Will France take the lead on Syria?—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #85 (September 7)

In March, 2011, as the Obama administration dragged its heels and made clear it had no intention of intervening in Libya, we wrote:

For days, the administration has been signaling its unwillingness to act. First, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tilted the scales by weighing in heavily against the approval of a no-fly zone….Finally, today, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, stated in Congressional testimony that Qaddafi was likely to prevail given his advantages in troops and hardware. It is difficult, to say the least, to understand the logic that could have underlain such a tone-deaf and politically maladroit statement. Perhaps it was just inexperience and lack of foreign policy coordination. But it was disastrous in its impact.

Altogether, a most shameful spectacle.

History may well mark the month of March, 2011 as the decisive turning point in America’s leadership in world affairs. America has always been more than a state pursuing its self-interests. That era now seems past, at least under Democratic presidential leadership.

Despite its cynical record of dealings with dictatorships in the past, it is now to France, that other beacon of human liberty–since the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the defeat of Fascism in 1945 (made possible only with American help), that advocates of democracy and freedom must look.

If America does not want to be a champion of liberty, at least the French, drawing on their own deep traditions, have a possibility of articulating a clear moral vision that might guide us forward toward achievement of the goals of democracy and the rule of law which so many have fought for, at such great sacrifice, for over 70 years.

–The Trenchant Observer, “Libya—America Abdicates Global Leadership in Struggle for Democracy,” March 10, 2011

It seems clear that United States policy on Syria is “locked in” at least until the U.S. presidential elections on November 6, and probably far beyond. This policy is largely secret.

U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to undertake a program of covert operations relating to Syria, consisting of the following two elements:

1) the supply of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, including communications equipment, and logistical coordination; while mostly covert, these activities have been acknowledged in leaks to the press; and

2) a highly-secret covert operations program the details of which are not public, but which probably include the coordination with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and perhaps other nations of the supply of weapons, the provision to the rebels of actionable intelligence, the coordination of forces and attacks, and financial support for the insurgents, in addition to direct U.S. actions by special forces and other covert operatives within Syria.  We can only speculate, as we really don’t know.


David Ignatius, “Syria’s eerie parallel to 1980s Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 3, 2012.

Carlos Munoz, “US surges intelligence operations along Turkey-Syria border,” The Hill, August 6, 2012.

What this policy does not envision is the open use of military force to establish a no-fly zone or to defend safe zones which have been set up within Syria, or other measures which would defend the population of Syria against the murderous onslaughts of the Syrian Dictator.

Moreover, the covert nature of the program entails risks, as reports indicate that the approach used in Afghanistan in the 1980’s after the Soviet invasion of that country is perhaps being followed, with the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, playing a key role as he did in the 1980’s effort in Afghanistan when he was the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.

The covert nature of the program also makes it difficult to mobilize support from other civilized countries, due to the absence of international legal constraints and the inability of such countries to mobilize domestic support for U.S. covert activities.

In any event, what Obama’s covert war in Syria promises is a long, drawn-out conflict and continuing civil war in Syria, which even the departure of Bashar al-Assad might not be able to stop. With the Saudis funding the operations, their affinity for groups that are either Wahabist or otherwise deeply conservative runs the risk of favoring such groups over other more secular groups among the Syrian armed opposition.

With the United States locked into a covert policy in Syria which does not promise to bring the mass crimes of Bashar al-Assad to an early halt, there is a gaping leadership vacuum among the civilized nations of the world which might potentially act, outside the Security Council, to bring the killing to a halt.

Will France step into the breach?

Despite President François Hollande’s initially cautious approach to Syria, there are signs that France is now moving in that direction. France has recently decided to provide financial support to five cities in “liberated” areas of Syria, and there have been reports that it is considering providing artillery to the Syrian armed opposition to help defend certain areas in Syria.

However,  a European Union arms embargo may impose restrictions on the supply of arms to the opposition.  U.K. Foreign Minister Willian Hague has stated that the supply of arms to rebels in Syria would violate a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

“At the moment we have a European Union arms embargo on Syria, it’s not possible or legal for any EU nation to send weapons to anybody in Syria and therefore our chosen route and is the same route of France and the United States, is to give non-lethal assistance and we’re doing that,” Hague told reporters in response to a question about whether France may be considering providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

–Lori Hinnant (AP), “French Direct Aid a Dubious Break for Syria Rebels
ABC News, September 7, 2012

The signficance of the reports that France is considering sending arms to Syria is that it now seems on the verge of taking on the mantle of leadership on Syria, or trying to.

Much will depend on whether the United States will attempt to block the French initiative, as it did recently with another initiative when France announced it would recognize a provisional government in Syria when it is formed. Also, any problem with the EU regulation establishing an arms embargo to which Hague referred would need to be resolved, unless France were to resort to the covert operations approach of the Obama administration.

Assuming it can overcome these obstacles, will France lead?

Former President Nicholas Sarkozy has called for intervention in Syria. As the leader of the UMP, the main opposition party, his demands have repercussions within the French political system.  At the moment, it can hardly be said that there is any public clamor for intervention in Syria, though that could change.  Nonetheless, any Socialist government policy of intervention in Syria that is supported by the UMP would be unlikely to generate strong domestic opposition.


Frédéric Gerschel, “Syrie : Bernard-Henri Lévy déçu par François Hollande; Alors que les combats font rage dans le pays, Bernard-Henri Lévy demande au chef de l’Etat d’être plus ferme. Comme son prédécesseur, Nicolas Sarkozy, l’avait été en Libye l’an dernier,” Le Parisien, 3 août 2012.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Des avions pour Alep!” Le Monde, 14 août 2012(Mis à jour le 15.08.2012 à 15h40)(opinion).

Frédéric Gerschel, “Hollande a reçu BHL à l’Elysée pour parler de la Syrie,” Le Parisien, 4 septembre 2012.

In principle, it could be in the interests of the United States to let France take the leadership role on Syria in the next two months, at least until after the elections.

There is an urgent need for leadership now, from some quarter, as the situation in Syria spins increasingly out of control.  Iraq, it is now revealed, has been allowing Iran to use its air space to transport military personnel and equipment to Syria to support the al-Assad regime.  There is sharp disagreement between Israel and the U.S. over whether and when to attack Iran if it continues on its path to nuclear weapons.


Michael R. Gordon, “Iran Supplying Syrian Military via Iraqi Airspace,” New York Times, September 4, 2012.

Unfortunately, world events do not march to the drumbeats of the electoral campaign in the United States, or defer to Barack Obama’s determination not to intervene militarily in Syria “regardless of the consequences”.

The big question is, “Will the United States, leading from the rear, allow France and others to lead from the front?”

For the French, the big question is, “Regardless of whatever obstruction the Obama administration may lay in its path, will France seize the mantle of leadership of the civilized nations in the world, and take the lead in acting to halt the destruction of Syria and its people by a murderous regime committing crimes against humanity, war crimes, and every other atrocity in the book?”

The Trenchant Observer


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About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.