Sarkozy ignites furor with push for foreign intervention in Syria

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded air strikes in Libya, wants 'rapid' foreign intervention in Syria. Critics say the two conflicts are not remotely comparable.

By , Staff writer

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    This file photo shows Nicolas Sarkozy, France's then-President and conservative candidate for re-election in 2012, as he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Sables d'Ollonne, western France.
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded air strikes in Libya that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi, is calling for “rapid” foreign intervention in Syria to “avoid a massacre” – breaking a public silence since his political defeat in May, and pushing President François Hollande to take a more active hand as Syrian fighter jets strafe neighborhoods in Aleppo.

But reaction in France has been hot and roundly critical, with senior officials saying the two crisis points are very different, and that Mr. Sarkozy is being impulsive.

Sarkozy sent French fighter jets to relieve the besieged city of Benghazi in the spring of 2011 to avoid a looming massacre of rebels who wanted Mr. Qaddafi out. A joint statement issued after Sarkozy spoke with members of the opposition Syrian National Council yesterday said, "They agreed that there are great similarities with the Libyan crisis.”

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Members of Sarkozy’s party, meanwhile, called for Mr. Hollande to “immediately” end his vacation and get further involved.

Yet current and former French foreign ministers today challenged the idea that Libya, which is not surrounded by other diverse and unpredictable states, and whose UN intervention was supported by Arab nations – is comparable to Syria.

“I am surprised that Mr. Sarkozy wants to stir up controversy on such a serious subject,” said foreign minister Laurent Fabius in the French press today.  “One would expect something different from a former president. The situation in Syria is obviously very different from that of Libya.”

How to help?

The issue goes to the heart of a wrenching debate over how to help Syria, even as the Kofi Annan peace plan has been put aside and high-level defections from Bashir al-Assad’s regime continue. Russia and China have continued to oppose Western answers to the crisis in the UN Security Council.

"In the Libyan case, there was a cry to help insurgents in Benghazi,” posits Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister. “This was supported by the Cooperation Council for the Arab Gulf States, and supported by the Arab League.”  There was a “demand for action, meaning that … Russia and China in the Security Council were on the spot and did not dare to veto."

Calls to 'overturn wariness'

Yet Sarkozy, as in his Libya venture, can count on influential intellectuals here like Bernard-Henri Lévy, long a proponent of humanitarian intervention, and a leader in the French effort on Libya.

"We need [British Prime Minister David] Cameron and Hollande to overturn this wariness and cowardice and prevent an impending massacre.” Mr. Lévy told Reuters today. “What is looming in Aleppo will be a disgrace which, if we do nothing, will be on our consciences for a long time.”

Today as well, former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind called for arming Syrian rebels, though did not support foreign intervention. Mr. Rifkind said his own support of a UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was mistaken, since it ended up helping Serbs (who had access to Yugoslav Army weapons) and harmed the Bosnian Muslims (who did not).

Samir Aita, a member of a Syrian opposition group that backs a secular future in that state, told the Monitor that “Libya had 100,000 dead and Syria could have hundreds of thousands more. Sarkozy in France will do for Syria what George W. Bush in America did for Iraq. The French must propose a solution, and while Hollande is preoccupied by the financial crisis in Europe, it needs to be workable.

“We need a cease-fire, not more weapons, since what we now see is a breakup into sectarian strife,” said Mr. Aita, who is also senior editor of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Questions about Sarkozy’s political motives are never far from the surface of policy discussions here. Some commentators note that prior to may elections, Sarkozy vowed that if defeated, he would disappear from public life and the French would never hear from him again.

“It seems that Sarkozy is still somewhat sour after his defeat at the presidential elections, and is using the highly emotional Syria issue to take a cheap shot at Hollande and undermine French diplomacy,” says Karim Emile Bitar of the Institute for Strategic and International Relations in Paris. “But the French have not forgotten Sarkozy’s long honeymoon with Assad and they know the enormous differences between Libya and Syria. Syria’s geostrategic positioning and its sectarian heterogeneity render foreign intervention extremely risky, not to mention the absence of a UN Security Council consensus."

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