French lawmaker faces party sanctions for trip to Syria as part of delegation that met Assad

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Feb 25, 2015, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (centre, left) meeting with French socialist senator, Jean-Pierre Vial (centre,right), along with three other French parliamentar
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Feb 25, 2015, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (centre, left) meeting with French socialist senator, Jean-Pierre Vial (centre,right), along with three other French parliamentarians, in Damascus. -- PHOTO: AFP 

PARIS (Reuters) - A French lawmaker who went to Damascus for the first talks with Syrian officials since the 2012 closure of France's embassy there faces possible ejection from the ruling Socialist Party, its chairman said on Thursday.

The possible sanction for Mr Gerard Bapt, part of a four-man cross-party delegation of parliamentarians who travelled to Syria this week, underlines sensitivities surrounding France's policy of shunning President Bashar al-Assad.

"I fully condemn (this visit). Assad is not an authoritarian dictator, he is a butcher," Socialist Party Chairman Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said, reflecting French accusations his forces have committed atrocities during a four-year conflict. "I have written to Gerard Bapt, I will summon him and take sanctions," he told RTL radio, noting that it would be up to the party's disciplinary committee to determine whether that would involve a possible ejection from the party.

Three of the parliamentarians in the delegation met Mr Assad for talks on Wednesday, however Mr Bapt told Reuters by text message that he did not personally take part in that meeting. The trip was not approved by the French Parliament's foreign affairs committee, and the Foreign Ministry said it did not support the mission.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Thursday described the visit as an "ethical transgression".

More than 200,000 people have died in a civil war that began when peaceful pro-democracy protests were met by Damascus with force of arms. Islamist militants have grown to be the most powerful insurgent force.

While Britain, France and the United States remain opposed to contacts with Mr Assad, the Syrian government has called for international cooperation to fight Islamist militancy.

In France, some government and opposition lawmakers have begun to criticise Paris' stance, as have former officials and some diplomats in private.