Book Review: Les chemins de Damas

The roads to Damascus (Les chemins de Damas)

France knows Syria well.  It carved out the country from the remnants of the Ottoman empire.  But France, who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, gambled the hard line on regime change in Syria and lost.  The recent crisis in Syria, said recently ‘Les chemins de Damas’ author to L’orient Le Jour, has been treated in France with emotions and political irrealism.

The authors of ‘Les chemins de Damas’, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, are successively Grand reporter at RTL and journalist at Le Figaro.  They were both taken hostages by an alQaida affiliated group in Iraq in 2004 for four months.  Malbrunot and Chesnot have been keen observers of the Middle East and jihadist groups.  They published on Iraq and Qatar, and Malbrunot has published on Palestine.   Malbrunot writes a blog on the Middle East for Le Figaro and he is the only French reporter to have met and interviewed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the most critical period of the crisis in 2012.  Assad gave recently an interview to Paris Match in December 2014, and today to Foreign Affairs.

‘Les Chemins de Damas’ is an investigation into how the Syrian crisis was mismanaged by Paris, despite a deep knowledge of Syria formed by a long history of hostility and collaboration at the diplomatic and intelligence levels between the two countries.  The main sources for Chesnot and Malbrunot are the principal actors of this long history.  That’s one of the many strengths of the book.  The book has also annexes of previously unpublished intel reports and diplomatic cables, as well as a letter from Hollande to Saudi king, dated Decembre 2013, concerning the Saudi financing and buying of French military equipment destined to Lebanon and the kingdom.

The book offers a brief historical background and it is rich in historical context and covers the French-Syrian relations during a time period extending between the Lebanese civil war and the present day.  It is divided in eight sections that follow the ups and downs of the relation between France and its former colony, more exactly 'protectorate'.  The introduction is an overview of the main content while the conclusion attempts to exlain France’s attitude during the current Syria crisis suggesting France might take the road to a Damascus ruled by the Baath again.  The preface of the book is by general Philippe Rondot,  a veteran of the French secret services as well as a specialist of the Arab world.  Mr. Rondot retired only recently and he gives the authors great insight throughout the book.  His insight is informed not only by his own experience but also by his father’s legacy in the Levant. Pierre Rondot, a St Cyrien in the French army who served in Morocco and the Levant, is credited of establishing the Lebanese and Syrian secret services.  The core of the book follows the relationship during the presidencies of Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy, with the greater part devoted to the current crisis.

There is a great deal of continuity and quality in what the French know about Syria, and this is reflected in Chesnot and Malbrunot’s book, which makes the main question the book addresses all the more relevant : how could the French have been so wrong on Syria recently?  So the book tries to answer this very question.

Covert wars

The book starts by detailing the covert war that France and Syria waged on each other during the Lebanese civil war, wrestling to become the main influence in Lebanon.  This covert war started with the assassination of the French ambassador in Beirut in Septembre 1981 during what might have been the most critical period in the Lebanese civil war. The assassination was blamed first on Iran, but the French suspected Syria.  There were retaliations.  A bomb explosion at a Baath party headquarters in Damascus killed 43 people, a week after the assassination of the French ambassador in Beirut.  In 1983, few minutes after the attack on the US marines, 58 French UN soldiers die from an explosion at their barracks in Beirut.  This became known as the Drakkar post attack or the Beirut barracks bombings.  In 2008, when Bashar el-Assad was on official visit to Paris, some in France protested the visit, recalling the attack on the French soldiers, but an Elysee source told Le Monde that France blamed the assassination of the French ambassador on Syria but thought that Iran was behind the Beirut barracks bombings. 

The critical years of the Lebanese civil war, which culminated with the withdrawal of the PLO form Beirut, the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, the Israeli occupation and the killing of  the US marines and French UN soldiers, convinced the international community that the situation in Lebanon couldn’t be managed but by Syria.  France then expatriated the rebel Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun, who fought the Syrian army, and made peace with Damascus.  This would lead down the road to the Taef agreement and the pax Syriana in Lebanon that will last fifteen years, between 1990 and 2005. 

The pax Syriana will be followed by a period of relatively  good relations between Paris and Damascus.  But the French didn’t wait until the end of the Lebanese civil war to mend relations with Damascus.  François Mitterrand paid a visit to Syria in Novembre 1984.  The people close to Mitterrand at the time of the visit told the authors that Mitterrand despised the methods of Hafez but held him in great respect and was impressed by him.

There is hope for western capitals to influence Syria again after Hafez's death

But the height of the French-Syrian relations will be reached when Bashar el-Assad succeeds his father at the presidency.  Hafez el-Assad’s death has been anticipated by Paris when news of his declining health were known after the Jordanian and Israeli secret services managed to take a urine sample during his visit to  Jordan to pay his respects at king Hussein’s funerals.  Hafez was feared and expectations among regional and international players to influence the future of  Syria were henceforth permitted with Bashar.  France, like others, and maybe more than others, was eager and ready for change in Syria.

When Bashar el-Assad takes over after his father’s death, there is hope in the country and hope abroad. In the country there is hope for reforms, and in France and other western countries, there is hope that the fortress Syria, built by the respected and feared Hafez, would not and cannot be maintained by his son.  France wanted Syria's influence in Lebanon diminished.  Lebanon was and still is a source of great tension between the two countries.  While close collaborations between Damascus and Paris at the security and economic levels were ongoing, a tension was building between the two countries in Lebanon, mainly thanks to Lebanon's prime minsiter, Rafik Hariri.  

Rafik Hariri worked hand in hand with both the Syrians and the French, and it is understood that it was Hariri, whom Chirac had met earlier in 1981 at a donor’s event after his failed bid for France’s presidency, who suggested to Chirac to mentor young Bashar. Hariri’s role is dissected at length in the book and he will attempt to emancipate himself from Syria by using his personal relationship with Chirac.  There is a story about Chriac visiting Damascus for Hafez’s funerals.  He pays a visit to the French embassy where he is secretly met by Hariri welcoming him on the stairs as if he were the real owner of the place.  This small event is emblematic of Hariri and of the relations between the two men.  Chirac’s Middle East policy became hijacked by Rafik Hariri who counselled Chirac on all matters related to the Middle East, to the great dismay of the Quai d’Orsay, and the French secret services, who saw in it a ‘Harirization’ of France’s foreign policy in the region.   

Chirac wanted to act as a mentor for Bashar and Bahsar granted French advisors and companies contracts in a bid to reform the state apparatus at the adminsitrative level and open the economy to foreign and private investments.  The authors speak on many occasions of Bashar’s genuine desire to distinguish his rule from his father’s.  But Bashar faced resistance at home from an anchylosed state apparatus and administration, and from old regime apparatchiks like Abdel Halim Khaddam who would later leave Syria for a Hariri paid golden exile in France.  Bashar’s willingness to reform the state had many French experts, businessmen and academics shuttling between France and Damascus, invited to evaluate and propose partnerships and solutions, including the creation of a national school of administration modeled on the French one, which produces high level civil servants and elected officials.  The authors tell the story of the French academic, responsible for setting up the Syrian school of administration, visiting Rafik Hariri in Beirut to offer him the same deal, at the behest of Chirac who wanted to please his friend Hariri.  They say Hariri wasn’t interested.  He received the Academic in his bedroom, in his pajamas, and told her that he was more interested in the creation of business opportunities, not in governance.   

The frantic collaboration in education, culture, and business investments will resume with Sarkozy between 2008 and 2011, after the relation cools between 2005 and 2008, due to the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  Syria stood accused of assassinating Hariri, but the international community later absolved Syria only to point fingers at Hezbollah.

The Harirization of France’s foreign policy meant that France was seeing the region through the lens of political Sunni Islam since Hariri’s patron is the king of Saudi Arabia.   This might have led to a de facto rapprochement between France and the US who was also close to Saudi Arabia when it came to crafting its policies in Lebanon and Syria.

But during the period between 2000 and 2005, Hariri grew frustrated with Bashar as Bashar wasn’t letting Hariri, who was a businessman more than a politician, lay hands on Syria’s new budding economy, especially the telecom sector which the Baath considered as a sector of strategic importance not to be given to outsiders.

Regime change

Hariri was the origin of UN resolution 1559 sponsored by France and for which France cooperated closely with the US to demand all foreign armies depart Lebanon.  This was a first in France's policy in the region where it previously had a policy distinctive from the US.  But UN1559 failed to weaken the Syrian influence in Lebanon after 2005.  So after what might have been considered as a last attempt to co-opt Bashar, encouraged this time by Qatar and executed by Nicolas Sarkozy, between 2008 and 2011, a decision for direct regime change in Syria was taking shape in the minds of western politicians when the 'Arab Spring' knocked at Syria's door in Deraa.  In a recent interview with Paris-Match, Bashar el-Assad confirmed that Sarkozy’s initiative to resume good relations with Damascus was at Qatar’s behest.  It is reasonable to believe that the French were surprised by what happened in Deraa. Assad was due to make a high level visit to Paris in 2011, after his highly visible 2008 visit where he attended the Bastille day parade.  Between 2008 and 2011, Assad visited Paris at least three times, two on an official schedule and once in a private capacity with his wife.  Sarkozy’s ‘Relance’ was beneficial for France.  Between 2008 and 2011, La crème de la crème of French companies were signing contracts with the Syrian state and private French entrepreneurs were opening businesses in Syria.  However, business wasn't easy for foreign companies in Syria because of the problem of state corruption.

But despite the ups and downs,  and up until the uprising, the authors write that the security collaboration never ceased between Syria and France, even after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. France honored its contracts to deliver two Helicopters for Bashar’s personal use in June 2005, 4 months after Hariri’s assassination.  And Alcatel built a secured network of telecommunications on Mount Qassioun for fourteen of the highest ranking members of the ruling Baath party.  This despite France’s deep involvment with the international justice process that accused Syria of Hariri's assassination.  Its agents were first on the ground of the explosion that killed Hariri and members of his convoy.  France was also involved in producing a witness who was later discredited.  France hosted a re creation of the Beirut explosion on its terrirory for the international tribunal, in great secrecy, allowing only Israeli planes to fly over the site two days before the reenactment took place.  This was done without even informing homeland security about the fly-over.   

Then Deraa happened.  France seems to have been caught off-guard and was wary of not repeating the mistake of being on the wrong side as with the Tunisia revolution.  Plus, France was now feeling strong, fresh from the Libya adventure.

The agenda for regime change in Syria might have been just an idea lacking serious planning and coordination, taking shape only through improvisations along the wave of the 'Arab Spring.'  What probably weighed in the decision to proceed with precipitation in Syria was the fallout of the July 2006 war in Lebanon during which Syria provided support and weapons to Hezbollah to resist the Israeli assault.  This made Hezbollah and his Syrian and Iranian allies strong and made the matter to break this alliance urgent. 

However, the Syrian uprising was unfolding on the ground in a different manner from what was described in the media and in the communiqués of the Quai d’Orsay.  The authors write that at the height of the civil non violent protests there were only 400000 present over a total of twenty two million people. French intelligence agents, who were present on the ground in Deraa and elsewhere, witnessed violent protests by Islamists early on.   We learn for example that there were French agents in Baba 'Amr in Homs when French journalist Edith Bouvier was evacuated and that they were probably the reason why Edith Bouvier refused to be evacuated by the Syrian red crescent.  Early on, the chants weren’t ‘selmiah’ (we want peace), but ‘we want to topple Assad.’  Early on, Islamists, organised and supported from the outside, were armed on the ground.  Early on, the media lied.   The French ambassador Eric Chevalier present in Syria at the time, and who famously went to Hama on his own initiative with Robert Ford when the protests started there, complained about France24 for its biased coverage, which wasn’t in his opinion close to the reality inside Syria.  Chevalier was adamant at repeating that regime change wasn't going to be easy in Syria and that Assad wasn't going to fall. 

The irreality of the Syrian war in the media

The authors critique the media when they write that, caught by a defiant international media whose coverage was about regime change, the Syrian regime didn't want to appear bent on reforms, because there was a risk of appearing soft, and losing ground.  They also argue that if the protests were only internally motivated, asking for reforms, then a simple apology for the Deraa shootings might have worked.  This is argued in a chapter titled ‘The sorcerer’s apprentices’ and validate the early assessment made by Assad of the protests, that they were the work of external actors waging war on Syria. For instance, it is obvious that the Muslim Brotherhood led the early protests and it is known that the Muslim Brotherhood had no foothold in Syria, being an external organization, not a grassroot Syrian organization.  The authors also write that the Islamist radicals, not indigenous to Syria, did not want a pacifist rebellion which was going to leave them on the side. They prepared the ground for a military rebellion very early.  There are many indications in the book that external actors wanted to militarize the crisis.  Former deputy prime minister Abdallah Dardari confided to the authors that intercepted phone communications heard Saudis saying ‘we want blood.’  There were also calls from the radical cleric Ibn Andallah al-Hosni to kill Christians, Shias and Alawites, as early as August 2011.  The same cleric also spoke of the need for an influx of foreign fighters to make jihad in Syria, adding that, following the Libyan model, Syria needs an alliance between the West and militant Islam (quoted verbatim by the authors).   This was the time when the West thought it could control Islamist fighters and use them to achieve its ends in Libya, Syria and maybe elsewhere.  Under this tacit paradigm, western media turned a blind eye on the militarization and the sectarian and extremist characters of the rebellion, and presented a pacifist rebellion oppressed by an evil regime.  Only more than a year later, early 2013,  the media came to admit that there was some armed rebellion in Syria.  By then they started to speak of a ‘mainly pacifist rebellion.’ On the other hand, the authors write that under assault, the regime hardened its stance, and from August first to August eight 2011, many prominent pacifist militants were arrested or assassinated. Syria's tragic fate was sealed early in the crisis.

Once the uprising turned to militarization, western powers, France included, who by then uttered only the usual ‘Assad must go’, delegated the management of the crisis to Qatar.  They will come to regret it later.  Contacts were taken with secular opponents of the regime to join the external opposition, which was mainly Islamist, for the sole purpose to hide both the Islamist and militaristic aspect of the uprising, to make the uprising appear as an internal one, and to provide a fig leaf to a full blown war on Syria by external powers.  But the fig leaf won’t work for long, secular figures were a minority in the opposition.  Under the patronage of Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood imposed its conditions, using secular figures without giving them support, and refusing a proposal to form an internal opposition council, which would have led to a diminished Brotherhood influence.

In octobre 2011, When Sarkozy’s foreign minister Alain Juppé meets with the newly formed opposition council, with secular fig leaves Kodmani and Ghalioun as members, he speaks of France’s support for the pacifist revolution.  But by then the ‘revolution’ was fully militarized and fully Islamist.

The drive for a war of intervention led by France and the UK with chemical weapons as casus belli

The chapter titled ‘La haine’ (the hate) exposes the attempts made by France to provoke an intervention in Syria.  Most of these attempts turned around chemical weapons' use and how France tried to pin it on the regime despite the fact that there was no hard evidence the regime used chemical weapons.  Moreover, France blatanly ignored the use of chemical weapons in the spring 2013 by the rebels in the Aleppo area.  The authors come to the same conclusion as Seymour Hersh in his two investigative reports about the subject, published in the LRB, here and here.  They detail the implication of the Élysée in doctoring a report on chemical attacks in which the informants’ note, that a gaz leak could have resulted from a regime bombardement of a secret rebels’ chemical weapons laboratory, was simply redacted. 

But another interesting story is the alleged ‘investigation’ led by a journal close to the French government line on Syria, Le Monde, on chemical weapons’ use.  Starting in May 2013, le Monde published a series of articles on chemical weapons’ use by the Syrian regime in Ghouta.  Laurent Fabius, foreign minister under Hollande, thanked Le Monde for their 'help' in a June 5th appearance on French TV channel 2.  However, Chesnot and Malbrunot reveal that Le Monde journalists who took the samples from Syria, served only as ‘mules’ carrying samples given to them by the doctors of the ‘free Syrian Army’, collected from more than one site, sites that le Monde journalists weren’t able to verify.  Le Monde photographer and journalist took the samples and handed them to French intel agents across the border in Amman, where they were stationed after the closure of their embassy in Damascus.  The samples were then given to the French embassy in Amman who sent them directly to the only Paris laboratory capable of analyzing such samples, without the knowledge of the Quai d’Orsay.  The Quai was surprised to receive a letter from Le Monde editor-in-chief, Nathalie Nougayrède, asking when she could expect the results of the analysis.  Under such circumstances, The Quai had to publish the results, which converged with earlier reports made after sample collection by French intelligence.  The results of the French investigations pointed to discrete traces of sarin used on a small scale.  It is around this time, write the authors, that Paris and London, against all other western countries, were in a drive for an intervention war on Syria. The next chemical weapons attack of August 2013 was just few weeks away and it was going to be on a larger scale.

The 'New Roads to Damascus'

The book ends with a final chapter titled  ‘The new roads to Damascus’.  In it, the auhtors conclude that Paris, among all other countries, must have known well the difficulties related to regime change in Syria because of the strength of the regime.  The Syrian government, ever since an earlier bloody revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the eighties, was ready for such a challenge.  The authors advise that western countries should have aimed for reform and not for regime change.  They anticipate the resumption of relations between western countries and the current regime in Damascus, and the need for security collaboration between Syria and the West to fight Islamist radicals.

The authors write that France acted with emotions and was not able to assess the reality of the uprising but rather wanted its wish for regime change to become a reality.  Not everyone saw things this way: as dissent inside the Quai d’Orsay grew on the irrealist stance France took on Syria, a personal envoy of Sarkozy was disptached to tell dissenters that one message was to be heard and followed: ‘Assad was going to fall.’  Where differences of opinions existed, they were muted.  

What emerges from the book is a relationship between France and Syria that became vassalized, subjected to other interests: the Gulf and the US.  Chirac saw Syria through the eyes of his friend Hariri and Saudi Arabia.  And Sarkozy departed from Chirac’s policy only to follow Qatar’s.  In both cases, the US, whose policies in the region have long been aligned with the Gulf's, won by rallying to its hardline on Syria, and in both cases, the formidable French diplomacy in the Levant not only became redundant, but was now working against its initial aims when it won a mandate on these countries after WWI; protecting Christian minorities.

Contrary to appearances, France didn’t lead during the Syrian crisis, it merely followed blindly, and against its own intelligence, experience and interests, policies made in the United States and the Gulf, serving as a frontline for these policies. The best proof of this is that one can look hard at a rationale, direction, and centre of decision for France's Syria policy, and yet find none.


Gert said...

Dear G-d, have I been lied to again? Was the 'Syrian Spring' tainted by Islamists almost from the beginning?

That is what the book seems to be saying.

Help me out here, please?

Sophia said...

Yes, there is lots of evidence for this that was hidden by a complicit media.

Since March 29th 2006