The Damocles’ Sword of French Policy in Syria: Weighing the Incompatibility between Prestige and International Norms

August 10th 2012 in NATO Publications

By Daniel Little

In his Tusculan Disputations, Roman philosopher Cicero tells a story about Dionysius II; a powerful ruler of Syracuse surrounded by luxury and flattery. Having heard the platitudes offered by Damocles, Dionysius offers him the chance to sample the life of a ruler. Initially the wealth, abundance of food and attention provides a welcome distraction until Damocles takes pause to look up. Suspended above his head is a sword hanging by a horse hair. The moral of the story for Damocles was the risk associated with power; a predicament in which he could no longer enjoy the trappings around him. (1)

Such is the story of France in 2012. With the prospect of reconstructing the Left against a backdrop of high unemployment and high deficits, the failure of a Francoise Hollande presidency all but assures the ascension of the ultra-nationalist, right wing National Front in 2017. (2) The debate however is more than the polarization between French voters but the reconciliation of its obligations at home versus its prestige in the international community. Put another way, how entrenched is France’s political center? As an international ‘wild card,’ France serves as a potential talisman given its place in the EU, NATO and as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.

Perhaps the most divisive issue confronting President Hollande at home may not be the Eurozone but the atrocities in Syria. After visiting the troops in Afghanistan, President Hollande announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in July 2012. (3)

With Russians and Chinese resistance to any UN Resolution (4), France’s ‘Damocles’ Sword’ involves its own identity. For French voters, the conception of what defines France has now become a clear dichotomy. In this light, French philosopher Michel Foucault’s description of ‘the fourth dimension of power’ appears most apt. On the one side the French Left sees the Hollande Administration as a ‘governing’ entity – that of collecting taxes, signing checks and promoting the overall welfare. The Right, particularly the Ultra-Right hearkens to the glory of French prestige as a ‘reigning’ entity; a legacy of presiding over the Francophone world. (5)

This raises the question of whether the withdrawal from Afghanistan serves as a precursor to intervene this Summer (2012). The relationship between France and the ruling Alawites of Syria is well known. During the French Mandate from 1920-1946, the Alawites swelled the ranks of the colonial civil service, police and intelligence. In return they were rewarded in 1922 with an autonomous State of Latakia – a Shia sectarian buffer against traditional Sunni oppression. (6) Fast forwarding to the death of Hafez al-Assad and the current rule of his son Bashar, this downward spiral towards civil war and genocide has placed the culpability of innocent deaths squarely on the elite Alawite minority. Despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, the activities of the Alawite “Shahiba” (Arabic for ghosts) is fast making up for the dearth of news until recently. (7)

So far France has stated that they will not intervene in Syria without a UN Resolution. (8) While convenient against the backdrop of President Hollande’s recent visit to the Kremlin, it is at least consistent with their 2003 position against the U.S. invasion in Iraq. (9) This however might not last. With French Muslims comprising 10% of France’s population, their anger at Sarkozy resulted in a voting bloc that ushered in the Socialist government of Hollande in the first place. (10) While the notion of France’s Muslims and the Far-Right agreeing on anything is inconceivable, the possibility of a UN Chapter ‘Six-and-a-Half’ would become politically feasible should both parties clamor for it albeit for different reasons. Regarding the Far Right, intervention would placate the Centrists by assuaging their more rational notions of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité.’ For the Left, appeasement to the Muslim bloc would be to avoid erosion of their own position; either as a member party of a coalition or an outright majority of Parliamentary seats.

Further, Michel Foucault’s contemporary Jürgen Habermas shocked the Left in 1999 when he made a case for intervention in Kosovo. Without a UN Resolution going into Kosovo, NATO intervention was considered ’emergency aid’ to a persecuted ethnic and religious group. According to Habermas’ way of thinking, the rationale to go into Syria by France’s Left would be to further the notion of global cosmopolitan order – one that is opposed to the fickle selfishness of Realism and nationalism. In other words there is room for the Left to justify such actions.

While this is novel, even dismissive in most circles the European experience in peacekeeping, peace building and peace enforcement has been mixed where Muslims are concerned. Initially rooted in the Balkans, international norms after Srebrenica and Kosovo should give us pause as to what would happen if Europe’s ‘domestic’ Muslims publicly expressed their conscience to protect innocents beyond Europe? Taken a step further, while current French policy towards Syria could very well be rooted in Realpolitik, the truth is that their national interests like anyone else’s are fungible to circumstances at home.

In other words, the French themselves can dictate at any time what is French as well as when it is French. In the final analysis, the evolution towards intervention can be shaped by any government. This means that intervention in Syria can be not only Right but also Left and Muslim. All it would take is some advance preparation of the public assisted by the ‘CNN effect.’ Given the coverage of Houla, amongst others, this is already happening. While France’s 90% already understand their exercise of voice, the Muslim population under an exact set of circumstances can equally opine their views and be considered ‘French.’ This watershed transformation means that this minority would be ‘French’ that just happened to be ‘Muslim.’ With this in mind, continued Syrian massacres can only raise the ‘Damocles’ Sword’ in the court of French public opinion – especially as the troops become increasingly available in the short term.


1) “The Sword of Damocles.” Livius: Articles on Ancient History,

2) Lichfield, J. (2012). “France Divides…and Europe Pays the Price.” The Independent [online], 6 May 2012, [Accessed 9 June 2012]

3) BBC News. (2012). “French troop pullout from Afghanistan to start in July.” BBC News: Asia [online], 9 Jun 2012, [Accessed 9 Jun 2012]

4) Bodeen, C. (2012). “China, Russia repeat stance on Syria intervention.” The Associated Press [online], 7 Jun 2012, [Accessed 10 Jun 2012]

5) Foucault, M. (2004). SÈcuritÈ, Territoire, Population. Cours au CollËge de France. 1977-1978. Paris: Gallimard [Available online:

6) Oskonbaeva, Z. (2012). “Agents of Religion – Religion of Agents (Vol. III): The Power of the Alawite Sect and the Syrian Intelligence Service.” Research Institute for European and American Studies [online], 2 Jun 2012, [Accessed 9 Jun 2012]

MacIntyre, B. (2012). “Ghostly sect stalks Syria’s future.” The Australian [online], 9 Jun 2012, [Accessed 9 Jun 2012]

7) MacIntyre.

8 ) Associated Press. (2012). “France Says Military Action in Syria Only Under UN.” Associated Press [online], 3 Jun 2012, [Accessed 10 Jun 2012]

9) Gruff, J. (2003). “The French Resistance.” Time: World [online], 24 Feb 2003, [Accessed 10 Jun 2012],8599,2056331,00.html

10) Barzegar, K. (2012). “‘FedUp’ French Muslim Mobilize to Unseat Sarkozy.” The Washington Times [online], 19 Apr 2012, [Accessed 10 Jun 2012]

11) Habermas, J. (1999). “Bestiality and humanity: A war on the border between law and morality.” Die Zeit, 54, 18, 29 April 1999; pages 1-8. [Available online]

Daniel Little is a former military officer who has been responsible for planning numerous military programs. As Head of NATO Planning at the Warrior Preparation Center, US Forces-Europe, Mr. Little’s activities ranged from researching the original KFOR training to certifying Corps Headquarters of 27,000 military personnel to become first time certified or reevaluated at NATO. Furthermore, in the past he has served as advisor to the US Joint Chiefs as well as numerous militaries worldwide. As a Program Manager in the Pentagon, Mr. Little have authored education courses in the areas of Modelling and Simulation (M&S), as well as strategic technologies. He was a feature speaker at the NATO Lecture series on Modelling and Simulation. Mr. Little has been a Research Fellow for the Center for Technology, Security, and Policy at Virginia Tech, National Capital Region, United States, where he was responsible for forging alliances between law enforcement entities in numerous regions in areas related to narcotics, weapons, nuclear proliferation and money laundering. Mr. Daniel Little is a member of International Board of Advisors at Ideas That Shape (ITS). He is a PhD Candidate at Virginia Tech, has an Executive MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and studied International Relations at St. Catherine’s College at University of Cambridge.