In a BFM TV on Sunday, April 15, President Macron congratulated himself for having convinced the United States of America not to abandon the Syrian terrain. About 2,000 men from their special forces are currently deployed in northern Syria, in Rojava, a vast strip of land with de facto autonomy from Damascus, controlled by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) – a majority of Progressive Kurdish fighters from the YPG (Protection Units of the Fulani), and a minority of secular Arab fighters.
The Americans have effectively supported their Kurdish allies in their fierce fight against ISIS. France, which also maintains some forces on the ground, could not consider remaining alone facing the risk of a jihadist resurrection. In addition, France knows that it needs the deterrent presence of the Americans to counter the expansionism of a Turkish army that has already taken the Kurdish city of Afrine (north-west of Syria) and that dreams of crossing the Euphrates to pursue his ethnic anti-Kurdish ethnic cleansing towards the East.
Because the main enemy of the Turkish president, Brother Erdogan, is not the Islamic State, but the Kurds, who are in Syria, and who happen to be our friends.
Did Macron rejoice too early? A few hours after his televised performance, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders reacted, without reference to Macron but saying exactly the opposite: “The American mission has not changed. The president has made it clear that he wants US forces to return as soon as possible.”
Do not be fooled by Donald Trump’s personality. He is the opposite of George W. Bush. He is anything but a neo-conservative. He does not think that America has any vocation or interest in fighting tyrannies and installing democracy anywhere in the world.
He believes that the Middle East is a complicated and inherently unstable region, where America can only expect defeats and where it has already been over-involved in the past. He has clearly stated that the peoples of the Middle East now had to “take charge of themselves”.
Trump’s strategy in the Levant was essentially punitive. He wanted to punish an Islamic State that had dared to kidnap and assassinate American citizens. He wanted to punish a Ba’athist state of Syria that used chemical weapons in violation of international conventions and of the Lavrov-Kerry agreement of September 2013. Now that’s done, Trump wants to bring the boys back home.
Emmanuel Macron is unlikely to change his mind on this point in the face-to-face meeting in Washington. Neither is the French president likely to succeed in interesting his US counterpart in climate change issues: the United States will not ratify the COP-21 agreements, signed in Paris in December 2015, and from which Trump has withdrawn. In trade, Trump is deeply protectionist and always has been.
France is a diplomatic and military partner that still counts in the eyes of Americans. But it is no longer a credible economic partner, as its industry has stalled compared to Germany. France and Germany together can perhaps try to bring Trump back to more free trade and greater respect for WTO procedures (the World Trade Organisation).
But Macron has no interest in going it alone in this hazardous battle. France’s voice in the economic field will only be heard once it has been successful in putting its public accounts in order, and honouring the commitments it has freely made within the European Union.
What will the French president then have to focus on? He can move America on a big strategic issue: Iran. By being persuasive, Macron could save the Iran nuclear deal. Nobody has any interest in re-starting a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In his televised speech where he announced his decision to bomb Syria, did Trump not say that he hoped that America would “soon be reconciled with Russia, and even with Iran”? A man who has shown himself capable of reaching out to the North Korean dictator may very well decide to do the same thing with regard to the Persian rulers.
France has maintained effective diplomatic ties with Tehran: it is therefore ideally placed to play the role of “honest broker” between America and Iran, whose antagonism remains a geopolitical misinterpretation.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.
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