French President François Hollande marched into Washington, D.C., Tuesday, accompanied by the beat of war drums and cries of “Aux armes, citoyens!” President Flanby — custard, as the French derisively dub their jiggly, inoffensive Socialist leader — has turned into Rambo these days.
Since the Nov. 13 attacks, which killed 130 people, Hollande and his ministers can’t seem to open their mouths without uttering the words, “la guerre.” French politicians are flying by the seat of their pants trying to respond — and be seen to be responding — to a jihadi threat that has been brewing over the past two years. Rafale fighter jets are now bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. Emergency rule has been extended. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned an already jittered populace of chemical and biological terrorist threats. Constitutional amendments are being mulled over, and politicians are discussing new laws that will be tougher than the old-new tough ones passed after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January that critics dubbed “le Patriot Act à la française.”
Paris is beginning to feel a lot like Washington back in those terrible post-9/11 days, when the world was either “with us or against us” as we waged our “war on terror” against the “axis of evil.” So, in a way, Flanby (turned Rambo) going to Washington is a bit like coming home.
This time, it’s a lightning visit à l’américaine. The moment Hollande steps off the presidential Airbus A330-223 until he boards it again for a Moscow-bound flight midweek, the French president will have one message for his U.S. counterpart: Europe is in peril! Quick Obama, step up to the plate.
“The problem is that the attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis show that we don’t have time. There is an emergency,” a European diplomat told the Guardian last week. The diplomat, who did not want to be identified, sounded like a British conservative when he noted that the migrant crisis “is dividing the Europeans, destabilizing the continent, so we have to act quickly, telling the U.S. administration the core interests of the Europeans, your best allies, are at stake.”
How it makes one wish for the good old days, when the Syrian migrants were just a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron put it. Post-Paris attacks, European conservatives and right-wingers are turning them into a swarm of terrorists. But to his credit, Hollande has not jumped on the populist refugee-bashing bandwagon even though he faces regional elections next month, when Marine Le Pen’s National Front is expected to make big gains.
While the migrant issue certainly features on Hollande’s agenda, it’s not as high as trying to find some sort of solution to the Islamic State crisis, which, after all, is one of the sources of the refugee crisis.
The French president’s priority is to form “une grande coalition” to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This involves getting the United States and Russia to put aside their differences and come together over a common enemy — with a little nudging from the French.
Russia appears to be inching closer to the U.S.-EU position in the wake of the Paris attacks and the Federal Security Service’s acknowledgment last week that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt’s Sinai region. In a rare diplomatic convergence on Syria, Russia approved a French resolution at the United Nations last week, calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” to combat the Islamic State. On the military front, Russia, the United States, and France are coordinating on “deconfliction,” or alerting each other to avoid airspace collisions, as they pummel Islamic State targets in the eastern Syrian desert. Of course, the downing of a Russian fighter jet on Tuesday by Turkey, a NATO member, only heightens the tension and imperative for cooperation — lest things spiral out of hand.
But if we’re all allies in the fight against the so-called “caliphate,” we can’t seem to agree on the Lion King in Damascus. Over the past few months, there has been much talk of Washington and Paris easing their “President Bashar al-Assad must go” position to “Assad may stay a while” until a transition to the great unknown is hammered out.
In a rousing speech before a special session of parliament the first working day after the Paris attacks, Hollande signaled a shift in France’s hard-line stance when he noted that the country’s new top priority is the fight against the Islamic State.
The Paris attacks have done wonders for Assad. On both sides of the Atlantic, some influential people are starting to warm up to — or at the very least tolerate — him. In an interview with CBS News, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell acknowledged that Washington’s Syria strategy has not worked and it was “time to look at something else.” Assad, he conceded, was “part of the problem,” but Morell noted that “he may also be part of the solution.”
In France, the calls for Hollande to adopt a realistic approach to Syria have turned into a roar. Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine did not mince his words in a France Inter radio interview in late September when he said, “Let’s not forget that in the fight against Hitler, we had to ally with Stalin, who killed more people than Hitler.”
That’s a Socialist former minister and a darling in certain French lefty circles talking. In Parisian chattering circles, where speculation of a cabinet reshuffle is rife, Védrine is on top of the speculation charts to replace Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the staunchest defender of the “Assad must go” position.
On the extreme right — a rising force in France — the romance with Assad, the exterminator of “les barbus” (the bearded ones), never faded. A day after the attacks, right-wing French weekly Valeurs Actuelles featured an exclusive interview with Assad that was chilling both for the sycophantic questions and the hubris of the replies. Here’s a sampling: “Q: If you had one message for M. Hollande and M. Fabius, especially after what happened in Paris yesterday, what would it be? Is it ‘please cut your relations urgently with Qatar and Saudi Arabia’?” To which, the Syrian strongman grandly replied: “My message to Hollande and Fabius … be serious when you talk about fighting terrorists.”
Right. Here’s my message to the “Assad may stay a while” crowd: Be serious when you talk about finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. Assad has no plans to take a hankie out of his coat and wave the Syrian people goodbye when that transition train arrives at the station. The Assads do not go gently into the good night; they learn lessons in holding on to power at the family breakfast table.
We may tell ourselves that the old devil Baathist we know is better than a barbu we don’t. We may even console ourselves that at least he won’t annihilate the minorities and blow up heritage sites. But this sympathy for the devil will get us nowhere.
If we make a peace that involves Assad in power without facing justice, it will be a peace to end all peace. Sunni disaffection will see legions of young men across the Arab world and Europe getting lured by the call to fight Assad. We can legislate and pass emergency laws until the cows come home, but we will be swimming ineffectively against the tide rushing toward jihad.
I’m no fan of oil-soaked Gulf monarchs, but if they’re warning us about this route to a so-called peace, we must pay attention or we will all pay the price. It seems to me that over the past few months — and certainly after the Paris attacks — a number of people have been channelizing their anger and frustration over the Syrian quagmire onto Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni powers. The justifiable old rancor over the Saudis spreading their deplorable Wahhabi doctrine is blinding our ability to understand that the Islamic State’s brand of jihadis poses an existential threat to the House of Saud. After all these years, is it that difficult to make the flow of Gulf money for noxious Wahhabi cultural imports illegal? In France, the doomsday scenario of a Muslim Brotherhood-like political takeover painted by writer Michel Houellebecq in his latest book, Submission, has tied neatly into simmering anti-Qatari resentment over a parvenu Gulf takeover of all things quintessentially French.
Into this “amalgame” — as the French call the mixing of unrelated ideas — a secular Baathist tyrant is a veritable savior. But look how our last savior, Nouri al-Maliki, saved the peace in neighboring Iraq.
There’s no question the Syrian crisis needs a political solution. Getting all parties together is the answer — as the Saudis did in Taif, when all parties in the grinding, complex Lebanese civil war were thoroughly exhausted. Frankly, I don’t understand why France, the United States, and Russia are mucking around these parts. (OK, I do understand why. I just wish they wouldn’t.) Getting the Iranians and Saudis, along with other Sunni powers, to sit together to sort out their Shiite-Sunni hissy fit will move us closer to a solution than Hollande jetting around Washington and Moscow. Whatever happens this week, if Hollande loses his nouveau Rambo nerve and turns flanby before a steely Putin propping up Assad, there will be no let-up to the violence in the Middle East — or on the streets of Paris, Brussels, and places in between.