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  April 16, 2018

France Joins US in a 'Poker Game,' Targeting Iran and Hezbollah

Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid says France is joining the US and UK in Syria to assert its imperial power, even as the war winds down
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BEN NORTON: For the Real News, I'm Ben Norton. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France launched a joint attack on Syrian government targets on Friday, April 13. Legal experts have said the attack violated international law, as there had been no U.N. approval of the use of force. The strike was in response to an alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria the week before, but there had been no independent international investigation before the U.S., UK, and French strike. The OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has just begun its mandate on the ground in a fact-finding mission in Syria.

In the U.S. media there has been some reporting on the U.S. and U.K. military intervention in Syria. But the role of France in Syria has largely been overlooked. On Sunday, April 15, French President Emmanuel Macron had a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump. Macron claimed that he convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria. There are currently at least 2000 U.S. troops in the country. Legal experts say the U.S. military presence in Syria is also illegal, as it does not have any international legitimacy under international law. In early April Trump claimed he was considering moving to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, although this was unlikely to happen, and White House officials said otherwise.

Joining us to discuss the role of France in Syria, and particularly the recent French air strike on Syria, is Akram Belkaid. Akram is an Algerian journalist and a regular contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatic. He's also the author of several books. Thank you for joining us.

So can we speak, first of all, about the recent airstrike? This was a joint airstrike, a series of airstrikes, there were, there were more than 100 missiles launched, in a joint operation by the U.S. the U.K. and France. Before we speak more generally about France's role in Syria, can you speak about particularly France's role in this recent strike?

AKRAM BELKAID: Well, clearly, and according to the information we had, France have fully participated to this action, to this military action. And the President Macron claimed that it was a legitimate action against the regime of Mr. Assad, and because of the red line, or the use, being passed because of the regime of Mr. Assad used chemical weapons. If we do have to analyze this action, I mean, it's, it's quite a surprise, because in the past, in 2015, the French government was clearly against the regime of Mr. Assad. Was trying to intervene, or was trying to convince the U.S. to intervene military in , in Syria. And we do remember that Francois Hollande in 2013 was clearly ready to attack Damascus, and to attack Mr Assad's regime because of the use at that time already of chemical weapons. And till now you have officials here in France still criticizing Mr. Obama being president at that time of the U.S. of not, because he, he canceled the last minute this military action.

When elected, when Mr. Macron arrived at the power last year, we felt that we were going to witness a shift in the policy, because Mr. Macron appeared to be clearly, I mean, pragmatical, trying to convince the public opinion that a pragmatical solution, a political solution, had to be found in Syria, and that this political city solution didn't mean the exclusion of Mr. Assad from from any solution. So this is why many people were surprised to see that France participated to this military action last week against some targets in Syria.

BEN NORTON: And can you also speak about MacronÂ’s recent phone call with Trump? That is, on Sunday, that is April 15, Macron took credit for convincing Trump to keep U.S. troops. You know, as I mentioned, it was unlikely in the first place the U.S. would withdraw troops. The U.S. has at least ten military bases in northern Syria, with at least 2000 troops. So why do you think Macron is taking political credit for this? What do you think his motivations are for trying to keep U.S. troops in Syria?

AKRAM BELKAID: I don't, I don't know clearly if it's true. I mean, I don't know if he has convinced Mr. Trump to do that. I mean, but it's clearly political communication, and this political communication is directed to the French public audience, to the French public opinion. Because you have to know that right now in France we are facing a n important social unrest. We have demonstrations, we have strikes, we have people clearly criticizing the policy of Mr. Macron, social policy. His reforms are criticized. His approval rate is not so high as he was in the past month. So clearly Mr. Macron is doing the same that has been done by Francois Hollande before, or even by Nicolas Sarkozy, using international affairs, using international geopolitics to appear as strong, as being a strong president, as having a big influence on the world affairs.

And this is why, I guess, Macron claims that he convinced Donald Trump to not withdraw from, withdraw the U.S. troops from from Syria. Because you know, it gives a kind of credence to, to, to Macron, as if France was still a great power, and that France has still a big influence in the world. This is one of the reasons, I guess, why we had these kind of details about the phone call between Mr. Macron and Mr. Trump.

BEN NORTON: And can we speak more generally about France's position on the war in Syria, and specifically on Iran? Last week, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and the de facto ruler, visited with Emmanuel Macron. They had several meetings. They signed billions of dollars in business agreements. And specifically, one of the things they agreed to was French and Saudi collaboration in order to undermine Iran in the region. Why is France taking such an aggressive position against Iran? You know, clearly there is a long history of U.S., U.K., France relations and allying together in the Middle East, particularly on the question of Iran. But it seems to me that France would have different economic and political interests than the United States. Why is Macron taking such an aggressive posture against Tehran?

AKRAM BELKAID: Well, when, you have to know that we are facing right now two contradictory forces inside the political life in France. I mean, in the past years there were many officials, among them the Foreign Ministry, Laurent Fabius, and even Francois Hollande, they were against the nuclear deal with Iran. They were clearly having a very harsh stance against Iran.

Of course, when Macron was elected, it appears that France would support this deal and that they were trying to protect this nuclear deal. Today it appears for us to, that Macron is not so categorical about trying to manage a balanced position between the U.S. position against Iran, the Israeli position against Iran, and the traditional role of France in the area, which has always been balanced. I mean, even when there were very important problems between Washington and Tehran, France always tried, I mean, in the '80s, in the '90s. Always tried to play a balanced role between both sides. Today we can understand that maybe something is being prepared in the area. Maybe France has decided that Iran is the target is the enemy and that we have to support what Saudi Arabia wants, what maybe the Trump administration wants, what the Netanyahu government wants is clearly very strong actions, action against, against Iran.

And you have to know also that the French position, and also the fact that France participated, have participated to the military action against Syria last week, is clearly deeply criticized in the country right now. I mean, no one, there is a national agreement about about what has happened in Syria last week. Many people are accusing Macron of playing a role of the superlative force of the U.S., of trying to be a vassal, a kind of vassal of of Donald Trump. So even people that are against the regime of Mr. Assad are convinced that that is not a solution, to participate to an illegal action.

And always we have, we are witnessing right now a kind of poker game where the war in Syria, what is happening in Syria, we may say that it's ended. The next step is what is going to happen with Iran, and maybe with the Hezbollah. And without that, France was going to play the role of trying to to enforce the peace and not to allow the situation to be more complicated than it is right now. We have to know something, also. Of course there are huge interests in doing business with Saudi Arabia. But in the same time the business community is really interested by Iran. And all the topics we see clearly that Iran today is a very important market for the French business community, and they're trying to convince the French government to lift the sanctions and to enforce the agreement of 2015.

And this, this is something Emmanuel Macron knows, and he'll deal with that because he is going to explain, if something happens, I mean, a war or more important crisis with Iran, it's clearly that many French companies are going to lose contracts signed in, in Iran. Equipment, food products. And this is something that is regularly covered by the French press. I mean, Iran is today seen as a kind of new frontier for the business, and also for the tourism. Many French tourists that used to go to the Middle East are today shifting to to Iran. So it's not going to be easy to explain to the French public opinion that Iran is the evil that we have to attack.

BEN NORTON: We'll have to end the interview there. We were joined by Akram Belkaid. Akram is an Algerian journalist and a regular contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatic. He is also the author of several books. Thanks so much for joining us.


BEN NORTON: Reporting for the Real News, I'm Ben Norton.


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