BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 September, 2004, 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK
France and Syria: A tangled history
Allan Little
By Allan Little
BBC, Damascus

Hafez al-Assad and Jacques Chirac
Assad and Chirac: France has long had involvement with Syria
When Syria's old ruler Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 most western leaders stayed away from his funeral. The United States, after all, blames Syria for harbouring terrorist groups, and for failing to disclose stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But not French President Jacques Chirac. He went to the funeral rites of the dead potentate.

It is said that, that day, the French president told the young son and heir, Bashar al-Assad: "I extended the hand of friendship to your father, and I extend it to you today."

France has been present in what used to be known as the Levant for a millennium.

The landscape of Syria is dotted with the magnificent fortified castles that the Crusaders - the founders of the medieval Frankish kingdoms - left behind.

France was the mandatory power in Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, from 1918-1946.

I went to Syria because I am interested in France; in what France stands for in the Arab world.

Invasion and democracy

We all know what the Americans believe: they believe you can introduce democracy to an Arab country by invading it. That is the great experiment in the Gulf region, and Iraq is its laboratory.

But what about France?

Washington has given up on Bashar al-Assad - the Accountability Act makes it illegal for American businesses to do business in Syria.

America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western. America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system
France believes in him. Paris believes that the new president is not like his father. France believes Bashar wants change. And France wants to try to help him.

French aid to Syria is not financial. It is human. High level teams of French experts are seconded to Damascus to advise on restructuring of the state.

Syria is in a state of chronic paralysis. Its economy - part Soviet, part Chinese in its inspiration - cannot create the wealth needed to absorb the new generations coming onto the job market.

In a world in which unemployed and despairing young men turn to radical Islam for their inspiration, the need for reform is urgent.

But is it enough? Will it work? Syria - despite France's involvement - remains a dictatorship. It is still a security state.

Its economy is still controlled by powerful, monopolistic vested interests which can be expected to resist moves to make Syria a more open, competitive and investment friendly place.

Gaullist ideals

And if - as France believes - President Assad is interested in change, why, four years after he came to power, does Syria remain manifestly unchanged?

Damascus street scene
Syria remains unchanged and its economy in paralysis
It is part of the Gaullist world view that France has a special role in the world, even a destiny; a duty to stand for certain ideals.

France wraps its activities in the Arab world in the language of Gaullism. But it is also part of the condition of 21st Century France that it cannot match its lofty rhetoric - its lofty sense of itself - with real action, or real achievement.

Self-evidently, France could not stop the Anglo-American juggernaut in Iraq.

Self-evidently, four decades of French support for the Palestinian cause has not advanced the cause of Palestinian statehood.

Self-evidently, France's efforts to bring Syria in from the cold have done nothing - as yet - to change the reality of the Syrian regime.

Taking a stand

In a world defined by overwhelming American might, France can take a stand, knowing that in the end it will not be judged by its ability to turn rhetoric into action. It is enough to stand up to America; no-one expects France to be able to stop America.

And France, confronted by its own powerlessness, cannot resist taking solace in the misfortune of its mighty Anglo-Saxon rival.

I came to Syria because I was interested in France.

Because while France was saying "no" to America and Britain, no to the imposition of democracy by military force, I wanted to understand what it was the French were saying "yes" to.

And the difference is the difference between idealism and pragmatism.

America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western.

America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system.

Each - in separate ways - is trying to re-shape the Arab world in its own image - and bend the Arab world to its own needs.

The Arab world - you sense - has different plans altogether.

Chirac's New Backyard, presented by Allan Little, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 September, 2004 at 2000 BST.

Syria feels squeeze over Lebanon
05 Sep 04  |  Middle East
UN backs Lebanon sovereignty call
03 Sep 04  |  Middle East
Reformist despair in Assad's Syria
06 Jul 04  |  Middle East
Syrian intellectuals urge reform
04 Feb 04  |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
11 Aug 04  |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific