France Steps Up Pressure on Syria’s Assad

The French foreign minister suggests a buffer zone should be erected in Syria.

International pressure is mounting on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who for months has brutally suppressed an uprising in his country that was inspired by the “Arab Springs” in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where veteran dictators were forced to relinquish powers in the face of mass civil unrest.

France, which along with Great Britain pushed for a NATO intervention in Libya in March of this year, called for humanitarian corridors to be erected in Syria on Thursday. The french foreign minister stopped short of endorsing military action to protect a “buffer zone” but conceded that an intervention may be necessary to defend a “secured zone” and ensure the delivery of aid.

Following authorization from the Arab League, which suspended Syria as a member two weeks ago, Turkey is expected to take the lead in enforcing a buffer zone, presumably in the north of the country which is also home to a Kurdish minority. In combating a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, Turkey entered Iraqi territory in August; a move that may well be repeated in Syria.

After Syrian-Turkish relations had improved markedly in recent years, when Turkey, under the guise of a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, refused to criticize neighboring authoritarian regimes, Ankara distanced itself from President Assad this summer. Turkish president Abdullah Gül said that he had “lost confidence” in Assad’s ability to democratize Syria. There was no place for dicatorships in the Middle East anymore, he added. “Clearly, the leaders of these countries will take the initiative or they will be changed by force.”

The Arab Spring has forced a realignment of Turkish foreign policy that was previously geared toward maintaining the status quo. “Zero problems with neighbors” has not fostered the stability Ankara wished for while the popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria may prove to be an opportunity for Turkey to assert itself as a regional hegemon.

France is similarly looking to expand its influence in the Levant where it has a long, colonial history. Lebanon and Syria were League of Nations mandates governed by the French before the Second World War. President Nicolas Sarkozy included Syria in his Union for the Mediterranean and may hope for a role there after Assad is removed from office.

In the short term, Paris is probably aiming to boost relations with the Arab monarchies that have largely escaped protests but are aligning against Iran and its Syrian ally.

After Saudi king Abdullah condemned the violence in Syria in August, his fellow Gulf sovereigns in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates quickly followed with denunciations of their own. The Shiite uprising in Bahrain prompted a Saudi military intervention there and the tentative expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council to include Jordan and Morocco, two other kingdoms that are generally pro-Western and anxious about the Iranian specter. An axis of moderate regimes is emerging in the Middle East, one that France hopes to do business with.

It has already signed nuclear technology exchange agreements with Morocco and the UAE and President Sarkozy extended offers for similar arrangements to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Areva, Électricité de France, GDF Suez and Total, four French companies, failed to secure a contract to build four nuclear reactors in the UAE in 2009. Sarkozy has urged them to cooperate to help France win contracts abroad. Aircraft builder Airbus and French arms manufacturers may also hope to expand sales to grateful oil sheikhs.