France sees basis for Syria peace talks

Syria – United States of America/Mali – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Info (excerpts)

Paris, 17 April 2018

(…)

Q. – What exactly did you destroy? Chemical weapons stockpiles, some of the stockpiles, all the stockpiles?

THE MINISTER – Stockpiles…

Q. – Manufacturing capabilities too?

THE MINISTER – Assembly capabilities, and the regime’s chemical weapons research centre. Those three strikes, those three targets were totally struck. So the operation was a success. Moreover, credit for the operation must go to the French armed forces, because it was a technically difficult operation in a hostile environment and it brought remarkable results, especially as it had to be very targeted and avoid collateral damage and also civilian casualties. That’s the result. The operation was a complete success.

Q. – Credit must go to the French armed forces and the American armed forces…

THE MINISTER – The French armed forces and the American armed forces and the British armed forces. (…)

Q. – Can Syria no longer manufacture chemical weapons today?

THE MINISTER – Everything suggests to us that it can’t. But in August 2013, Bashar al-Assad’s regime made a commitment to destroy its whole chemical weapons arsenal. (…)

Q. – How do these strikes change the course of the war in Syria? Not at all?

THE MINISTER – The change is that when France makes commitments, as the President did last May, when he announced his red lines, he also did so to Vladimir Putin in Versailles, you’ll remember, and Vladimir Putin…

Q. – At the end of May, yes…

THE MINISTER – …at that time was of a similar opinion, saying that chemical weapons were monstrous weapons that had been prohibited for several decades by the international community and that any use of chemical weapons would be subject to retaliatory measures. That’s where we are now.

Q. – But that changes nothing in terms of the balance of power…

THE MINISTER – Yes it does, because it means that we honour our commitments and that if by any chance those commitments are not honoured, we strike in order to enforce them.

Q. – In a hypothetical scenario, if negotiations were to begin and a peace table were organized, Bashar al-Assad would be there today…

THE MINISTER – That’s another issue…

Q. – But Bashar al-Assad would be there today…

THE MINISTER – We must now get back – as a matter of urgency – into a peace process, on a basis which takes on board successive United Nations resolutions, which were all voted for unanimously, and it was on the basis of those resolutions that on Sunday, the day before yesterday, France submitted a resolution proposing a process leading to peace, because there are chemical weapons and there’s also the conflict, the civil war which is still going on in Syria and has been for seven years now.

Q. – Would Bashar al-Assad be a party to those talks?

THE MINISTER – All the players, but not only the Syrian players…

Q. – But including Bashar al-Assad?

THE MINISTER – All the players. But Bashar al-Assad has already been invited to the Geneva negotiations, and to date he absolutely hasn’t wanted to negotiate. (…)

Q. – Why are you withdrawing his Légion d’honneur today?

THE MINISTER – Don’t you think that’s the least important thing?

Q. – Why didn’t you do it before, then?

THE MINISTER – I’m no expert in the procedures – they’re up to the Grand Chancery –, but I think it’s a healthy measure.

Q. – Is it surprising that it hasn’t been done before?

THE MINISTER – Maybe the procedures didn’t lend themselves to it, but at any rate we’ve withdrawn the Légion d’honneur from many other people for a lot less than this.

Q. – Under what timeframe can we imagine serious discussions beginning, to resolve the situation in Syria?

THE MINISTER – In the space of several months at the United Nations Security Council, three resolutions have been accepted and approved unanimously, i.e. by the whole international community, on three different issues. There’s one resolution concerning chemical weapons – I talked about that earlier – which boils down to the fact that Syria in particular must dismantle its whole apparatus. There’s a resolution on humanitarian assistance and the ceasefire, which has never been implemented but which was passed unanimously, including by Russia. And there’s a resolution on the political process. So there’s a basis, with three foundations which have, until now, had unanimous approval. What France is proposing is to start again on the basis of those three foundations, in the framework of a proposal France has been making at the Security Council since the day before yesterday, to begin what you might call a virtuous process, a positive process.

Q. – What’s blocking it? Who doesn’t want it?

THE MINISTER – It’s on the table, and on those foundations we want to find the best possible consensus, with all players, because this tragedy has lasted far too long. Let me remind you: 400,000 dead, millions of refugees and today a total absence of any prospects.

A lot of people have tried to seek a political solution, to find an agenda for solving the crisis, including the Russians, who only recently brought together in Sochi the Iranians, Turks, Russians and the protagonists, including some regime players, but they were all very reluctant. When the Russians proposed, during the Sochi process, to ensure there was a political agenda through the establishment of a constitutional committee – because you have to start somewhere –, it was Bashar al-Assad who refused. (…)

Q. – Why would it work this time?

THE MINISTER – Because all the players, including the powers directly concerned – i.e. Turkey, Iran, Russia, but also the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the players in the region and the powers directly concerned – must push unanimously to ensure the process takes place, and we have the basis for doing so. So maybe this strike, this action, will provide an opportunity to reach the necessary consensus tomorrow to achieve an itinerary for peace, which hasn’t existed for seven years now and which is essential if we want to restore Syria’s integrity, and a political transition process which reduces tension and begins to open up a peace process. That begins with a ceasefire.

Q. – France usually follows United Nations resolutions; we have a permanent seat on the Security Council; in this case we didn’t. Is that a problem?

THE MINISTER – It’s an observation. You have to go back to the history behind this move. The United Nations resolution already dates back to 2013; what did it provide for?

Q. – [The resolution] …on chemical weapons.

THE MINISTER – On chemical weapons, because that is indeed what we’re talking about. And it stipulated that Syria should dismantle its whole chemical apparatus, its arsenal, and it also stipulated that, if by any chance it didn’t do so, retaliatory measures, including military interventions, could take place. As time has gone by, we’ve observed that Syria hasn’t genuinely dismantled its whole chemical apparatus, because gas has appeared during several clashes; you’ll remember Aleppo in particular, as early as 2012.

Back then we protested – not only us – and we called for explanations, verifications, demands for stringency with Syria on the part of the Security Council, and every time we put the problem on the Security Council’s table, Russia opposed it, Russia used its veto – 12 successive vetoes. Well, that means we’re prevented from acting, because any Security Council initiative to enforce its own resolutions is prevented by Russia.

Q. – And do you believe that the resolution, the 2013 resolution, is a basis for the action you took on Saturday?

THE MINISTER – The resolution doesn’t provide a total basis for it, but the fact that it’s been blocked and its implementation hindered by Russia has made the situation unacceptable, especially because Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Syrian armed forces, were then launching an offensive on the Eastern Ghouta region, because that’s where the chemical attacks have occurred. Then there are other steps – there are always other potential steps by Bashar al-Assad’s regime –, namely the Deraa region in southern Syria and subsequently the Idlib region. So not everything is currently under the Syrian forces’ control, and so another chemical attack was a possibility.

Moreover, on Tuesday, following the chemical strike, we proposed to the Security Council that a mission of inspectors should immediately be sent to the site, both to verify and to establish responsibility, and this time Russia used its veto once again, even though the vast majority of the Security Council was in favour.

So, faced with a series of obstructions, what could we do? Let chemical weapons be deployed, with all the risks and dangers this deadly weapon represents to the whole Syrian population, or call a halt and say “no, it’s no longer possible”? That’s what we did.

Q. – The common enemy, everyone says, is Daesh [so-called ISIL].

THE MINISTER – The common enemy is Daesh.

Q. – The Kurds have helped us…

THE MINISTER – Yes.

Q. – …in this action against Daesh, and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly mentioned the Kurds on 21 January while speaking to François Letellier on France 3, as follows: “The Kurds, as I’ve told you, are very committed fighters within the coalition.” François Letellier asked: “Does that also foreshadow what could happen for the Kurds afterwards, namely that they’ll be left to their own fate?” Florence Parly replied: “That’s clearly what we don’t want.”

We don’t want it, but that’s what is happening: the Kurds have been abandoned.

THE MINISTER – No.

Q. – And today, they’re under the bombs and bullets of the Turkish army.

THE MINISTER – First of all there are the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are largely made up of Kurds and which, with the coalition’s protection, hold the whole north-eastern area of Syria.

Q. – We didn’t help them in Afrin.

THE MINISTER – I’m coming to that. It’s a significant presence, and it’s true that that part of Syria is currently one of the elements in the future discussion we’re hoping for, and clearly a political solution in Syria will necessarily entail, as we’re saying emphatically…

Q. – But today, we’re not helping them.

THE MINISTER – …the presence of Kurds and their representation, including on that territory.

Q. – We didn’t help the Kurds who were attacked by the Turks.

THE MINISTER – In the Afrin region, which isn’t in exactly the same place, the Turks attacked Kurds and other groups, they’re saying to ensure the security of their borders. We told them several times: no, it isn’t acceptable…

Q. – But the Turks couldn’t care less what they’re told, from that point of view. They didn’t listen to you.

THE MINISTER – (…) There are steps which mustn’t be taken, and we’d like the Turks to observe the ceasefire we called for, comply with the resolution…

Q. – Could the coalition actively and militarily protect the Kurds?

THE MINISTER – The coalition hasn’t fought on Syrian territory, except against Daesh, and the Kurds gave us a huge amount of help with it; we must show them gratitude…

Q. – Haven’t they really been abandoned?

THE MINISTER – I don’t think you should put it like that; I think we’re being vigilant about them being able, in the area where they are, to ensure essential governance in this partial rebirth of Syria, and we’re also being vigilant about ensuring that they’re totally involved in the peace process. Moreover, the President had a meeting with them to tell them this.

Q. – Even though you talked about Syria’s integrity, the goal, what you’ve told us means there won’t be any autonomy, any hope of autonomy for the Kurds in that region?

THE MINISTER – Syria’s integrity means the borders being respected – that’s aimed at everyone –, the borders being respected by internal and external actors. So that’s aimed at the Turks too, but not just them. Secondly, Syria’s integrity presupposes a new constitution, and it will be the Syrians who will have to decide on their new constitution. I think that recognition of the various entities existing in Syria today is absolutely essential for Syria to be more at peace in the future, so this includes the Kurds.

Q. – Let’s talk about the relationship with the United States. On 23 April, Emmanuel Macron will be in Washington. (…) I wanted to get a reaction from you to the tweet Donald Trump published at the beginning of last week when there was the threat of a strike on the Syrian chemical facilities (…): “Get ready Russia, because they [American missiles] will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’!” What do you say when you see that? Surely we’re in danger when the world’s leading power is governed by someone who talks like that?

THE MINISTER – I’m not making any judgement on the way President Trump communicates…

Q. – You see, a diplomat is prudent!

THE MINISTER – In public, always. But that doesn’t stop me, for one, from talking extremely frankly to my colleague – until now, Mr Tillerson; soon it will be Mr Pompeo, but he hasn’t taken up his post yet – when we have meetings, because I think being frank is essential to good diplomacy, even though it mustn’t automatically be public; you have to say things as they are. And I think when President Macron meets President Trump, they’ll say things as they are – I’ve been present previously during their conversations and they say things to each other very, very clearly, and that’s good.

Q. – But do they understand each other? During his televised interview on Mediapart/BFMtv on Sunday 15 April, Emmanuel Macron said the following. (…) He was talking about the United States’ possible withdrawal from Syria and said that it wouldn’t happen: “Ten days ago, President Trump said the United States of America was set to disengage from Syria. We convinced him, we convinced him that it was necessary to remain there.”

On Monday morning, the White House issued a statement; I’ll read it: “the US mission has not changed – the President has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible.” Emmanuel Macron clearly slipped up.

THE MINISTER – No, because the same White House, since that statement, has clearly said that this meant once Daesh [so-called ISIL] is no longer present in Syria, because the coalition’s goal isn’t to attack Bashar al-Assad, the coalition’s goal is to attack Daesh. And today there are still pockets of Daesh, it has significant hideouts in Syria. We have to see things through to the end…

Q. – There are 2,000 American soldiers in Syria today…

THE MINISTER – Yes, more or less…

Q. – More or less. If they go, we can’t stay – at least, won’t everyone be forced to leave?

THE MINISTER – At any rate, the coalition is united, but it’s united on clear objectives: the eradication of Daesh…

Q. – Aren’t you worried about Donald Trump’s plans?

THE MINISTER – … and since the statement you mentioned, there’s been another statement showing that America would remain in the coalition until the end of the coalition’s mission, i.e. until Daesh is completely eradicated in Syria. Afterwards, there will be a political process which I mentioned earlier, and which is being discussed today at the United Nations.

Q. – And so on 23 April, when Emmanuel Macron is in Washington, they’ll both have the opportunity to talk about it.

THE MINISTER – Absolutely. (…)./.

Dernière modification : 20/04/2018

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