France Plunges into Syrian Quagmire

France, which governed what is now Syria after World War I, has stepped forward as the first Western power to recognize the opposition as the legitimate government. But the future course of the Syrian civil war remains dangerous and complicated, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The announcement by French President François Hollande that his government is formally recognizing, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the latest version of what purports to be a united Syrian opposition is the sort of development apt to stimulate more grumbling in the United States that the U.S. government is not exerting sufficient leadership, either from in front or from behind, regarding Syria.

Actually, if any Western country is to be out front on this matter, it ought to be France. France was responsible in the 1920s and 1930s for what is now Syria, under what was called a League of Nations mandate and was really a colonial relationship.

French diplomat Francois George-Picot, who along with British colonial officer Mark Sykes drew lines across a Middle East map of the Ottoman Empire, carving out states with boundaries that are nearly the same as they are today.

France staked its claim to this territory when the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Sir Mark Sykes drew secretly negotiated lines on a map during World War I to carve up this part of the Ottoman Empire.

This is not to say, of course, that Syria’s subsequent miserable history is all or even mostly France’s fault. But the French did want this piece of the Middle East, and with the benefit of hindsight one can think of ways the mandate could have turned out better. The French divided mandated Syria into several dependent states of different ethnic or sectarian character, only one of which, the one corresponding to present Lebanon, would achieve its own independence.

Given the sectarian divisions within Lebanon, maybe its independence wasn’t a good idea. Maybe a better idea, given recent history, would have been to have groomed for independence the state that consisted of the largely Alawite-inhabited Latakia region of what is now northwest Syria.

The opposition coalition that France has recognized and to which, according to Hollande, it is considering providing arms, is barely deserving of the word “coalition.” It emerged only after prolonged and intense pressure from Arab and Western governments at a meeting in Qatar (with the U.S. Secretary of State having taken a leading role in earlier exertion of such pressure).

Perhaps because the new grouping, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has a longer name than the ineffective Syrian National Council, it conveys the impression of greater viability by being more broadly based. But to pretend that this painfully negotiated new structure is a truly unified opposition that can provide a basis for eventual political stability in Syria is to ignore how badly fractured the different elements opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad still are.

Certain unjustified assumptions about the struggle in Syria have been creeping into discussion and reporting on the topic, as exemplified by the front-page New York Times story about Hollande’s announcement. The new coalition reportedly “came together” in Doha when a more appropriate term would be “papered over differences under pressure.”

Reference to Western and Arab efforts to build “a viable and effective opposition that would hasten the end of a stalemated civil war” suggests the unjustified conclusion that a less fractured opposition would indeed mean an earlier end to the war.

The article correctly notes that Assad has “survived partly because of the disagreements and lack of unity among his opponents,” but he also has survived partly for other reasons, including fears among Alawites and some others that not just their status but their lives would be endangered by the regime’s forcible overthrow.

Thomas Friedman has a somewhat breathless column about dangers of the Syrian situation that sustains the common but incorrect view that civil wars inevitably spread across borders like spilled molasses unless forcibly prevented from doing so, and that incorrectly credits an American military presence inside Iraq for having prevented political molasses there from oozing into other countries.

But he is correct that just as it was removal of the old regime that triggered civil war and prolonged violence in Iraq, removal of the regime in Syria would hardly be an omen of stability in that country. Friedman is right to point to the only visible (but still slim) hope for such stability: cooperation with the Russians to try to arrange a power-sharing deal to be overseen by a UN-sponsored multilateral force.

The voices in the United States who speak disdainfully about pursuit of a negotiated outcome are offering nothing else that is any more promising, and for the most part they are pursuing agendas other than peace in Syria.

We need to resist the temptation to think that every messy situation overseas has a feasible solution, and furthermore to think that the United States needs to be leading part of that solution. As for what Hollande is doing, go right ahead, Monsieur le Président. Just don’t get your hopes very high.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “France Plunges into Syrian Quagmire

  1. Revo
    November 18, 2012 at 16:12

    Infact, this warmongering monsters, by their absurd suggestions to the President, are insulting President’s intelligent.

  2. Hillary
    November 17, 2012 at 18:54

    Moderator please help post.

    Neoconservative War Criminals In Our Midst

    On February 17, 2012 – 56 leading “foreign-policy experts” mostly Zionist Jews sent an open letter to Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
    Previously many of them had sent a similar open letter to Obama appealing for the safety of the Libyan people from Qaddafi’s regime which imediately resulted in a US attack on Libya resulting in the murder of over 20,000 civilians from NATO bombs and Libya left in ruins.
    The signatory to the open-letter included Israel-Firster Jews Paul Berman, Max Boot, Ellen Bork, L. Paul Bremer, Toby Dershowitz, Mark Dubowitz, Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, Eric S. Edelman, John P. Hannah, William Kristol, Karl Rove, Kenneth R. Weinstein, Dov S. Zakheim, etc. etc.

    According to the letter signers, the only way the Syrian people can be saved is if Washington overthrows the Syrian government and installs a puppet state attentive to the needs of Israel and Washington.

    Then we hear on MSM from the “usual suspects” with FAREED ZAKARIA on CNN like Tom Friedman, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Haass, Anne-Marie Slaughter where Iraq war promoter Paul Wolfowitz stated and nobody “intentially noticed”
    Quote :
    ” I think what’s happen in Syria is so important. I mean we sit here comfortably saying Assad can’t survive. That’s not so clear. If Assad does survive, I can’t think of anything that would be more discouraging for political change in Iran and I agree political change in Iran is where the real solution will come.”

    So obviously it was always Iran and there it was made blatantly obvious.

    • Revo
      November 18, 2012 at 16:41

      Infact, this warmongering monsters, by their absurd suggestions to the President, are insulting President’s intelligence.

    • borat
      November 23, 2012 at 14:09

      herr hillary and her nazi crowing are loud and clear here. Hatred of all things Jewish really turns her on!

  3. F. G. Sanford
    November 17, 2012 at 17:33

    Things change but they don’t change. For those wishing an aesthetically, if not historically accurate portrayal of Syria today, I’d suggest watching Humphrey Bogart’s 1951 movie, “Sirocco”. His character, Harry Smith, is summed up by almost every critic as a portrayal of “moral ambiguity”. A most recent theatrical portrayal of that ambiguity was given by Mitt Romney. His ‘Freudian Slip’ regarding Syria being Iran’s pathway to the sea was widely regarded as geopolitical illiteracy. Far from it. Sure, everybody knows Iran has strategic access to the Strait of Hormuz. But to get to the Med, the pipeline has to go through Syria. Everybody with an interest in Syria from Harry Smith to Mitt Romney to Francois Hollande has a cynical motive. In the end, Harry Smith found his moral compass. Many had high hopes for better intentions from Hollande before his election. But I doubt he is equipped with a compass, figuratively or geographically. Like moral ambiguity, there is no certain destination. Greed points in only one direction, and any road will get you there.

  4. novocaine38
    November 17, 2012 at 17:03

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    I urgently recommend reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The Zimmermann Telegram” about
    the expansion of WW1 in 1916-17 when all was lost for England and Germany and
    yet the lobbies managed to conjure up new reasons for a “final victory” for England “paid” for by the United States of America not based on putative
    “weapons of mass destruction” but based on a telegram sent by a personnage
    lunaire German Secretary of State Zimmermann who conjured up plans to have the
    Mexicans, Japanese and unmentioned Latin American nations open up a second front against the United States taking back Arizona, Texas…Soon Texan newspapers wrote of rumors of sightings of many Germans in Mexico…with rumors that the Kaiser may even have plans for Canada…Analagous to the current war making strategies is Arthur Schlesinger’s “War and the American
    Presidency” which analyzes the mechanisms of known “lobbies” in the making of new conflicts and new wars…novocaine38

  5. db
    November 17, 2012 at 12:35


    Assad is a (soon-to-be) victim of the International Jewish Conspriacy?

    Well, it fits in with your love of Dictators.

    • db
      November 17, 2012 at 18:05

      You state that Jews like Dictators & then you describe how the Jews took down Dictator Qadaffi.

      This makes sense in Rehmatworld?

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