French push for Syrian provisional government: premature?

French President François Hollande called yesterday for the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government. But, critics note, that's easier said than done.

Bertrand Langlois/AP
France's President François Hollande, gestures as he speaks to France's ambassadors at the Elysee Palace, Monday. Hollande presented his foreign policy goals to France's ambassadors, with the Syrian crisis and terrorism in Africa's Sahel region on the agenda.

In a somewhat unexpected move, France took the rhetorical lead yesterday in the Syrian conflict by urging Syria's fractious opposition to form a government, which France would then recognize.  But while President François Hollande's call underscores the West's intent to help the Syrian rebels, morning-after analysts here wonder if the French president’s statement isn’t a bit premature.

Mr. Hollande yesterday told an annual late-August meeting of French diplomats at the Elysees Palace that, "France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government – inclusive and representative – that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria.”

"We are including our Arab partners to accelerate this step," he told the gathering. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."

The request could conceivably push the unruly parties in and out of Syria, who have struggled to unify, to put their house in order.

It also gives Hollande, who is under attack in France by pro-Syrian interventionists for not doing more in the raging conflict, some political cover.  Earlier this summer former President Nicolas Sarkozy blasted Hollande for being wishy washy on Syria, and the current French president is also being urged to act by military interventionists on the left like the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy.  And according to a collection of polling data published yesterday by, 51 percent of the French population would support a UN-sanctioned military intervention in Syria.

But while Hollande's statement might soothe domestic critics, it has received a somewhat cooler response abroad.

Samir Aita, a French-Syrian and member of the opposition National Democracy Forum, reached in Cairo, complained that the French had not been working with the main Syrian opposition groups.

“We agree there will be no transitional government until there is consensus [among the opposition]. We are following the Cairo proposal," he said, referring to an agreement reached at last month's meeting of Arab national leaders and Syrian opposition leaders on a roadmap for a post-Assad transition. Hollande's call "is a break with the Americans, and with the will of the Syrian people as expressed in Cairo.”

“[Hollande’s] interventionist critics in France should not forget that ultimately the main decisions lie with the US. And Hollande also should have coordinated his stand with the US, which is not exactly on the same line regarding the recognition of a provisional government,” argues Karim Emile Bitar, senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

“As the US State Department spokeswoman rightly and politely suggested, the Syrian opposition’s first order of business should be put its own house in order, to unite and to alleviate minority fears. They should firstly agree on a coherent and practical plan for the transition and on an inclusive vision for Syria’s future. Only then, they can start naming folks.”

While proponents of French intervention may hope for a redux of similar French efforts during Libya's uprising last year, the US is not on board with the same kind of blanket recognition that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy proffered to the Libyan rebels in the heady days of uprising following the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Unlike the recognition given by France, and later the US, to the Benghazi rebels, the US State Department wants more conditionality, more agreement about the specific rights and place of Syrian minorities – a potential powder keg issue – prior to diplomatic confirmation of legitimacy.

"We would want to ensure that that was based on a solid democratic plan and that it reflected a broad cross-section of those in Syria and reflected the values of inclusion, the values of human rights and protections for all groups,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday about the type of assurances the US would need from a Syrian opposition.

And even if France did recognize a provisional government for Syria, its options for military intervention would be limited. The French can’t conduct an operation in Syria alone; in the Libyan case, while France took the lead, it needed US support. With the US deep in a tightly contested presidential election, France is unlikely to receive similar support from Washington for action in Syria.

Still, public sentiments do appear to be shifting in favor of providing some sort of aid to the Syrian rebels. The new poll digest, developed at the University of Maryland, shows substantial numbers of ordinary Americans, French, and British would support more robust help for the embattled Syrians, like establishing “no-fly zones” or weapons – so long as the help doesn’t involve troops and boots on the ground.

The poll indicated an increasing amount of concern or sympathy for the opponents of Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad.

“While initially majorities of Americans opposed providing arms and supplies to the opposition, views are now divided,” the polling group said in a release yesterday. “In August 2012, CNN/ORC asked whether ‘the U.S. and other countries’ should send ‘weapons and other military supplies to the opposition forces’ and found the U.S. public divided, with 48 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. In earlier months, though, clear majorities were opposed to supplying weapons and materiel.”

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