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How France became Syria's enemy No. 1.

Summary: The gory attack Wednesday on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came at critical time for France: Its traditional sway in the Middle East is steadily declining and more than ever its foreign policy marred by confusion.

BEIRUT: The gory attack Wednesday on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came at critical time for France: Its traditional sway in the Middle East is steadily declining and more than ever its foreign policy marred by confusion. Those very miscalculations are the topic of journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot's polemic book "The Roads to Damascus: The Black Dossier of French-Syrian Relations." The duo -- who rose to fame after their kidnapping in Iraq in 2004 -- trace in their latest book the details of almost 30 years of French-Syrian ties -- relations that have greatly deteriorated at the onset of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

Lebanon being the bone of contention between Damascus and Paris; the authors also go into great lengths describing the major milestones that have shaped the peculiar relationship between the three countries. From the 1981 assassination in Beirut of French diplomat Louis Delmare, including the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, the 2006 war with Israel and more recently Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian war, Lebanon has always been the catalyst of Syrian-French relations.

"The French-Syrian couple has seen it all," they wrote.

"Tensions, honeymoons, a reconciliation followed by a divorce and today, hatred."

Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, France struggles to curb the flow of would-be jihadis to Syria and Iraq while being on high alert over the terrorist risk at home; Chesnot and Malbrunot's book looks to have a premonitory quality to it.

Chesnot and Malbrunot wrote that while France was "theoretically right" in pledging support to the rebels in light of the undeniably cruel nature of the Bashar Assad which has "committed crime against humanity and used gas against its own people, ... demonstrating against a dictator does not [automatically] turn you into a democrat."

"Very quickly, the rebellion was taken over by Islamists and jihadis ... [a fact] that was long underestimated by Paris."

In their revelatory account, the reporters disclose that in light of growing terrorism threats, Paris tardily dispatched two security delegations to meet with top Syrian security official Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk in 2013. France sought the help of Lebanon's head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim -- reportedly the link between Damascus and Western Intelligence agencies -- to facilitate the encounters.

Mamlouk, however, was predictably uncooperative insisting that political and diplomatic ties be restored before the once thriving security cooperation between the two countries is revived. "We have time," the Syrian official would tell his French visitors, with a grin.

"When we sent a delegation to see Mamlouk we lost our dignity," a top officer at France's intelligence agency the DGSE, who was a member of one of the delegations confided to the two writers.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Malbrunot maintained that France wanted to be "at the right side of history" when the uprising in Syria erupted after it demonstrated "laxity" in dealing with the upheavals in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt partly due to the close ties French officials entertained with dictators in these countries.

But "good intentions" and "ethics" have never governed external politics, noted the Le Figaro journalist and Middle East expert. Malbrunot interviewed Assad in Damascus in September 2014.

"France is one of the countries that knew the most about Syria," Malbrunot said during a recent visit to Beirut. "We held all the cards yet unfortunately French officials misdiagnosed the situation."

With "neo-conservatives and neo-interventionists" at the helm of the Quai d'Orsay -- the French Foreign Ministry -- and the real experts on the Arab world marginalized, France made several mistakes regarding the situation in Syria, Malbrunot said. "French is having its neoconservative moment 10 years after the Americans did," he added.

The book cites a stormy meeting at the Quai d'Orsay in 2011 shortly after events in Syria began, during which France's ambassador to Damascus Eric Chevallier, who had toured several Syrian regions in the early days of the uprising, shared the conviction that Assad's regime would not collapse easily as it was still strong. But Chevallier was brutally rebuffed by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's adviser for the Middle East Nicolas Galey, who interrupted him saying: "Stop your nonsense!"

"Galey did not attend the meeting to take part on deliberations on Syria but to impose the idea that Assad's fall was inevitable," Chesnot and Malbrunot wrote.

Now that France has become Syria's "No. 1 enemy" as the two authors contend, it would be difficult for Paris to go back on the intemperate policies it has maintained vis-a-vis Damascus for the past four years.

"We should have reached out to the Russians or the Iranians even to find workable solutions," Malbrunot said. "Unfortunately now, history is going to be made without us."

"The Roads to Damascus: The Black Dossier of French-Syrian Relations" is published in French by Robert Laffont and available at select bookstores.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 8, 2015
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