After criticism, France's Macron seeks to reassure Syria opposition

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, sought to reassure opponents of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday after provoking concern among rebel groups by saying that he saw no legitimate successor to Assad.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a special congress gathering both houses of parliament (National Assembly and Senate) at the Versailles Palace, near Paris, France, July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool

Former president Francois Hollande had backed the Syrian opposition, demanding the six-year conflict be resolved through a political transition that would eventually see Assad replaced.

Macron, a centrist elected in May, said last month he no longer considered Assad’s departure a pre-condition for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.

While he described Assad as an enemy of the Syrian people, Macron said Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state. He also questioned the opposition’s credibility.

Hailed by some in France as a pragmatic stance to advance negotiations, the comments also caused unease among the Syrian opposition, former officials and humanitarian groups.

Macron on Wednesday appeared to try to refine his comments after speaking to Riad Hijab, head of the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee, which represents a group of military and political opponents at U.N.-mediated talks between Syria’s warring parties in Geneva.

In a statement the presidency said Macron had confirmed to Hijab that France supported the HNC in the Syrian peace talks being held under UN auspices.

“The president assured Mr Hijab of his will to engage fully and personally to achieve an inclusive political solution in the Geneva framework,” the French presidency said.

Macron’s comments on June 21 echoed Russia’s stance that there is no viable alternative to Assad. The French leader has sought closer co-operation with Russia and French diplomats say he wants to develop a “spirit of trust”, notably on Syria.

Hijab’s office said that he had, in their conversation on Tuesday, reminded Macron that Assad had “lost legitimacy after being repeatedly responsible for using chemical weapons against his own people.”

“Assad’s presence in office helps spread chaos, strengthens the role of terrorist organizations, creates more sectarian militias, and fuels sectarian discrimination and hatred,” Hijab’s office said in a statement.

Macron’s election victory has offered Paris an opportunity to re-examine its policy on Syria after opponents of Hollande’s foreign policy considered that his stance was too intransigent and left the French government isolated.

Russia’s foreign minister will be in Paris on Thursday to discuss the conflict.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough and Jon Boyle