French envoy: Russia is key player in Syria crisis

Russia supplies Syria with arms and protects it from military intervention by UN forces. But the French ambassador to US, François Delattre, says Russia may be more flexible than it seems. 

Shaam News Network/REUTERS
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Dael, near Deraa, June 15. The poster (bottom) reads: "Iran, Russia are partners with the regime, in the killing of the Syrian people."

With Russia sending weapons to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad – weapons that have helped the regime murder thousands of Syrian citizens – and with Russian marines arriving at the Syrian port city of Tartous, reportedly to evacuate Russian personnel there in the midst of a 17-month rebellion, it might seem like Russia is determined to play the spoiler to any kind of resolution of the Syrian crisis.  

But French Ambassador to the United States Francois Delattre, during a visit to the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, suggests that Russia may be more flexible and realistic behind the diplomatic stage than it at first seems to be. Russia's influence and reputation have suffered among other Arab nations – the majority of the Arab League supports UN intervention in Syria – and it is “beginning to understand that Assad is part of the problem, and not the solution, which is good,” says Ambassador Delattre.

While former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan attempts to pull together a peaceful end to the hostilities and a transition of President Assad out of power, France will continue to support what it views as “Plan A.” But France and several other nations, including Russia, are aware that armed intervention – or “Plan B” – may end up becoming the only remaining option, Mr. Delattre says.

“Assad is a murderer of his own people, and the sooner he leaves, the better,” Delattre says. “As a bridge between the West and the Assad regime, the Russians are having to plan for an exit strategy. In either case [with Plan A or a move to Plan B], the Russians are key players.”

A two-hour meeting yesterday between President Obama and newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the fringes of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, produced broad agreement that violence needs to stop in Syria, but no specific plan for how to effect an end to hostilities. President Putin told reporters afterward, "From my point of view, we have found many common points on this issue [of Syria]," Reuters news agency reported. 

With violence ever increasing in Syria – Syrian armed forces pounded opposition positions in the town of Douma on Monday, killing 23 – it might be hard to see any signs of progress in the crisis. Opposition rebels seem to have consolidated control in rural areas, and have holed up in several major cities, including the town of Douma, just nine miles from the capital of Damascus. But the Syrian military has shown no compunction about using the full force of its Russian-made hardware in pounding rebel positions, including those in heavily concentrated urban areas. The head of the UN’s observer team in Syria says that recent spikes in violence could undermine his mission and Kofi Annan’s peace process.  

Russian and Chinese opposition to intervention at the UN Security Council – the same body that approved humanitarian intervention in Libya in March 2011 by NATO forces – may be waning, Delattre says, particularly as it becomes clear that much of the Arab world supports intervention. Russia is clearly keen to maintain its relationship with Syria, he says. But in the meantime, the US and France should keep talking with Russia about how to encourage an end to the violence in Syria.

That France is able to see itself as a full partner with the United States in conflict resolution is a major step forward, Delattre says. “In Europe, we say it is a multipolar world, and President Obama says it is a multipartner world, but the key change is to move to a world that is not confrontational, but is based on cooperation,” he says.

There is still much work to be done in restoring the developing world’s faith in international institutions, like the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, and the International Criminal Court, by including emerging nations like India in permanent positions on the Security Council, he says.

The good news is that France and Germany remain strong partners in the effort to resolve Europe’s ongoing financial crisis – specifically the heavy debt burdens of Europe’s poorer southern countries, Greece, Spain, and Italy, and the strains on Europe’s common currency, the euro. Greece now seems ready to make some hard decisions in cutting back its public spending, as Greek voters have elected a coalition government that is willing to work with other European countries on a bailout plan.

The election last month of French President François Hollande, a Socialist, ensures that there will be a “balance” between Germany’s push for fiscal discipline and France’s preference for financial stimulus programs, he says, such as a $1 trillion bailout fund, and creating a European investment bank for infrastructure projects.

“The center of gravity of the Euro zone has changed since the French election,” Delattre says, “and there is more of a focus on growth oriented policies versus fiscal discipline.”

Delattre rejects predictions that the eurozone is headed toward collapse. Other currencies have been volatile, but the euro has been strong and stable, and 14 million jobs were created in the eurozone during the past 12 years, compared with 8 million jobs created in the same time period in the US.

“The euro is a young teenager, just 12 years old,” says Delattre.

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