France - Syria

French MPs criticised for second trip to Assad's Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the four French MPs who visited Damascus in February
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the four French MPs who visited Damascus in February Reuter/Sana/Handout via Reuters

Three French MPs set off for Syria on Saturday to meet politicians and religious leaders, despite the uproar caused by a similar visit earlier this year and accusations that such trips give support to embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Tony Cross tells us more.

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The three MPs - two from the ruling Socialist Party and one from a small allied grouping - insisted that there visit was not an expression of support for Assad.

"It's a humanitarian visit of solidarity," Gérard Bapt, who chairs the Franco-Syrian friendship group in the National Assembly, told RFI. "We want to assess the civilian population's needs in a certain number of sectors, particularly food and health."

They also wanted to express French MPs' solidarity with minorities in the Middle East, they said, in reference to the persecution by fundamentalists, especially the Islamic State armed group, of Christians, Yazidis and other sections of the population.

But President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have repeatedly opposed any actions that could be seen as strengthening Assad's hand.

Although the MPs said they were acting in a personal capacity, the leader of the Socialist parliamentary group, Bruno Le Roux, expressed reservations about the trip and called on the MPs not to do anything that could be exploited by the Assad regime.

The MPs would have to be accompanied on visits to hospitals or refugee camps, Gwenegan Bui, a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said before they left. "So, inevitably they will shake hands with representatives of the regime and after that the trip will again give legitimacy to Bashar al-Assad."

The MPs stress that the visit is in a personal capacity and that they are paying for it themselves.

The previous visit, invloving four MPs, one of whom was Bapt, sparked criticism from right and left, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy calling them "clowns".

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