flies in the face of such a view. He noted that France continues to find Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons unacceptable. But Macron also unequivocally backed working with the Syrian president’s benefactor, the Russians—increasingly, a divisive, politically precarious flashpoint issue in the West—to root out violent extremists in Assad’s obliterated country. “We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them,” Macron said.
France’s move isn’t significant just because it pivots from the reigning orthodoxy of the Hollande years. France is also again on the rise, enhancing the ripple effects of its decisions. Because of Macron, France now leads the world in soft power, resurrecting Paris’s traditional outsized role in global diplomacy and foreign affairs. His towering approval ratings also afford him considerable flexibility—allowing him to host Donald Trump (something explosive domestic politics in Britain has been preventing on the UK side) and to possibly forge a new Franco-American axis. It would be extraordinary, in the post–Cold War era, but one could now imagine a situation where France, a veto member, joined with Russia and China to block a virulently anti-Assad measure at the UN Security Council, putting it on the opposite side of Britain.
The leading wildcard in all this is, of course, Washington under President Trump. In what could be interpreted as nearly guaranteeing Assad a future in Syria, Macron has gone further than anything the America Firster has done as president. Indeed, with a secretary of state who has said the reign of the Assad family is at an end, a UN ambassador who has said the United States doesn’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad at the helm, and a military that has already struck Syria once, Assad would appear, on the surface, out of luck with the United States. But Trump obviously takes intentional uncertainty in the White House to new levels. Only a year ago, he was the Republican candidate noting that it would be great to get along with Russia, and although Assad was, in Trump’s view, a bad guy, he was quite skilled at killing terrorists. Josh Green, the preeminent chronicler of Stephen K. Bannon, noted earlier this month in New York Magazine that the nationalist-populist White House chief strategist—who opposed the April 7 strikes on Assad—is again on the rise in the West Wing after a brutal fall from his boss’s good graces in the spring. And in Rex Tillerson, Trump seems to have a top diplomat who was bullied by political pressure into more bellicose statements on Assad, if previously more equivocal language is any indication.
In 2017, nothing can be ruled out. Might Macron now try to outmaneuver London, lobby Washington, and take a leading role in finally putting an end to the world’s most savage conflict? His Jupiterian ambition certainly fits that bill. It would be a remarkable policy turnaround for Macron, once called a “Blairite for the current season” by Scott McConnell of the American Conservative—a comparison to the former British prime minister with significant neoconservative ties. During the presidential campaign earlier this spring, Macron met with Syrian opposition members. But McConnell notes Macron has surprised, and is also in line with some historical French tendencies: “French policy in the Third World is often more realist than America’s; better informed,” he tells me, also bestowing the realist moniker on the new French president.
Or will Macron be much more cautious? Michelot argues that Macron’s Assad statement is “typical ‘Macron speak’” that leaves him significant “wiggle room” to oscillate. He emphasizes that Macron is prone to grey language, especially when breaking treacherous new ground; “on the one hand . . . , on the other hand . . . ,” the Sciences Po Lyon professor gently mocked. How will Macron’s statement on Sunday on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—that the two are one in the same—play into all this? Leading figures in the Israeli government and civil society have been increasingly hostile to Assad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Paris on Sunday that he even opposed the recent ceasefire in the country brokered by the United States and Russia, complaining that it empowered Iran. But Michelot noted that the Libyan fiasco, where France to its discredit played a leading role earlier this decade, is clearly weighing heavily on Macron: “there is the fear of a Lybian-like power vacuum if indeed Assad were to step down or be removed.” McConnell: “the Libyan intervention was of course a disaster.”
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.