Syria, the Hollande Burslesque, and NATO


Barack Obama and François Hollande: the new G.W. Bush and Tony Blair (
Barack Obama and François Hollande: the new G.W. Bush and Tony Blair (

In case you haven’t noticed, Iran has dethroned Syria as the most prominent international news headliner these days. Fading in and out of the western public’s vision for almost two years, the Syrian conflict has been one of drawn-out attrition punctuated by acute diplomatic crises that have grown into veritable political vaudevilles. A great deal of indignation later, the dénouement scheduled for the chemical front of the Syrian theatre will take place circa mid-2014, when Assad will perform the docile handover of the chemical weapons he hasn’t used. Convenient.

John Kerry threw a bone at the Russians when he off-handedly mentioned that the only way to avoid a military strike was for Assad to give up the remainder of his chemical arsenal; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov happily obliged. In an attempt to make the resolution seem like an ideal compromise, Obama, in a masterfully deceiving counterfactual statement, praised the handover as unfathomable if not for the ‘credibility’ of a U.S. military threat. The fuming shambles of actual American credibility (facts: threat made, line crossed, threat not fulfilled) regarding any future talk on red lines and WMD-use, on the other hand, can testify to the irony of that irritating self-pat-on-the-back.

You might think that the biggest loser to emerge out of the whole ordeal (flowers of triumph go out to Lavrov and Assad) is Obama, but it’s not. Crawling out of the woodwork of dismal domestic ratings came French president François Hollande—the Robin to Obama’s Batman, the Chewbacca to Obama’s Han Solo, in short, the White House’s new European poodle (sorry, Tony Blair). After sweeping declarations denouncing Assad’s August 21st use of chemical weapons against his civilians, Hollande committed France to a joint military strike against Syrian arsenal sites and delivery infrastructure. To be fair, in a time when virtually no other western nation was willing to come to the forefront and back Obama, Hollande made a grand gesture and was consequently living his Napoleonic minute of fame. But the feat soon devolved into a defeat, and what followed was just, well, very awkward for the French president. The media spotlight shone on him as he desperately tried to build a pro-strike coalition with Obama at the G20 summit, then kept shining on him as he waited on the sidelines while Obama delayed a congressional vote on Syria. Powerless, dependent on the U.S. for any action against atrocities he had so vehemently denounced and having failed to propel France onto the scene as a military heavyweight, Hollande came back home, tail between legs, amidst the booing of his citizens.

The question of intervention in Syria seems to have been shelved due to the U.S.-Russian deal, but a case study of characters like Hollande indicates that where there is a way, there is a will. As much can be said of Turkey’s Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose recent rhetoric has been harsh on western inaction and whose pleas for better protection of the Turkish-Syrian border have been more strident. On September 16th, two days after the Kerry-Lavrov pact, Turkey shot down a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter that had strayed into Turkish air space and awarded a medal of honor to the personnel who carried out the shooting.

What do the repudiated Hollande and the increasingly antsy Erdoğan have in common? Four letters: NATO. The alliance has lain low during the chemical weapon debacle and done the usual castigatory press conference, but also explicitly stated that no NATO involvement was expected at this point. Meanwhile, six NATO Patriot missile batteries have been moved to Southern Turkey to secure its borders against the spillover of instability from Syria—not so much a sign of covert NATO interventionary ambitions as a reminder that as a member state of NATO, when push comes to shove, Turkey can ask the alliance to intervene on grounds of acute threats to its national security. Although that day may never come, it still highlights the fact that there are avenues other than just the UN Security Council for multilateral intervention. Flashback to Kosovo, 1998: one word from the Security Council and NATO was ready to go. While the Balkan and Syrian conflicts are only vaguely analogous and diverge on significant geopolitical vectors, they could well both end up being tales of drawn-out, uneasy spectatorship, controversial UN-backed NATO intervention, and forced peace treaties and reconstruction plans.  And such an outcome, were it ever to become reality, would in no small part be due to the agitation and personal ambitions of European leaders like François Hollande who, forlorn, are scrambling to get back onto the stage.


Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. She writes on the European Union, particularly France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, focusing on both significant internal events and cross-Atlantic relations. Contact her at