High stakes for Macron as France weighs up Syria strikes

In laying his integrity on the line over Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons, French President Emmanuel Macron might be playing for even higher stakes -- maintaining the landmark Iran nuclear accord, analysts say.

High stakes for Macron as France weighs up Syria strikes

The 40-year-old leader, weighing the first foreign military operation on his own initiative, has made clear he considers Damascus behind a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma last weekend that killed at least 40 people.

Macron's response is expected to be high on the agenda during a TV interview Thursday afternoon, only his third since the centrist swept to power
last year.

For many experts, he has no choice but to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which would prompt French military strikes.

“Unlike previous incidents, alleged or real, in recent months, what happened Saturday in Douma is a huge and evident violation of Western red
lines,” said Bruno Tertrais, a political scientist at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

“If France doesn't react now that the conditions are met, we would lose all credibility,” he said.

The country, victim of the first extensive use of chemical weapons in military history during World War I, has long made combatting chemical weapons
a priority.

It worries that allowing such attacks by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad could set a dangerous precedent for other repressive regimes.

Many French officials still bristle over former US president Barack Obama's last-minute pullback on Syria strikes after a chemical attack in 2013.

The decision shocked the French, whose planes were poised for launch to participate in the operation.

“Emmanuel Macron has tied his hands,” said Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“He's in the same position as Obama in 2013, and if he decides not to follow through, there will be a political price to pay.”

Uphill battle 

Macron has spoken at length with US President Donald Trump about how to react to the Douma attack.

Both men have played up their sound relations since Macron invited the American leader to attend France's Bastille Day festivities last July.

Macron has also taken advantage of weakened leadership in Britain and Germany to carve out a role as Trump's privileged partner in Europe.

But he has been unable to sway the US leader on two crucial issues — the US decision to exit the 2015 Paris agreement on curbing global warming, and Trump's threat to scupper the deal with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons programme.

Several analysts say ending the deal with Tehran and re-imposing American sanctions could inflame tensions across the Middle East, after years of tensions amid the fight against the Islamic State group.

As Macron prepares for a state visit to Washington later this month, “French military action could earn him some much-needed favour,” Benjamin Haddad, a researcher at the Hudson Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine this week.

Decisive joint action could give him leverage in arguing to uphold the deal, which comes up next for Trump's review on May 12.

“At the betting table of international relations, the chances are still 20 to one” against saving the deal, Heisbourg said.

Against such odds, “a show of France-US unity on Syria surely can't do any harm” during Macron's Washington visit, he said.


French group to open two hotels in Damascus

France's Louvre Hotels Group has signed an agreement to open two hotels under its own name in Damascus, the first with a western hotel operator since Syria's brutal civil war began in 2011.

French group to open two hotels in Damascus
Louvre owns the Golden Tulip five-star brand. Photo: Louvre Hotels Group
The confirmation of the two hotels opening, after recent media reports, came a day after the UN announced an internal investigation into the bombing of hospitals in Syria, and as at least six civilians were killed by the Syrian regime and Russian fire in northwestern Idlib province in the past days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The hotels “will open soon under the brand name of Louvres Hotels Group,” the company, which is owned by China's Jin
Jiang, said in a statement.
Louvre Hotels Group said the deal was signed between Syria's Nazha Investment Group and “a partner with whom Louvre Hotels cooperates in the Middle East”.
The exact number of people killed in Syria's war is unknown but hundreds of thousands have died.
Several dozen medical facilities with links to the UN have been damaged or destroyed by bombs this year. Russian has denied deliberately targeting civilian installations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday said an internal inquiry would look into the bombing of hospitals in Syria which had previously flagged their coordinates to avoid air strikes.
“The deal is strictly in line with international law and all international directives regarding Syria,” the French company statement said.
According to the website, The Syria Report, it is the first agreement with a western hotel operator since 2011, when the devastating conflict began. Louvre Hotels Group was taken over by China's Jin Jiang in 2015 and it operates more than 1,500 hotels in 54 countries.