It’s like old times to hear French president François Hollande and his ministers talking about plans for Syria. “Partant pour la Syrie” is the title of the very jolly song French soldiers used to sing on their way to the conquest of that vital bit of the Mediterranean. They still teach French in Syrian schools, and serve baguettes, all of which perpetuates imperial dreams in the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay. Long ago, the British put an end to those dreams, and it’s either brave or foolhardy to be proposing a coalition with President Obama. “France is ready,” declares Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault at the top of his voice, only to add quietly “It’s not for France to act alone.” Whatever may lie in store, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech ignoring confused and absent Britain but praising and promoting France as America’s oldest ally. This reminder of the marquis de Lafayette does a little leveling of historic resentment.
The French never quite managed to stabilize mandatory Syria under their rule between the world wars — any more than Britain was able to do in adjoining mandatory Palestine. They protected the Christian denominations, and carried out an experiment of dividing the country up as nearly as possible into more or less autonomous statelets for the majority Sunnis and the Kurd, Druze, and Alawite minorities. Independence from France was bound to entail a free-for-all between these sects and ethnicities whose identities are far too strong ever to combine into a nation-state. The competition to find out which leader of which sect and ethnicity had the brute power to dominate all the others was won by the Assads, first father Hafez and then son Bashar, on behalf of the Alawites.
Led by the Muslim Brothers, in 1982 the Sunni majority rebelled against Hafez Assad. With mercilessness unusual on any human standard, he set an example by massacring 20,000, and perhaps twice as many, in Hama where the rebellion had begun. Cement was poured over mass graves in the city center. Instead of condemning the massacre, François Mitterand, then president of France and a cynic hors concours, took the opportunity to make friendly approaches towards the Assad regime. His successors in the Elysée followed this lead. Few if any politicians exceeded Jacques Chirac in subservience to Arab one-man rulers, whether Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, or Hafez Assad. He was the one and only Western president to attend the funeral of Hafez Assad and was seen to weep over the death of Arafat.
Contacts and bilateral visits were initiated between Chirac and Bashar Assad. Ideas were floated of some Mediterranean political or cultural entity involving Arabs and Europeans in purposes not too closely defined. Nobody quite knows what was the relationship between Chirac and Rafiq Hariri, the multi-millionaire who became prime minister of Lebanon. Rumur centers around hordes of cash in plastic bags. In the early 2000’s, Syrian forces were occupying Lebanon, and car bombs were blowing up a range of prominent Lebanese seeking to regain independence. Hariri was killed in just such a bombing and his murder is rather reliably attributed to one of Bashar’s hit squads. French appeasement of Syria went into abeyance for a couple of years until President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to restore it. To be fair, British Foreign Secretaries, and John Kerry for that matter, are also on record paying compliments to Bashar which are every bit as embarrassing and shameful.
In the sum total of current Syrian atrocities, the murder a few weeks ago by Islamists of Father François Murad may get overlooked. A Syrian Franciscan, he was shot dead in his monastery in a Christian village in Syria. In its way, though, his death may stand for the closure of any French mission in that country. In the French presidential system, a president is not required by law to consult the Assemblée Nationale in order to declare war. What with their wish to have cover for their decisions, President Obama and David Cameron between them have left Hollande to dangle in the wind. He’s on his own. It’s all very well to promise to punish Bashar for his criminal use of chemical weapons, but the means to project the requisite power aren’t available. A poll shows that two thirds of the respondents are against intervention. Parliament has scheduled a debate. The opposition is mustering. And in an interview with the Figaro, Bashar Assad speaks like the thug he is: “The Middle East is a powder keg and the fire is approaching.” The likeliest outcome of the civil war is the break-up of Syria into sectarian and ethnic communities. What a contribution it would be if the French imperial experiment were proved to have been workable after all.