France risks being sidelined with tough Syria stance
France, which has taken a tough line on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, is struggling to make itself heard as the diplomatic ground shifts towards a compromise with the regime.
Trying to keep France at the heart of negotiations on Syria, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius scrambled to gather key powers in Paris on Tuesday.
But the guest list was not finalised until the last minute and a few of the bigger names were absent, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart Philip Hammond -- both represented by underlings.
Russia, which has been carrying out air strikes in support of the Assad regime since last month, was not invited. "There are other meetings where we will work with the Russians," said Fabius.
France called the meeting after being excluded from top-level talks last week between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
"Clearly, the train has left without us and we're trying to catch up with it," said Denis Bauchard, a former diplomat and Middle East specialist at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.
- Judo with Russia -
Russia's escalation in recent weeks -- aimed at propping up Assad by targeting a range of insurgent groups in Syria -- has changed the calculus for all involved.
Not wanting to trigger a wider war with Russia, and desperate for any kind of solution that can end the four-year bloodbath and the seemingly endless flow of refugees, the US and its allies have lately muted their demands for Assad to depart immediately.
Even Saudi Arabia, bogged down in a troubled intervention in Yemen, has softened its antipathy towards the Syrian strongman.
France is the exception.
"Nothing must be done to bolster Bashar al-Assad, who is the problem, and cannot therefore be the solution," President Francois Hollande reiterated last week.
That has made France an awkward party to the latest rounds of talks.
"Kerry knows well that France's position is much tougher, and no doubt wanted to avoid that getting in the way of talks with (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov," said Bauchard.
There is also a feeling that France's hardline stance may be the wrong tactic at this delicate diplomatic moment.
"We must try to do some judo with Russia rather than attacking them head-on," said former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine on Europe 1 radio.
Like many analysts, he believes Russia would gladly abandon Assad so long as its influence in Syria is assured, but that will take careful cajoling.
"The more the West says 'Assad must leave tomorrow', the more Russia just says 'no'," said Vedrine.
- 'A major ally' -
France, the former colonial power in Syria, retains close ties to the country and has been a key broker in negotiations on its future.
Some observers also see it still playing an outsized role in international affairs compared to other European powers such as Britain.
"The French are more plugged in geopolitically than Britain," said Anand Menon, a foreign affairs professor at King's College London.
France has maintained its defence spending at a time when Britain is dramatically cutting back its army and foreign affairs budget, and taken the lead against several African jihadist groups.
"Talk to people in Washington, and more and more would say that France is one of their major allies," said Menon.
"But there's still a limit to what a medium-sized power can do in terms of resources."
Analysts have derided France's small contribution to coalition air strikes against the Islamic State group, which Paris claims are disrupting terrorist plots.
"To say that we will prevent terrorist attacks in France thanks to air strikes in Syria is, and I am weighing my words, absolute bullshit," Eric Denece, director of French think-tank CF2R, told AFP recently.
"When the Americans carry out thousands of strikes ... it can have a limited impact. But for France in Syria, it will only be a few symbolic strikes. It is gesticulation, smoke and mirrors to deceive the public."
Aware of their limited power, pressure is mounting within France to soften the position on Assad and seek a compromise.
"The settlement of the Syrian political situation necessarily requires a dialogue with the Syrian president," said Jean-Frederic Poisson, an opposition lawmaker who visited Damascus on Tuesday, reflecting a view that has growing currency among French MPs.
"It is not for foreign countries to decide who must lead Syria."
© 2015 AFP