French lawmakers hold talks with Assad in Syria
Four French lawmakers met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday during a private trip to the war-torn country, despite a breakdown in diplomatic ties between Paris and Damascus.
The French government, which supports the moderate Syrian opposition and wants Assad to leave power, was quick to clarify that the lawmakers were there in no official capacity.
But four years of bloody conflict, the repeated failure of diplomacy and the eruption of the Islamic State group have undermined France's standpoint as more and more countries consider re-engaging with Assad's regime.
"We met Bashar al-Assad for a good hour. It went very well," Jacques Myard, an MP from the conservative opposition UMP party, told AFP in a telephone interview.
He refused to reveal the content of the talks, but Syrian state television said they had discussed "the state of Syrian-French relations, as well as the developments in the Arab world and Europe, especially with regard to terrorism."
- 'Red carpet' -
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll stressed it was "in no way an official French initiative" and the foreign ministry said earlier that the lawmakers did not carry any "official message."
"We suspected that Bashar would roll out the red carpet, it benefits his strategy of re-legitimisation," said a diplomatic source, who wished to remain anonymous.
Myard said the trip was "a personal mission to see what is going on, to hear, listen."
The four MPs and senators, who hail from both the left and the right, belong to France-Syria parliamentary friendship groups. One of the MPs is a member of President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialist party.
A Syrian governmental source said the lawmakers were also due to meet Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Wednesday.
France severed diplomatic ties with Syria in 2012, along with Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain, as what started as a pro-democracy protest seeking Assad's ouster in March 2011 morphed into a full-blown war.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, the conflict has left more than 200,000 people dead.
Paris supports the moderate Syrian opposition both politically and militarily, and wants to try and resolve the crisis through negotiations between members of the opposition and the Syrian regime -- but without Assad.
But voices are rising in Western countries to re-engage with Assad, due to concerns over the number of nationals travelling to join the ranks of the jihadists.
- 'A lesser evil'? -
"Unfortunately, we have people in Europe emerging to say that after all, Assad is a lesser evil," academic Bassma Kodmani said at a recent gathering.
On Wednesday, the former head of France's domestic intelligence service Bernard Squarcini said in a television interview that authorities would have to re-launch dialogue with Damascus.
"We cannot work on Daesh (IS) and against Daesh without going through Syria," he said.
One European diplomat who refused to be named said recently that intelligence services in many countries wanted to renew contact with Damascus, but that in the European Union, France and Britain were still against the idea.
"The idea that we could find peace in Syria by trusting Bashar al-Assad and by thinking that he is the future of his country is an idea that I believe is wrong," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Sunday.
© 2015 AFP