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In a recent meeting with foreign journalists, French President Emmanuel Macron offered his vision for a negotiated settlement that would bring Syria's brutal six-year civil war to an end and one that would not begin with the immediate removal of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Macron said that without a clear cut successor to Assad, France's main priority in Syria would be to continue its fight against the Islamic State, through "cooperation with all of the countries - including Russia - involved in the war against terrorism." Macros also said it was in France's interest to help preserve the territorial integrity Syria's internationally recognized borders.
Echoing other world leaders, Macron was quick to note that a purely military solution would not end Syria's suffering and that the international community must create the framework for a diplomatic and political solution. According to Macron, France will not hesitate to use military force if Assad continues to launch chemical weapons attacks and ignore humanitarian efforts to create safe corridors for Syria's civilian population.
Reaction to Macron's position was mixed, with a representative of the opposition Syrian National Coalition calling Macron's statements "a disgrace".
According to a recent Reuters report, Macron's comments drew sharp criticism from the political establishment and human rights supporters in France for being too closely aligned with the position advocated by Moscow since the civil war broke out.
The Kremlin has long argued no alternative to Russia's close ally, Assad, currently exists in Syria. Moscow has long pushed for the international community to look past Assad's countless human rights abuses and war crimes - including the alleged use of chemical weapons against his own population - because the current Ba'athist regime represents a degree of predictable stability that cannot be counted on if the opposition were to come to power.
Macron’s remains committed to campaign position
During the presidential campaign, Macron repeatedly stated that France would pursue an independent foreign policy that would serve Paris' best interests while also taking into considering deep cooperate with all of the conflict's major outside players. France, which has long held an influential position in the Arab Levant, has attempted to take a leading role as both mediator and peacekeeper in the Syrian conflict.
Macron is attempting to use the Syrian Civil War as a proving ground for his new foreign policy initiatives, which sharply differ from those advocated by Washington and Moscow.
The Americans under Donald Trump have shifted their focus from regime change to supporting Kurdish rebels and combatting the Islamic State. By stepping away from calling for the immediate removal of Assad's government, Washington has most recently adopted a line that closely aligns with that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has pushed to keep Assad in place ever since Moscow sent a powerful expeditionary force into Syria in September 2015 as a means to help prop up Assad's regime with the help of close allies, Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon's radical Shia's group, Hezbollah.
In what may be an admission that his predecessor Francois Hollande's approach to the Syrian conflict was a failure, Macron has opted to adopt a position that draws from both the US and Russian strategies.
Macron has hinted that Assad would stay in power for the interim until a list of potential successors appear that would be suitable to both the Assad-led Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party - in power since a March 1963 Soviet-backed military coup - and the numerous opposition groups. Macron's strategy calls on all parties to concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS before national democratic elections can be held.
France has on several occasions demanded that Russia order an immediate halt to its military campaign against the anti-government opposition and convince Assad to step down. Both Hollande and Macron have consistently reiterated their commitment to the US-led coalition against ISIS and Assad.
Since entering the Elysee Palace in May, Macron has signalled that he intends to play a major role as an arbitrator of the Syrian conflict by striking a balance between France's position and those of Washington and Moscow. In doing so he would be borrowing elements of a major foreign policy course formulated by former President Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s-1960s.
De Gaulle, a deeply committed French nationalist and former general of the World War II-era Free French Forces was equally suspicious of Anglo-American and Soviet intentions during the Cold War, particularly at a time when France's global standing was rapidly in decline following the French Armed Forces' humiliating defeats in Indochina and Algeria, as well as the loss of key colonial possession Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon.
The tempramental and often publicly demonstrative de Gaulle took great lengths to develop a balanced but often fraught relationship with his NATO allies and the Soviet Union, in an attempt to act as an independent player.
Macron publicly criticized NATO's handling of a French-led military operation in Libya that ousted former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, but later led to the start of the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War.
French interests in Syria
Since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria, France has made it clear that it intends to defend its own interests in the country. Macron wants to speed up the peace process in an effort to relieve the economic strain on France and the rest of the European Union due to the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war and ISIS.
Like many of his European counterparts, Macron will have to find a way to deal with the growing number of French nationals who have left for Syria to join various militant groups, including the Islamic State.
Though Syria is not, itself, an energy producer, the strategically located country manufactures and refines both oil and gas that is then shipped or piped to Europe. France has a vested interest in protecting its energy assets in Syria. Until the outbreak of the civil war, France bought huge quantities of oil and gas produced and refined in Syria.
French energy giant Total would welcome a peace settlement that would allow it to continue developing joint projects with Syrian oil and gas companies. France, which depends on the import of natural gas, is also interested in the implementation of a Qatari gas pipeline project to deliver natural gas from the South Pars Deposit in Iran to Syria's refineries and eastern Mediterranean ports.
The French government has long worried that the removal of Assad will create a power vacuum that would lead to a new round of violence, similar to the current situation in Libya.
Macron and his new government will likely to push for a successor to Assad that will continue in the same vein as a tough, secular leader. The main question for the next Syrian government, whoever leads it, will be whether they remain firmly in Moscow's camp or will they move away from Russia and Iran's close military and political support.