France eyes Middle East influence, image with Syria gamble

PARIS Tue Nov 20, 2012 1:25am IST

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during the ''Oversea Day'' of the French Mayors congress in Paris, November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during the ''Oversea Day'' of the French Mayors congress in Paris, November 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande's decision to recognise Syria's new opposition bloc aims to secure long-term French interests in the region and boost his foreign policy image but, with few allies following suit, Paris may risk isolation.

With his economic policies under harsh scrutiny at home and abroad, Hollande's hesitant response to the Syria conflict before last week had been unflatteringly compared to the decisive approach of predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy when he led Western efforts to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Breaking with allies and the Arab League, Hollande took a leaf out of Sarkozy's book last week by recognising the Syrian National Coalition and backing it to replace President Bashar al-Assad's government. He said France would even study arming rebels waging a 20-month-old uprising to topple Assad.

The move, he hopes, will hand Paris a decisive role in shaping Syria's future and give his sagging approval ratings a boost with a show of decisive statesmanship.

"Hollande was accused of not being Sarkozy's equal so he wants to show he is capable of dynamic foreign policy," said Denis Bauchard, who was the foreign ministry's Middle East director in the 1990s.

"We are trying to help put in place a stable democratic government so it shows Arab public opinion that this region remains a priority for us and we want to play a major role."

Previous efforts to unite the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council ultimately failed after widespread accusations that the SNC had little sway within Syria and was dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Paris is concerned that the window to unite the opposition is disappearing and the longer disunity prevails the more likely jihadist and al Qaeda elements, hostile to the West and now among the insurgents fighting Assad, would emerge on top.

"If we miss the opportunity to restructure the Syrian opposition, we can't shed crocodile tears afterwards saying it's descending into chaos," a French diplomatic source said.

"We don't think it's in the interests of Syria, the region, the international community or France to have radical Islamists changing the dynamics in Syria."

The new coalition, led by moderate Sunni Muslim cleric Mouaz Alkhatib, who met Hollande in Paris on Saturday, is more inclusive of minorities from a country of great ethnic and religious diversity. The SNC makes up a third of the new group.

GAMBLE ON THE UNKNOWN

Hollande is running the risk, however, that this new coalition may not win broad international backing in the end and meet the same fate as the SNC, which has gradually unravelled as the main opposition movement despite French support.

Hollande's decision took many by surprise given that the new Syrian National Coalition has yet to prove itself on the ground. Questions remain among France's allies over how representative it really is of the Syrian people and what values it stands for.

Unlike Libya's rebellion against Gaddafi last year, the Syrian coalition still lacks a clear unified military command. There is no consensus at the United Nations Security Council for a military operation to support it, and neither Russia nor China are ready to withdraw support for Assad.

"Hollande has the political ambition to make Syria his own Libya by supporting the new coalition but beyond the rhetoric there hasn't been any real change in the French position," says Ahyam Kamel, Syria analyst at consultancy Eurasia.

"I think it has already backfired. France is really alone on this as its partners do not yet see eye-to-eye on it."

At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers said they deemed the new coalition to be "legitimate representatives" of Syrians but stopped just short of giving the full recognition as France itself has done.

French officials are adamant that the likes of the United States, Britain and the Arab League will soon come around.

But other Western states are uneasy over the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels and accusations by U.N. investigators of war crimes committed by insurgent fighters.

As the former colonial master in Syria, it makes sense for France to be a leader in solving the crisis and its economic ties with Assad's government have been modest in recent years.

By positioning itself now for the long term, Paris hopes to reap the business rewards from Syria's reconstruction.

"There is a long-term benefit if things go well. They can have more leverage on the new government and influence whatever transition takes place," said a Paris-based Arab diplomat.

There is also a threat to Lebanon, where France has its strongest political and economic links in the region and where 1,000 French troops are stationed in a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Since the assassination last month of Lebanon's top security official, Paris is increasingly alarmed by a spillover of violence from Syria. Hollande warned on a visit to Beirut this month that he would oppose those stoking instability in Lebanon.

"It's not only about the worsening situation in Syria but about contagion to countries that are important to us, especially Lebanon," said a French diplomat. "When Hollande went to Beirut that risk was spelt out to him."

(Additional reporting by Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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