Why is France so interested in Syria? According to the Guardian, France’s policy in Syria has been “more forward than any other Western country”:
“[France] was early in calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, still insists he must go, and recently joined airstrikes inside Syria against the Islamic State.”
France joined the United States in bombing Syrian territory (without a U.N. mandate) even before the United Kingdom did. In 2013, France stood by Obama’s side despite the fact the United Kingdom’s parliament voted not to join Obama’s efforts to “punish” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for crossing Obama’s imaginary red line. France has also been a staunch backer of rebels fighting to overthrow Assad since the conflict began.
Not many people know this, but Syria was a former French colony prior to World War II. Both Syria and Lebanon were promised to France under a secret agreement reached with Great Britain following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. However, even in recent times, France was not overtly anti-Syrian. When Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, France bore no real ill will towards him. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy openly praised Assad for defending the rights of Syrian Christians.
It is a bold statement to blame France for the current situation in Syria. However, as discussed by Dr. Ayse Tekdal Fildis in an academic paper entitled “The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by French Divide and Rule”:
“Great Britain and France transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and internationally explosive states in the world.”
As part of the Ottoman Empire, Syria did not exist as an entity and was more commonly referred to as “Greater Syria,” “Geographical Syria,” or “Natural Syria,” which was actually comprised of Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, and modern day Syria.
Colonially speaking, France was never welcome in Syria. As noted by Randall Baker, an “international expert on historical perspectives in the analysis of contemporary environmental policy and problems,” Syria directly told France they were not welcome to interfere in Syria as early as June of 1919. However, France went ahead and took Syria by cunning force following the San Remo Conference that year, allowing Amir Faysal Ibn Husayni to remain king of Syria only if the country remained under French control and influence. In practice, this gave Syria some leeway — until an interventionist in the form of Alexandre Millerand took office in France. Unsurprisingly, after Syria’s Congress declared Faysal king of the “United Syria Kingdom,” which was to be an unconditionally independent state, France declared this declaration to be null and void.
Instead, Millerand imposed five unconditional demands on Syria: (1) the unconditional acceptance of the French mandate; (2) the acceptance of French-Syrian paper money based on the Franc (sound familiar?); (3)the abolition of conscription and reduction of the army (sound familiar?); (4) French military occupation of the railway and stations from Riyaq to Aleppo; and (5) punishment of persons implicated in hostile acts against the French.
Despite the fact that Faysal accepted the ultimatum in principle, France decided it was time for him to leave. On July 26, 1920, the French government intervened outright and occupied Damascus, overthrowing Faysal and his nationalist government. With this complete takeover of the Syrian region, France also gifted itself the ability to veto any Syrian legislation, making “a charade out of Syrian political life.”
Not surprisingly, there was great resistance to colonial rule from the officers of the Arab army (sound familiar?).
In order to fully take control of Syria, France relied on a divide and rule strategy to undermine Arab nationalism. This strategy involved dividing Syria into segments to block any chance at an overriding sense of nationalism. However, interfering in Lebanon at the same time, a country that also did not exist as an entity under the Ottoman Empire, also played to France’s strengths in disallowing any sense of unity in the region. As Dr. Fildis notes:
“The Maronites saw Lebanon as their own Christian homeland; Sunni Muslims, however, demanded unity with Syria and looked towards the wider Arab world for their source of identity. Therefore, there was no common identity in Greater Lebanon at its birth and no instinct to become a nation; it was just a Christian-dominated French power based in the Middle East.” [emphasis added]
The chief architect of French policy in Syria prior to and during World War I, Robert de Caix, opposed the creation of a unified Syrian state as it would supposedly “have an Arab and Muslim orientation, would be hostile to France and would project a dangerous influence on French North Africa.” It should be noted that dividing and partitioning the resistant Arab states into smaller, weaker states that would pose no threat to American allies in the region is deemed to be one of the core reasons the West is continuously backing wars in the Middle East to this day.
In the context of this divide and rule policy, it should be no surprise that Syria is currently ruled by an Alawite regime — a minority in Syria — which continues to be a problematic issue. As Dr. Fildis explains:
“Some of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, Armenians, Jews and various Christian sects, were widely dispersed and did not have a geographical base to give rise to political unity, whereas the Alawites and Druze were compact regional minorities with considerable political unity.” [emphasis added]
In essence, one of these groups was always going to have to take charge to the detriment of the other political and religious identities, and unity would always be an issue. As Dr. Fildis explains, the French are directly responsible for this calamity:
“Their autonomy mainly had been fostered by the French in an attempt to break Syrian unity. By the end of the mandate, Alawite and Druze areas were incorporated into the larger Syrian state by the French. Nonetheless, minority consciousness, reinforced by a combination of geography, religious differences, communal segregation and regional separatism, had a damaging impact on Syrian political life even long after the mandate.”
However, due to this distaste for France’s actions, the European power’s stranglehold over Syria was short-lived. France’s attempts to destroy Syrian nationalism and prevent any sense of unity in the country ultimately backfired. In that context, it is clear that France had no interest in creating a democratic state for the Syrian people given Syria’s self-governance was putting them on the road to democracy.
As explained in an article published by the Globalist, adapted from an essay by Ian Buruma entitled, “Year Zero, A History of 1945,” France was still fighting for control of Syria as World War II was ending and the formation of the United Nations was well underway, bombing Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. The British immediately helped Syria oust French forces, and Damascus celebrated the French withdrawal. According to the Globalist, General Charles de Gaulle stated in response to Britain’s interference:
“We are not in a position to open hostilities against you at the present time. But you have insulted France and betrayed the West. This cannot be forgotten.”
So how can Syria’s current political upheaval be directly attributed to the French? Well, as noted by award-winning writer, Dr. Halla Diyab:
“The era of the French mandate created a bad and destructive political habit that Syria picked up through time to internalize and feed for decades to come: political radicalization ‘the legacy of which was almost a guarantee of Syria’s political instability.’ Political upheaval and instability [were] dominant political feature[s] of Syria until [the] Assads came to power.”
Is France looking to reclaim what they believe should have been theirs following the fall of the Ottoman Empire? Or are we really to believe that France is motivated by human rights concerns and a keen interest in counter-terrorism?
France’s commitment to counter-terrorism should be questioned outright. As the Atlantic observed, France retaliated against the infamous 2015 terror attacks in Paris by ramping up its military operations in Syria, despite the fact that the attacks could have been in response to a number of French military operations across the globe. The Atlantic states:
“It’s worth noting that the ISIS statement translated by SITE makes no explicit mention of Syria. The French military has been heavily involved in operations against Islamist militant groups outside of the Middle East over the last few years, including one group that has pledged fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph. France has deployed 3,000 troops to West Africa—a region where they’ve historically had great influence, as a colonial power and otherwise—with a presence in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ivory Coast. The fight in Mali has centered on al-Qaeda affiliated militants, but in Nigeria and surrounding countries, France has been the Western nation most invested in fighting against Boko Haram, the brutal Nigerian Islamist organization. Earlier this year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.” [emphasis added]
The Washington Post has therefore attributed France’s keen interest in influencing events in Syria as rooted in three key factors. First, the writers argue, France is attempting to reinforce itself as a great power. Second, France is offering an alternative foreign policy to that of the option of the United States military (though what this entails in practice is not clear). And lastly, France can enhance and strengthen ties with the anti-Assad Sunni nations in the Middle East, who also share “France’s deep distrust of Iran” (Syria’s closest ally).
Clearly, France has renewed its aggressively colonial stance in recent times. The importance of the global energy markets, as evidenced by France’s ulterior rationale to take out Gaddafi in Libya, cannot be understated. Syria presents a threat to French interests as an Iranian-dominated bridge between Russia and Europe would cut France out of this energy-rich area completely, something which was previously theirs prior to the end of World War II. By overthrowing Assad and creating a puppet government of France’s own (currently known as the Syrian National Council), France would be able to alleviate the economic threat an Iranian alliance poses to the anti-Assad interests in the region and assert itself as a colonial power in the heart of the Middle East, taking back what was once theirs.
As noted by anti-war Youtube channel Stormcloudsgathering:
“The West is in a state of decline. Their influence is waning. If the U.S. and their allies fail to remove Assad from power, what they will be faced with is more than just a strong Shia crescent [a reference to the Iranian dominated bridge of Iran-Iraq-Lebanon-Syria]. If they fail, they risk being edged out of the entire region and replaced by Russia. This would give Russia an enormous amount of leverage in global energy markets, and this of course has serious implications for the petrodollar.”