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Engaging Syria? Lessons from the French Experience
Engaging Syria? Lessons from the French Experience
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria
Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria

Engaging Syria? Lessons from the French Experience

How is one to engage Damascus? As the incoming U.S. administration examines the future of its relationship with Syria, seemingly persuaded that an improvement in bilateral ties and an Israeli-Syrian agreement could fundamentally modify the regional landscape, France’s recent experience offers useful lessons.

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I. Overview

How is one to engage Damascus? As the incoming U.S. administration examines the future of its relationship with Syria, seemingly persuaded that an improvement in bilateral ties and an Israeli-Syrian agreement could fundamentally modify the regional landscape, France’s recent experience offers useful lessons. Determined to engage in dialogue – but also ready to break off if the other side was uncooperative – and creative in approach, while fixing it within a clearly defined framework of objectives, President Sarkozy also knew how to seize on unexpected opportunities when they presented themselves.

The restoration of ties between Paris and Damascus, coming after a bitter break and heightened tensions that developed in consequence of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, came haltingly and with difficulty. It began with the election in 2007 of an unusual French president, hyperactive, believing in dialogue, eager to set himself apart from his predecessor and more pragmatic than ideological. From the outset, his approach reflected improvisation, risk-taking, flexibility and constant readjustments rather than a pre-established plan. But it never deviated from its primary goal, a consensual Lebanese president as was achieved with Michel Suleiman’s May 2008 election.

Periods of intensive contact, including directly with his counterpart, President Bashar Assad, were followed by periods of estrangement. The experiment is ongoing, its full outcome still uncertain, as France looks for further advances with regard to Gaza, the Israeli-Arab conflict, Lebanese sovereignty, counter-terrorism and the Iranian nuclear issue. It will become convincing, and therefore relevant in American eyes, only if it clearly demonstrates Syria’s capacity to act as a credible partner to promote regional stability.

Much depends on the coming weeks and months. Paris and Damascus have the opportunity to highlight the benefits of an engagement policy by working on at least three issues. In Lebanon, the goal should be to minimise the threat of renewed confrontation by meaningfully addressing the current governing majority’s most legitimate demands: demarcating Syrian-Lebanese borders; amending bilateral agreements signed when Syria thoroughly dominated its neighbour; and accepting credible international mediation on the issue of Lebanese citizens who disappeared in Syrian jails.

In Iraq, France could take advantage of Syria’s network of relations to reach out to a larger segment of the Sunni Arab community. In so doing, it might set the stage for a U.S. effort to engage more broadly with members of that community who remain outside the political process and are not part of the “awakening” councils. French mediation in this area potentially could produce genuine cooperation between the U.S. and Syria, going beyond Washington’s illusory quest for Damascus to hermetically seal its border with Iraq.

Finally, Paris might test Damascus’s willingness to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing Gaza conflict offers an opportunity in which France could ask Syria to influence Hamas and ensure that, once there is a workable ceasefire, it either accepts an equitable deal with Fatah or endorses the Arab Peace Initiative if that would remove the last obstacle to establishing a Palestinian unity government. To those ends, of course, France will need to take the lead in forging a European approach that is complementary rather than subordinate to the U.S. and that pragmatically assesses when and how to conduct a dialogue with the Islamist movement.

However, President-elect Obama’s team can already garner important lessons from France’s always energetic, often impulsive and at times contradictory approach:

  • To begin, in the wake of a long hiatus in bilateral relations – a feature of President Chirac’s and President Bush’s tenures – both sides likely will require a significant period of mutual observation and trust-building. Quick results, in other words, ought not to be anticipated. Next, any successful relationship must be based on clear and steady objectives rather than an endless list of demands.
     
  • Patience during negotiations is as important as swiftness when opportunity strikes. Haste, when Sarkozy displayed overenthusiasm, at best was futile, at worst encouraged Damascus to harden its position and play for time. But by immediately welcoming and rewarding Syria’s first positive gestures, France bolstered its credibility while nudging Damascus to move. There should be no hesitation to halt dialogue if events warrant, while maintaining informal communication to allow quick reaction at the appropriate moment. For Washington’s new team, this entails immediately acknowledging and reciprocating positive steps and penalising negative ones.
     
  • Finally, there are lessons for those in the U.S. who bank on a Syrian-Iranian split. This will not occur, at least under current circumstances. However, the willingness to normalise relations with France suggests the regime wishes to diversify its strategic alliances. Washington should promote such a trend, which inevitably would dilute Iran’s importance in Syria’s eyes and facilitate a gradual reconfiguration of its regional alliances.

Even with the best of intentions, U.S.-Syria relations will be difficult. Beyond looming crises – whether over the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into Syria’s nuclear program or the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination – the two governments must come to terms with the legacy of an unhealthy relationship, full of distrust and misunderstanding, that deteriorated in the Bush years but did not originate then. The new president’s advisers could do far worse than reflect on the trials and errors of the current Franco-Syrian rapprochement.

Damascus/Brussels, 15 January 2009

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on 9 October 2019. AFP/Delil Souleiman

Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria

Turkey’s incursion into north-eastern Syria threatens to reduce a region of relative calm to hotly contested terrain: it could meet determined resistance, cause mass displacement and revive ISIS. Washington should urgently press Ankara to stop the offensive before it advances much further.

A surprise announcement from President Donald Trump has once again plunged U.S. Syria policy into chaos and confusion, paving the way for the Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria that Ankara had long threatened and put in motion on 9 October. Even a limited Turkish intervention risks triggering a costly cycle of escalation between the Turkish army and the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), Washington’s Kurdish partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Should hostilities intensify, a broader Turkish advance into densely populated areas could entail significant civilian casualties, displace many of the region’s inhabitants, fuel local insurgency against Turkish forces, and draw the Syrian regime and allied forces, even including Russia, into the fray. In any scenario, opportunities for ISIS to revive and spread its influence will multiply in proportion to the increase in violence and disorder.

The crisis began on 6 October, when President Trump decided, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that the U.S. would not stand in the way of a Turkish offensive that Erdoğan had announced days earlier (he had made similar announcements numerous times in the past but always received U.S. signals to stand down). Turkish troops had already started moving into position near the Syrian border, primed to cross upon getting the green light from Ankara – and Washington. In a subsequent statement, the White House announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from “immediate” areas, apparently meaning the parts of Syria that the administration expected Turkey to invade. The statement added that Turkey would assume responsibility for ISIS fighters captured in Syria’s north east over the past two years.

The White House’s dramatic shift shocked the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but also roused an intense bipartisan outcry in Congress and elsewhere in the U.S. political establishment. Amid the growing backlash, Trump threatened in subsequent tweets to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara were to do anything he considered “off-limits” in Syria. He called the Turkish offensive “a bad idea” but also stated that he would hold Turkey to its commitment to protect civilians and religious minorities, implicitly acceding to the Turkish action. Meanwhile, senior Trump administration officials clarified that the U.S. did not condone a Turkish offensive, had removed only some 50 troops from two positions near the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (where the Turkish incursion was anticipated to begin), and was undertaking no broader troop withdrawal at this stage. The scope of Turkey’s incursion into the north east therefore remains unclear for now, as does the extent of the U.S. withdrawal. Turkey, however, has told Western officials that it plans to capture the full 30km-deep “safe zone”, along the length of its Syrian border, that it has demanded in talks over the past year. On 9 October, Turkey began bombarding positions along the border with artillery and from the air, and the ministry of defence announced that a ground incursion had begun.

A substantial Turkish incursion could meet with spirited SDF resistance and prompt new waves of refugees to flee to neighbouring Iraq and even into Turkey.

A substantial Turkish incursion could meet with spirited SDF resistance and prompt new waves of refugees to flee to neighbouring Iraq and even into Turkey. Erdoğan’s declared intention to resettle as many as three million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey in the “safe zone” he is seeking, which would effect a fundamental demographic change in the area, can only stiffen local rejection of, and struggle against, the presence of Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters.

A range of Trump administration officials and U.S. military officers fear the consequences of unconditional U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria amid a unilateral Turkish military incursion, no matter its scope. While the specifics of their concerns vary, a common denominator is clear: were the U.S. to abruptly remove a significant part of the deterrent umbrella, military capacity and stabilisation programming that it provides, with fellow members of the International Coalition to Counter ISIS likely to follow suit, north-eastern Syria could sink into a violent multi-party scuffle over territory and resources, widening the openings for an ISIS resurgence.

Already, the security situation is unravelling in areas captured from ISIS in early 2019, to the east and south of Deir al-Zour in the Euphrates River valley, and swathes of eastern Syria are becoming hubs of renewed jihadist insurgency. The SDF’s willingness and ability to keep up counter-insurgency operations in these areas almost certainly are contingent on continued U.S. support, given threats from Turkey and the Syrian regime.

It is also unclear how Turkey would take responsibility for tens of thousands of imprisoned ISIS fighters and families, who are held not by the U.S., as Trump suggested, but by the SDF. The largest camp, which holds some 70,000 family members of fighters, is located in al-Hol, some 80km from the border. Whether an SDF fighting for its survival would be willing or able to perform this task going forward must be in doubt. But it is hard to see how Turkey could take on the role, given how far south of the Syrian border the camp is.

Turkey’s determination to shift the status quo in north-eastern Syria is rooted in strategic and national security concerns.

Turkey’s determination to shift the status quo in north-eastern Syria is rooted in strategic and national security concerns that, rightly or wrongly, it feels Washington has done little to address. Turkey has complained for years that the U.S. chose the YPG and then the YPG-led SDF as its main partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which since 1984 has waged insurgency in south east Turkey. Over 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state, and Turkey, the U.S. and the EU have designated the PKK a terrorist organisation. The YPG, which has organic links with the PKK in outlook and membership, denies that it maintains operational links to the PKK and states that it has stayed neutral in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish state. For their part, U.S. officials involved in the initial decision to back the YPG say it came only after repeated, and unsuccessful, attempts to partner with Turkey and its preferred Syrian factions against ISIS.

To appease Ankara, the U.S. and Turkey agreed in August 2019 to establish a joint security mechanism in north-eastern Syria. In the following weeks, the YPG pulled its forces out of defined border areas and dismantled its fortifications in the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. U.S. forces escorted the Turkish military on joint patrols and both militaries conducted overflights in Syria to monitor the agreement’s implementation. Turkish officials claim, however, that these steps fell short of Turkey’s objective to see the area cleared of the YPG and become a “safe zone” that would allow the repatriation of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. Again, they warned of unilateral Turkish action.

A Turkish invasion of northern Syria can only lead to a new war and a new humanitarian crisis.

A Turkish invasion of northern Syria can only lead to a new war and a new humanitarian crisis. In the best-case scenario, the U.S. would now deploy efforts to de-escalate tensions between Turkey and the YPG. Reaching a sustainable military arrangement acceptable to both Turkey and the YPG was difficult even before the latest Turkish attack, as their respective central demands appeared irreconcilable. Ankara was looking to end YPG hegemony over north-eastern Syria, and demanding that Turkish forces or their proxies wield ultimate authority, much as Turkey has done in Aleppo province’s “Euphrates Shield” area and Afrin district in the recent past. For its part, the YPG, which has indicated that it would be prepared to pull out of certain border areas, hinged this concession on the deployment of an international force that could deter a larger Turkish advance, thereby preserving its own control of the north east.

As Turkey proceeds with its assault, a compromise along the lines previously pursued by the U.S. seems increasingly out of reach; whether some additional steps to reassure Ankara would persuade it to limit the scope of its operation is unclear.

The bottom line is that the U.S. should urgently press Turkey to stop its incursion from advancing deeper into the north east. Should that fail, there would only be one avenue the YPG could pursue: a deal with the regime in Damascus, despite the fact that earlier attempts have failed. Such a deal would be hard to reach given the gap between the two sides’ core interests, not to mention that the regime’s record of breaking agreements reached with other opposition groups hardly inspires confidence. But the YPG has few viable alternatives, and might see an interest in this path if Russia proves willing to mediate among them, Ankara and Damascus, with an outcome that could allow for a YPG withdrawal and the return of regime forces to the country’s Turkish border, perhaps alongside Russian military police.

In the past, the U.S. sought to discourage the YPG from going down this road. As long as Washington maintains a residual force in Syria, it likely will continue to strongly oppose any YPG move to reach an agreement with the regime, and in particular to hand back the oil fields currently under its control to Damascus and its Iranian backers. U.S. officials have alluded publicly and privately to the importance of maintaining pressure on the regime by depriving it of the country’s main natural resources: its oil and its wheat, the majority of which are located in the north east. But while in the past the YPG, banking on U.S. protection and support, took that advice to heart, there is little to stop it from relaunching these efforts (albeit from a weaker position) now that Washington’s unreliability has been made clear. Already, the YPG, the regime, Russia and Iran all have made noises to that effect.

The immediate priority for the U.S. should be to declare and reiterate its opposition to a further and deeper Turkish invasion.

Regardless of any longer-term arrangement, the immediate priority for the U.S. should be to declare and reiterate its opposition to a further and deeper Turkish invasion. Military escalation along the lengthy Turkish-Syrian border has already created new waves of displaced persons fleeing the fighting and diverted YPG forces from the Euphrates River valley, where they have been combating ISIS remnants, and from SDF-held detention camps where they hold ISIS fighters and families. If this pattern continues, ISIS seems likely to coalesce and escalate its attacks, not just in unstable regions such as Deir al-Zour, but also in heretofore mostly stable areas such as Raqqa city, where ISIS carried out an attack just before the Turkish offensive got under way.

Turkey should see the costs of a wider assault. When it launched its offensive on 9 October, its shelling struck not only targets in the area of its initial ground incursion (between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn) but also in major population centres along the border east of the Euphrates, such as Qamishli. This is alarming; if Turkey attempts to seize such a broad swathe of territory, it could cause a high civilian casualty toll and mass displacement. It would likely also incur even stronger international condemnation than it has received already. Ankara should therefore limit its military objectives, lest its operation backfire, worsening its already tense relations with Washington, pushing the YPG back to guerrilla tactics and fuelling the PKK insurgency in Turkey.

Failure to move decisively now to avert a broader offensive could quickly undo the victory over ISIS and reduce a region that appeared to have turned the corner on conflict into violently contested terrain once again.