France Recognizes Syria’s Opposition—Will the West Follow Suit?

French President François Hollande becomes the first Western leader to recognize the newly-formed coalition leadership of Syrian rebel forces, and ups pressure on other nations to follow his lead.

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Philippe Wojazer / Pool / AP

French President Francois Hollande addresses reporters during a press conference held at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Nov. 13, 2012.

France has become the first Western nation to recognize the newly formed coalition of Syrian opposition groups as the legitimate representative of that war-torn nation. During the first major press conference of his presidency Tuesday evening, French President François Hollande saluted the united opposition formed in Qatar Nov. 11 as the basis for “future provisional government of a democratic Syria.” He also backed its efforts to topple the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad.

“I announce today that France recognizes the Syrian National Council as the sole representative of the Syrian people, and as the future government of a democratic Syria bringing an end to Bashar Assad’s regime,” Hollande said during a two-and-a-half-hour press conference in a packed Elysée Palace.

(MORE: Syria’s opposition wins Western backing, but what about guns?)

The move is considered a potentially significant step in the conflict—one that began with Arab Spring civil protests extending to Syria, and evolved into full-blown civil war as Assad tried to suppress the movement with violence. With the significant exception of China and Russia, most governments around the world have called on Assad to halt the ruthless military offensive that has claimed countless civilian lives—some estimates count the 20-month toll at more than 30,000 dead—and either enter negotiations with opposition forces or simply give up power altogether. But until Sunday’s forging in Doha of a unified structure and leadership, foreign governments were largely limited to supporting Assad’s ouster, rather than backing a clearly identifiable successor amid the myriad groups opposing him.

Hollande’s recognition of the Syrian coalition seeks to nurture the nascent political resolution to the conflict. Though it’s evident the very formation of the opposition structure largely relied on Western sponsorship, that support had remained qualified till Tuesday. Both the U.S. and U.K. saluted Sunday’s development as a positive step towards an eventual political solution, but stopped short of recognizing the coalition as Syria’s de facto government in exile. Similar vocal support expressed by the Arab League and European Union Tuesday failed to extend full recognition to the new Syrian opposition collective. Prior to Hollande’s announcement, only six Gulf nations had undertaken formal recognition.

The motive for Hollande joining those ranks, Arab experts say, is to create pressure on other Western leaders to replicate. In doing so, it’s believed Hollande wants to summon the French-initiated momentum that eventually led to NATO’s bombing missions in Libya, a vital complement to the rebel push that toppled the Gaddafi regime. Though that Libyan campaign involved air strikes—a military capacity Hollande currently rules out for Syria—it seems clear France is again hoping to force action capable of hastening Assad’s fall.

(MORE: Dispatch from Aleppo, Syria’s divided, deadly metropolis.)

“Hollande is taking lead with the Syrian opposition on the logic it will force other Western nations to follow suit—especially the U.S., which has been saying political and diplomatic recognition of rebels was premature until they’d gotten their house into order,” says Karim Bitar, and Middle East and Arab world expert for the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations. “It’s a gamble, though. It may turn out other Western leaders decide the coalition doesn’t really represent—or control—divergent and at times rival militia forces in Syria, and leave France alone in recognizing its legitimacy. The move is only significant if other countries follow the French example, and attain a critical diplomatic mass.”

France has had a tormented relationship with Syria historically—starting with its role as a border-drawing colonial power, then in managing complex relationships with dictators in Damascus. Syria proved useful in advancing French interests in Middle East politics, yet Syrian leaders also cultivated rival ties with Moscow during the Cold War—cooperation that continues today. That Franco-Syrian love-hate tension has grown stronger in recent years as Paris enlisted Damascus’ assistance on vital security matters like fighting terrorism and dealing with Iran, even as France’s traditional Arab-allied diplomacy shifted in favor of Israel. Former French President Jacques Chirac virtually cut ties with Syria after its services were tied to the assassination of Lebanese premier (and Chirac friend) Rafik Hariri in 2005. Three years later, Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozywelcomed Assad as his Bastille Day guest, hailing Syria’s return to the international community. As violent repression of protests turned deadly in Syria last year, Sarkozy turned on Assad and called for his removal—a line Hollande maintains.

Bitar says skepticism elsewhere, particularly in Washington, to second France’s full embrace of the opposition leadership is further strengthened by significant differences between the conflicts in Syria—a densely populated, geopolitically complex state—and Libya. “The reality is, there are no secure zones or safe havens in Syria today similar to the ones Libyan rebels held early on in the east of Libya,” Bitar explains. “Political and diplomatic recognition of  an opposition leadership only really matters when that translates into aiding fighters on the ground—helping them build small territorial gains into an ultimately victorious offensive. At this point, the opposition leadership in Doha is more structured and stable than the militias engaged in street-to-street fighting inside Syria are.”

Hollande is confident that situation will change, and lasting control of Syrian territory by rebels can be secured. When that happens, Hollande said Tuesday, “everywhere free zones are established under the authority of the [provisional] government, they must be protected”. How that happens is a matter of great debate—and considerable risk. Hollande acknowledged that any outside military operation to protect civilians or advancing anti-Assad forces would require United Nations approval—something he did not foresee anytime soon, given Russian opposition to such action.

He also sounded his own concerns with providing arms to opposition leaders—or directly to militias. History had shown, Hollande said, “You can never be certain [arms] will get to those they’re destined for”—a reference to reports that weapons supplied to Libyan rebels wound up in the hands of anti-Western Islamist extremists. Still, as massacres by pro-Assad forces continue, Hollande said the question of arming rebels “will necessarily be posed again, not just by France, but by all nations who recognize the [provisional] government.” Expect a long bout of agonizing when it is, Bitar warns.

“This dilemma again shows the importance of knowing exactly who the fighting forces on the ground are over how well the political leadership claiming to represent them seems to be,” Bitar says. “That leadership may not represent the most effective fighting forces. They may, but that relationship may change as combat evolves. There may be outside militias involved who—once the war ends—decide they represent themselves. It’s a risky business, and you have to be very sure who you’re dealing with at all levels.”

(MORE: Syria’s Opposition Wins Western Backing, But What About Western Weapons?)