Syria and France: The Battle of Maysalun, A hundred years on

By Christopher Solomon

On July 24, 1920, French troops defeated Syrian forces at the Battle of Maysalun. One hundred years later, Paris and Damascus continue to struggle to chart the bilateral relations after decades of discord.

It was a hundred years ago, on July 24, 1920, that French forces faced the Syrians on the battlefield of Maysalun. Franco-Syrian relations have a long and turbulent history. Some of the early origins of this relationship can be traced to the French military officer, François de Tott, who advised the Ottoman Empire in the 1760s, or Napoleon’s failed military expeditions to the Levant and Egypt in 1798. However, it is the modern era, in the aftermath of the First World War, when the League of Nations offered up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire to Britain and France – when Syrian-French relations truly began.

To this day, Syrians celebrate Evacuation Day on April 17th to mark the departure of French military forces from their homeland in 1946. However, France retained a dash of influence with its former colony, which, along with Lebanon, offered it a gateway into the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, France is deeply woven into Syria’s political fabric and has long served as a place of exile for Syria’s revolving door of politicians who found themselves in and out of power, such as Akram al-Hawrani, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Mustafa Tlass, and Rifaat al-Assad. A good deal of Syria’s security infrastructure was inherited from France, such as Tadmor Prison, a former colonial military barracks. France was also the birthplace of a modern political ideology that left a tremendous impact in the Levant. Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq was deeply read in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, found a home in the French communist movement, and met his intellectual colleague, Salah al-Din Bitar, at the Sorbonne in Paris.

The Battle of Maysalun itself was in fact a loss for Syria, which had sought to shore up the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, which Faisal I declared in 1920. Although the Syrians were defeated, battles often have a way of living on in the national psyche as a moment of valor and unity against a common foe. Maysalun was long lauded as a pivotal moment when Arab forces stood up to a Western power in the region. Despite this, the majority of Syrians today likely look at these anniversaries of pomp and patriotism with a healthy dose of disdain and cynicism given the extent of the horrors and humanitarian disasters stemming from the nearly decade-long conflict that has tragically enveloped their country. Regardless, France’s colonial legacy remains paramount in understanding Syria’s long unwavering stance on its sovereignty, territorial disputes, and uncompromising approach to negotiating away its political system in the international negotiations to end Syria’s bloody conflict.

Syrian stamps marked the 50th anniversary of Evacuation Day in 1996.

Battle of Maysalun and the French Mandate of Syria

Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the tentative creation of the Kingdom of Syria under Faisal, France and Syria subsequently embarked on the first clash of their long and tumultuous history. France sought to take hold of the Syrian territory it had gained in its secret deal with the United Kingdom. King Faisal, on the other hand, embarked on establishing an independent Arab Kingdom. This set off the collision course that would long haunt bilateral relations.

Maysalun, Syria, present day

The Franco-Syrian War that began in March of 1920 came to a conclusion only a few months later in July at the battle of Maysalun. Leading the Syrian troops was War Minister Yusuf al-Azma, a Syrian Turkmen from Damascus who served in the Ottoman military during WWI. There is some debate on whether Azma left the Ottoman ranks for the Arab Revolt or if he stayed until the war concluded in 1918. Prior to Maysalun, the Syrians themselves were intensely divided on how to respond to France’s diplomatic pressures and military advances. A section of the Syrian political and social elite viewed France as a positive influence in the country and necessary for economic and political growth. Another group despised France as a colonial power that needed to be shook off so Syria could chart its own destiny as an independent and sovereign nation. Azma created Syria’s first army from scratch and recruited citizen volunteers from around the country.

As the French forces advance from the Beqaa Valley towards Damascus, Azma was determined to confront France on the battlefield. However, he became immortalized for his role in leading the Syrians against the French military forces at Maysalun. France brought in tanks and aircraft to counter the artillery and machine guns fielded by the Arab forces. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais, colonial soldiers from French West Africa, played a significant role in the battle on the French side and suffered heavy casualties. The Syrians were armed with antiquated rifles and were seriously short on ammunition. Nearly 400 Syrian troops fell at the battle. Azma himself died during the fighting from machine gun fired by a French tank. He was 36 years old. France then solidified its hold over Damascus and ruled Syria for the next 25 years.

Yousef al-Azma’s tomb, 1924

Gen. Gouraud was installed as the High Commissioner to Syria and Lebanon and reviewed a military parade in front of the Grand Serail in Damascus the day after the battle ended. Whether he uttered the infamous phrase, “Saladin, we’re back!” continues to be debated.  The end of the conflict only momentarily quelled the violence. Five years later, in 1925, the Great Syrian Revolt erupted against French colonial rule and was brutally crushed.

A group of captured Iraqi army officers who fought with Syria at Maysalun, released in 1921.

Many of Syria’s national heroes that span all political stripes were products of this era. Ibrahim Hananu, a political figure from a wealthy land-owning family, led fierce anti-French resistance efforts in northern Syria in 1920 and again in 1925. In October 1925, France’s High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail’s forces shelled Damascus to push out the Syrian rebels. Following the widespread condemnation, he was recalled back to Paris. The famous Druze leader Sultan Atrash, Fawzi al-Qawukji, and Abdul Rahman Shahbander were among the other prominent Syrian rebel leaders that took part in the anti-French revolts. There is currently a statue for Yousef Al-Azma in one of the larger squares in Damascus in Al-Salihiyah, and his home in Muhajreen is now a museum.    

Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian specialized in the pre-Baathist era, explained, “The battle of Maysalun is the one event in modern Syrian history that has not been subjected to any polarization and remains an event for all Syrians. There is no such consensus with events like March 8th, for example (the date of the Baathist takeover) or April 7th, being the birth date of the Baath Party. The battle of Maysalun took place exactly 100-years ago and every single government since then has celebrated the event with plenty of homage to its hero, Yousef al-Azma.”

A group commemorating Maysalun in the 1930s.

Moubayed noted that some Syrian Francophiles skipped the battle’s anniversary in order to avoid offending their French patrons during the ensuing Mandate years. He also explained that it became “heretical” to skip the battle’s annual commemoration but said the first president to skip Maysalun was Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser while he reigned over Syria during the United Arab Republic (1958-1961). “Perhaps this was intended to drum up Arab nationalism, at the expense of Syrian nationalism. His right-hand-man, Marshal Abdul Hakim Amer, who handled Syrian affairs, was actually opposed to the creation of a new statue for Yousef al-Azma, saying that the one in Yousef al-Azma Square was enough,” Moubayed explained.   

However, for some Syrians of the new generation, the anniversary is nothing but a minor historical footnote. Syria expert Ruwan Al-Rejoleh said, “It is not considered as a national or official occasion. It is not an official holiday.” She said that students learned about the battle briefly in history classes as part of Syria’s history to fight French colonialism but today there was nothing significant on the national level. “It was just a battle and honoring Yousef al-Azma in a respectful way, but not with so much emphasis on him,” she noted.  

Maysalun also slammed the final nail into the coffin of the post-WWI promises of Arab self-determination and independence. After siding with the British and French to defeat the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson pushed his idealistic Fourteen Points peace principles and vision of an international community of nations, which the US allies derisively rebuffed. The League of Nations itself failed largely due to U.S. domestic politics. France did its own part to inflict lasting territorial changes on Syria, transferring Hatay to Turkey in 1939 after a referendum. Baathist thinker Zaki al-Arsuzi, later on idolized by Hafez al-Assad, was a prominent voice against the Turkish annexation.

How Syria’s history could have turned out if the Syrians had been able to field a larger and better armed force and routed the French at Maysalun would make for interesting scenario. Would Faisal have held onto his nascent Hashemite kingdom? Would Syria have been doomed to its long running cycle of coups and dictatorships? If he had survived, could a triumphant Azma have gone on to become his own Syrian military strongman? This will perhaps never be certain and the ramifications of France’s colonial history in Syria played out in its immediate post-independence years. The relations between Paris and Damascus ran hot and cold. However, Maysalun continued to remain a divisive issue among Syrians.

Dr. Joshua Landis explained, “At Independence in 1946, the different parties fought over its symbolism. President Shukri al-Quwatli downplayed its importance and didn’t include a separate parade for the heroes of Maysalun in the April 17, 1946 pageantry since it was connected to the Hashemite tradition. The pro-Hashemites, many of whom supported King Abdullah of Jordan or the Iraqi Hashemites, were furious. They thought Quwatli was suppressing an important chapter in Syria’s heritage and sidelining the real pioneers of Syrian independence in order to highlight his own, Johnny come lately, role in Syria’s independence.”

As the Syrian independence train began its slow chug uphill, the newborn country was struck by three military coups, all in the year 1949. The first coup leader was a French-trained officer, Husni Za’im. After his downfall and execution, Sami al-Hinnawi took power before being tossed out at the end of the year by Adib Shishakli for attempting to swing Syria over to British-backed Iraq. French President Vincent Auriol, a socialist, came to power in the French Fourth Republic and oversaw a dramatic decline in its Paris’ influence throughout its colonial possessions. However, he struck a friendly tone with Shishakli.

Following the fall of the Shishakli dictatorship in 1954, Syria was undergoing rapid political changes and lurched towards the Soviet Union. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which France, Israel, and the United Kingdom launched a military intervention against Egypt, Nasser became the bête noire of the Western powers. Meanwhile, Damascus sought to avert its own crisis. In December 1956, the Syrians and Soviets took to the United Nations to warn of impending danger from the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, and France. UN diplomats viewed the Syrian theater as having the potential for a greater escalation than the Suez Crisis. However, it was not until the Baath Party took control in 1963 and the arrival of Syrian Air Force commander Hafez al-Assad, who took power in 1970, that France truly felt Syria drift from a former colonial play thing to a dangerous diplomatic dance partner.


The Hafez al-Assad Era

Syria under Hafez al-Assad was far different from what remains of it today. As Ibrahim Hamidi dryly concluded in Asharq Al-Awsat, “Syria, which used to vie for power beyond its border, is now an arena for the conflicts of others. From player to playground.” Of course, France was an eager and willing part of this era of engagement with a dominant Damascus for all of its faults and promises. France was also Hafez al-Assad’s first international visit as president and he met with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. However, France soon became caught up in the brutal violence unfolding on Syria’s doorstep in Lebanon. Paris has dispatched troops as part of a peace keeping force in the latter half of the Lebanese Civil War, where Syria also had intervened. A British Thames TV report relayed that French President Francois Mitterrand told Damascus they would keep their troops there until Syria pulled out its own troops. The French embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1982. In October 1983, France lost 58 paratroopers and took part in retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was controlled by Syria. By February 1984, France and the United States had withdrawn from Lebanon.

French President Francois Mitterrand visits the tomb of the unknown soldier in Syria, 1984

In November 1984, with the Lebanese Civil War raging on, President Mitterrand became the first French leader to visit Damascus since the country’s independence. Mitterrand, who had earlier met with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, sought to push President Hafez al-Assad on Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. However, the elder Assad would have none of it. “No [Arab-Israeli] peace can be realized as long as a part of Arab territories is occupied and a part of our Arab people is subjected to oppression,” Assad told Mitterrand over dinner. He also accused the West of confusing terrorism and resistance for the sake of national liberation. Assad had long learned that the use of non-state actors could provide diplomatic cover while allowing the Syrian government to advance its geostrategic interests, adding to the nuances of his repertoire with the French.

During this era, Syria was heavily involved in the Lebanese conflict and largely reviled in the West for alleged involvement in acts of terrorism and assassination plots, including several against French interests in Lebanon and elsewhere. Relations between Paris and Damascus were indeed strained, but Mitterrand tried to put his best foot forward. Following his Damascus trip, he said, “There is nothing to prove that Syria was responsible. Since President Assad has always asserted that this was not the case, I do not see why his word should be doubted.” He also urged for Israel to complete its withdrawal from South Lebanon in order to restore Lebanese sovereignty. Relations continued and President Jacques Chirac held several meetings with Hafez al-Assad, including visits to Paris and Damascus in 1998.

Hafez al-Assad and Jacques Chirac

France and Bashar al-Assad

President Bashar al-Assad’s early tenure was briefly regarded as a promising opportunity to reorient Syria towards reform and the West. As occasionally noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin once remarked that Assad was a more frequent guest in Western capitals than in Moscow. During the 2000s, France was the essential link for the younger Assad to expand Syria’s international diplomatic initiatives. The shortfalls of the Damascus Spring were not forgotten and overtures with the Europeans signaled that Damascus was still contemplating political and economic reforms. Still Bashar’s relationship with France in the early 2000s was not always smooth sailing. For instance, former prime minister Mahmoud Zuabi was expelled from the Baath Party as part of an anti-corruption drive headed by Bashar during the final months of his father’s rule. Zuabi was punished for his alleged involvement in a case regarding French company Airbus and later – at least according to the official story – committed suicide.

President Assad’s 2001 visit to Paris.

Despite this, France and Syria still managed to get on during Bashar’s rule. President Jacques Chirac was the only western leader to attend Hafez al-Assad’s funeral. Prior to the 2003 Iraq War, the two met again in Paris and discussed Iraq’s alleged WMD program. Both countries were on the same page regarding the need to avoid a war against Saddam’s regime.

Following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a close friend of Chirac, relations between France and Syria again soured. Indeed, during the Cedar Revolution, Chirac helped the US orchestrate an end to the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon. As the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel unfolded, Chirac allegedly secretly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that France would support an Israeli invasion of Syria since France viewed Damascus as primarily responsible for arming Hezbollah. However, only two years later, France shifted tactics again.

In September 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first Western head of state to travel to Syria in the wake of the Hariri assassination. Perhaps hoping to entice Syria back into the international arena to gain influence in the region, the end of the decade brought about a slew of diplomatic overtures in bilateral relations. In July 2008, Assad visited Paris, which ruffled some feathers at the time due to his participation at the Bastille Day parade. The New York Times noted he “studiously avoided” former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was seated on the reviewing stand nearby. Later, under the auspice of the Union for the Mediterranean, the Syrian leader met with former Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and established formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, which was lauded as a victory for French engagement with Damascus.   

Al-Rejoleh explained, “Before 2011, France was a good friend of Syria. Thanks to Sarkozy, he brought Assad into the international scene and broke Syria’s isolation. Relations between France and Damascus were soon flourishing.”

Assad in Paris, 2008

Syrian-French relations indeed took a nose dive after the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Although Syria retains an embassy in Paris, France closed its Damascus embassy in 2012 and became one of the sharpest critics of the Syrian government’s wartime policies. During the conflict’s first years France sought to promote and give special status to the Syrian National Coalition opposition in Paris, even bestowing the unofficial title of “Monsieur Ambassador” on Monzer Makhous.

Rejoleh said, “Former French ambassador Eric Chevallier was a popular diplomatic figure in Damascus among business and political figures. However, whether it was France’s policy at that time or if it was the Ambassador’s own action, he went with former US ambassador Robert Ford to endorse the protests in Hama, which harmed the demonstration’s legitimacy. Because of this, the protesters looked like they were pushed by the West to mobilize against Assad, which was not true at all. Since then, the French intelligence and diplomacy have been active and engaged in northeast Syria, especially with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the fight against the Islamic State (IS). As for leveraging any political outcome, there is nothing substantial that France can do politically aside from its intelligence role. It is the US and Russia’s call.”

Paris’ current interests in Syria are multi-pronged and includes humanitarian concerns, orchestrating (or coaxing) a political transition, addressing the threat of terrorist groups, and the status of minority groups in Syria. This last point in particular has become even more complex, since France has long held a vested interest in its relationship with Levantine Christians, particularly with the more recent risks posed by a potential collapse of the Syrian regime. And, much to the chagrin of NATO partner Turkey, France has now forged a partnership with the Syrian Kurds, who lead the SDF coalition in the northeast.

Throughout the entire Syrian conflict, Russia and France have been at diplomatic loggerheads. Their dispute over Syria’s future perhaps plays out most prominently in the United Nations Security Council. President Francois Hollande attempted to push through a UNSC resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in 2014 but was stymied by Moscow’s veto. In October 2016, Russia blocked a draft UNSC resolution (2/2016/846) produced by France and Spain to stop the bombardment of rebel-held Aleppo. One year later, Russia again vetoed a draft resolution (S/2017/172) put forward by France, the US, and the UK to impose sanctions on Syria for the use of chemical weapons. In September 2018, the French Foreign Ministry blasted Syria for its bombing of Idlib Province. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “The hypothesis of war crimes can not be excluded… once one begins to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and hospitals.”

President Macron’s cabinet and the Syrian air strikes in April, 2018

With the arrival of Emmanuel Macron, Paris attempted to rally the US to collaborate on Syria, but with mixed results. Things came to a head for Paris with the allegations that Syria was using chemical weapons on armed groups and civilians. France did not take part in the US April 2017 Shayrat missile strike, carried out in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. However, France did join in militarily against the Syrian government in response to the April 2018 chemical attacks in Douma. This perhaps marked the first time the French government directly targeted the Syrian government since the days of its colonial occupation. The moment was also a rare, high-profile sign of military cooperation between the US and France in the Middle East, which had been badly frayed during the 2003 Iraq War.

In 2018, following one of President Trump’s declarations that the United States would soon be withdrawing from Syria, Macron rushed to the rescue, noting “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying ‘the United States should withdraw from Syria.’ We convinced him it was necessary to stay for the long term.” In October 2019, Trump again vowed to pull out and began a withdrawal, but then was convinced to quietly keep some forces present.

After the fall of Eastern Ghouta in April 2018, France delivered some 50 tons of medical assistance to the Syrian government via the Russian military. An anonymous French diplomat told Reuters, “This operation is very significant because it shows a willingness from the Russians to work with us on a matter of priority. This area is crying out for help.” Even now, France still is figuring out a way to secure humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. In July 2020, the French UN delegation lamented the UN Security Council’s inability to approve a cross-border assistance resolution. A French Foreign Ministry statement placed the onus on China and Russia as well as Damascus: “The Syrian regime continues to impose major obstacles to the free and unrestricted delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, notably in the regions outside of its control.”

As already noted, France has been a vocal proponent of the Syrian Kurds, loudly condemning Turkey’s military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition in Syria’s northeast region in October 2019. Central to France’s relations with Washington is the fear that it will be left to manage the International Coalition’s partnership with the SDF on its own. Former President François Hollande even suggested suspending Turkey from NATO in response. But it was Macron who posited recently to The Economist, “If the Bashar al-Assad regime decides to retaliate against Turkey…will we commit ourselves under it?” This drama between France and Turkey has offered a potential opportunity to rekindle French-Russian relations. Macron did once quip, “Europe stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Could something of an informal entente develop between Russia and France in regards to Syria?

France very clearly aims to carve out a spot for itself in the Middle East and Africa. Paris is increasing its military budget and wishes to modernize its forces and enhance its intelligence capabilities. It is not unthinkable that the Syrian regime would offer France low-hanging fruit in terms of intelligence sharing and anti-terrorism cooperation in the near future. Cooperation with Russia in regards to Syria could become all the more essential if the US finally does pull out completely. The US has already met with the Syrian security apparatus in 2018, and Turkey followed suit this year with a meeting in Moscow. Paris will need to keep direct intelligence on the ground, with the SDF in northeast Syria, as well as in Damascus, thus following the lead of some of the Arab Gulf states.   

France’s future relationship with Syria could also be charted by the developments in another Middle East conflict. In Libya, France relies on oil imports from the territory controlled by Libyan LNA strongman Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan conflict is also connected to France’s Africa counterterrorism strategy in Mali and Niger. In May 2020, French Foreign Minister Drian noted “The crisis is deepening. We are facing a Syrianization of Libya.” Turkey is increasingly at odds with NATO and internal tensions are increasing, with France in particular. In June 2020, France decried Turkey’s intervention in the North African conflict and anonymous French officials accused it of “exploiting NATO.”

Al-Rojoleh said, “I think France now will have a stronger role to play especially in the wake of Brexit. We might see competition between France and Germany on who leads the EU efforts in the region but that is something to be determined by military spending and the ability to engage on ground with leverage. France has a role to play between the US and Iran in terms of back channeling. It is clear that there are divisions between Germany and France for the leading role in the Middle East region. There is disunity among the EU members namely the NATO members on various conflicts such as Syria, and Libya and nature of the relationships with Turkey and Russia. Generally speaking, France and Germany have competing positions and a lack of unity when it comes to Libya. They clearly support the opponents on ground. As for Syria, Germany and France both condemned the Turkish offensive military operation in NE Syria. The two European countries have humanitarian interests and commitments to that region, where the Turkish president, along with Russia’s president, met with the German and French leaders to discuss a political solution and concrete humanitarian support for refugees.”

France also has enduring security concerns regarding the remnants of the Islamic State group, along with its own great power ambitions. From an airbase in Jordan, France has conducted airstrikes in support of the SDF and to counter IS’ power structure spanning Syria and Iraq. In June, France repatriated a small group of IS children back from Syria. Foreign Minister Le Drian made a July visit to Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, to discuss the resurgence of IS and the fate of the French IS prisoners in Iraqi prisoners. France is also closely aligned with Syria’s arch-nemesis, Israel.

French special forces in a Nexter Aravis MRAP supporting the SDF in Northern Syria, April 2018

France has staunchly supported the SDF with arms, training, and intelligence to fight IS. There is also a small special forces component present on the ground inside Syria. The SDF’s main force, the Kurdish YPG militia, is one of Turkey’s main enemies. This comes at a time when Turkey is actively pursuing military recourse against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the YPG’s ideological cohort. France has also been pushing hard for a UNSC-sponsored ceasefire between the Turks and the SDF during the covid-19 pandemic. In February, Macron also tried to corral Russia and Turkey to convince their respective client forces to agree to a ceasefire in the midst of the 2020 regime offensive in Idlib Province.

Turkish media outlets – most of them state-influenced – are now ramping up their vilification of France by labeling the country’s influence as neo-colonialist, just as anti-Turkish parties fret about neo-Ottomanism. Anonymous Turkish officials scoffed at France’s role in the region as a child who lost its toy. As the United States solemnly backs away from outright notions of regime change, where does this leave France with its future relationship with the Assads? Turkish media outlets have already speculated about France’s decision to crack down on its special guest, Rifaat al-Assad, noting that the regime “did not like the uncle anyway.” The recent court verdict against Rifaat has led to the French government seizing some of his assets, including two townhomes, a chateau in Val-d’Oise, and offices in Lyon.

Conclusion

The Syrian government channels the spirit of Maysalun in the sense that, in the face of the Caesar Act sanctions, it will remain defiant amid international punishment and would rather go down with the sinking ship than budge one inch as a result of foreign pressure. Although a national defeat, Maysalun’s character endures through the ages. This applies to the Syrian rebellion as well. The dreams of shaking off a musty dictatorship will not be forgotten in the wake of the regime’s military triumph. Syria will be badly wounded for decades by its brutal conflict, but the distant shadows of Maysalun reach far into the present, offering a morsel of solace and dignity for all sides of the conflict.

A May 2011 Facebook post from “Yousef al-Azma,” reading, “The people want!!!”

Dr. Joshua Landis noted, “The Battle of Maysalun has always been used as a touchstone or symbol of Syrianness. Appropriating it is the first job of every political movement.” He added, “At the beginning of the uprising, many Syrians changed their Facebook photos to that of Gen. Yousef al-Azma, in an effort to paint themselves – the opposition – as the real Syrians fighting for freedom and the Assad regime and the Syrian army as the French colonialists, who were occupying Syria.”

The French presidential election in 2022 could also see a dramatic about-face for Paris regarding Syria. If a right-wing populist challenger – à la Marine Le Pen and her National Rally (RN) party – secures a victory, France could go full throttle in ratcheting up a Christian-fostered nationalism and seek out an understanding with Syria as part of a pressure tactic against Turkey. Even if it is a center-right candidate that is able to oust Macron, the positions of France and Turkey in NATO are growing more and more questionable. On the other hand, just as a change in the French presidency could offer Assad a potential lifeline, a post-Assad Damascus would offer France its own dramatic opening into Syria. An economic and diplomatic bilateral renewal would surely follow, for good and ill.

France remains intricately linked to Syria and could perhaps be forever destined for a déjà vu relationship with Damascus. Attempts for future French governments to repair ties with the Assad regime would likely result in high-level bouts of diplomacy in return for mere photo-ops. Likewise, France’s friendship has dual-meaning for Syrians. Maysalun represents a stark reminder of the dangers of French colonialism. However, for the regime’s opponents, they primarily view Paris as a beacon of light and are thus willing to overlook France’s heavy handed history in order to push for further diplomatic and military interventions in Syria.

While these two nations have significant differences, they also share much in common. Both have an intense pride in their language, culture, and a romanticized view of their history. National sovereignty is highly venerated given their history of foreign occupation. France, like Syria, has also experienced its own brutal history of internecine strife, most notably with the 1871 Paris Commune, which resulted in the killing of an estimated 20,000 Communards during La Semaine Sanglante (the Bloody Week). Likewise, pre-war Syria faced its own rebellions and was known for the infamous Hama Massacre in 1982, with thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members killed. 

However, in spite of France’s role as one of President Assad’s most prominent opponents since the beginning of the conflict, Paris now seemingly has to find a way to live with him. Russia and the United States will certainly wield the most clout and influence in shaping the outcome of Syria’s war, but it will be France lurking in the background, prodding, steering, and guiding Washington, Moscow, and its European allies in the direction Paris ultimately chooses. For Damascus and Paris, the Battle of Maysalun’s 100th anniversary marks yet a new fork in the road for their bilateral relations; will it veer into years of tension and sanctions-laden antagonism, or rather towards the path of tentative renewal and forgiveness?

Comments (1)


Smith Mitchell said:

I fully agree with you that Russia and the United States will certainly have the most influence and influence in shaping the outcome of the war in Syria. This is a very interesting post. Thanks for your work!

July 25th, 2020, 7:14 am

 

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