PARIS - Sidelined from the US-Russia negotiations on chemical weapons, France is determined that demands for President Bashar al-Assad to be tried for war crimes do not drop off the rapidly shifting international agenda.
Publicly, France hailed Saturday’s deal in Geneva to eliminate Assad’s deadly chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
But privately there is disquiet in Paris about an accord that some fear could bestow renewed legitimacy on Assad, consolidate his grip on power and stall moves to bolster the opposition coalition that France has championed.
Diplomats say that was reflected in the double-edged statement issued by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in response to the Geneva deal.
While praising it as a “significant step forward", Fabius also emphasised that the next steps should be shaped by the contents of a report, due to be published Monday, by UN inspectors probing the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
France’s Socialist government unequivocally backed punitive military action in response to what they regard as a watershed moment in Syria’s civil war, and Fabius has indicated that he expects the UN report to point a finger of blame in the direction of the regime.
“What we are saying is that the Geneva accord does not settle all accounts,” said a well-placed French official. “It is not a stamp of approval for Assad, whom we simply do not trust. There is a lot more involved.”
After a whirlwind visit to China on Sunday, Fabius is due to meet his British counterpart William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday before flying to Moscow on Tuesday.
The diplomatic flurry, officials say, reflects a determination in the French government to defend their bottom lines: no impunity for Assad and his cronies, whom they want hauled before the International Criminal Court, and no let-up in the search for a political solution to a conflict that has left more than 110,000 people dead and more than a million displaced or refugees.
To date, the French vision of how a political solution could be achieved has centred on steadily increasing support for the rebels with a view to tilting the military balance within Syria in their favour.