NEW YORK -- French President Francois Hollande warned Monday that European leaders worried about the flow of refugees to their countries and wanting to see an end to Syria's civil war to stop that flow should be wary of seeing Syrian President Bashar Assad as the solution to their problems.
The chief reason refugees have proven so desperate to leave Syria over the past four years is the violence to which Assad subjects thousands of civilians each day, Hollande said in a small briefing with reporters before his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
The president indicated that even as the Syrian refugee crisis mounts, and some nations in Europe -- notably the United Kingdom and Germany -- are shifting slightly from the general Western consensus that Assad must be treated as a pariah and leave office, they may be losing sight of the source of their trouble: the Syrian regime.
Hollande doubled down on the remarks in his speech, saying, "Assad is the origin of this problem, and cannot be part of the solution," and later adding that the Syrian leader should not be part of a transitional government to end the four-year civil war.
The French are committed to pushing back against a narrative that Assad's allies, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, are working hard to spread: Only the dictator can return stability to Syria and provide the ground forces necessary to retake Syrian territory that is the Islamic State group's base.
Putin and Assad are "pointing fingers at Daesh" to suggest the extremist group is the central problem in Syria, Hollande said at the morning briefing, using a derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State group, or ISIS. The French president said many Syrians who fled their country and are heading to Europe in fact had left before the rise of ISIS in Syria -- they had first gone to refugee camps in neighboring countries like Turkey, and now want to move further because of their limited opportunities there.
Assad's backers hope to convince international decision-makers that ISIS is the only alternative to Assad, and that failing to embrace the Syrian tyrant will enable the collapse of a state in favor of a regressive caliphate.
The French don't buy that argument. They engage regularly with nationalist Syrian opposition politicians tied to the original peaceful uprising against Assad in 2011, and have advocated for broader Western support for the nationalist rebels resisting the Assad regime and extremists (including ISIS) in the country's northwest and southwest.
Hollande noted that his country had launched its first airstrikes against ISIS over the weekend, but established that Paris sees the anti-ISIS effort and the anti-Assad push as separate, if interrelated, matters. He said in the morning briefing that France was only willing to strike ISIS once it was sure its actions would not be perceived as aiding the Assad regime. That became a certainty with the targets France identified, Hollande said, because Assad's forces were nowhere near those parts of ISIS-controlled territory.
That explanation hints to what many Syria watchers say: Assad's battlefield actions do not suggest that pushing back ISIS is his priority. It's not Assad versus ISIS, these analysts argue; both the Syrian dictator and the extremist group know they are at risk if moderate nationalist Syrians gain enough power that the international community can rally behind them to crush both ISIS and Assad.
On Monday, Hollande nodded again toward the need to work with Syrians who want to free their country of both those violent actors.