France eyes Middle East influence, image with Syria gamble

Mon Nov 19, 2012 2:54pm EST
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By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande's decision to recognize Syria's new opposition bloc aims to secure long-term French interests in the region and boost his foreign policy image but, with few allies following suit, Paris may risk isolation.

With his economic policies under harsh scrutiny at home and abroad, Hollande's hesitant response to the Syria conflict before last week had been unflatteringly compared to the decisive approach of predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy when he led Western efforts to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Breaking with allies and the Arab League, Hollande took a leaf out of Sarkozy's book last week by recognizing the Syrian National Coalition and backing it to replace President Bashar al-Assad's government. He said France would even study arming rebels waging a 20-month-old uprising to topple Assad.

The move, he hopes, will hand Paris a decisive role in shaping Syria's future and give his sagging approval ratings a boost with a show of decisive statesmanship.

"Hollande was accused of not being Sarkozy's equal so he wants to show he is capable of dynamic foreign policy," said Denis Bauchard, who was the foreign ministry's Middle East director in the 1990s.

"We are trying to help put in place a stable democratic government so it shows Arab public opinion that this region remains a priority for us and we want to play a major role."

Previous efforts to unite the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council ultimately failed after widespread accusations that the SNC had little sway within Syria and was dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Paris is concerned that the window to unite the opposition is disappearing and the longer disunity prevails the more likely jihadist and al Qaeda elements, hostile to the West and now among the insurgents fighting Assad, would emerge on top.   Continued...

France's President Francois Hollande and the new Syrian National Coalition head Mouaz al-Khatib (R) speak to journalists in the courtyard following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 17, 2012. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier