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Jean-Marc Ayrault : "Iran and Russia have to stay Assad's hand."

Jean-Marc Ayrault : "Iran and Russia have to stay Assad’s hand."

Published on September 27, 2016
In an interview given to the daily newspaper Libération, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development calls upon Moscow and Tehran to stop their “duplicity in the Syrian conflict” (September 27, 2016)
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Should we be worried about another Guernica in Aleppo, as you have said, or another Grozny or Sarajevo?
We have to ask ourselves that question. Does Assad not have a strategy of partitioning the country by taking Aleppo, part of which is besieged and starving, and regaining control of a “pragmatic Syria” (Lattakia, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo)? Damascus has leapt upon the slightest hitch in the ceasefire negotiated between the United States and Russia to savagely bomb the city. The regime clearly wants to break this martyred city, and remove part of the population hostile to the regime to replace it with another, loyalist population.

What option is France backing?
The option of a truce giving rise to a sustained ceasefire that allows access to humanitarian assistance and creates the conditions for a resumption of peace talks.

But this diplomatic option has been failing for more than five years…
The regime’s sponsors, Iran and, above all, Russia, can stay Assad’s hand. They need to stop their double play.

You mention Russian double speak, while the Kremlin condemns the “unacceptable rhetoric” of the Americans and the British who speak of “barbarism” and war crimes.
What is happening in Aleppo constitutes war crimes. Those who could stop it, but don’t, will bear the responsibility for closing their eyes to such crimes, and even for complicity. The Russians accuse the Americans of not totally fulfilling the agreement negotiated on September 9, which aims to distinguish the non-Jihadist opposition from the Jihadist opposition. We are fighting Daesh, but also the former Al-Nusra Front, which is now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Some moderate opposition groups are dangerously close to this organization. It is a real issue, which the Russians regularly return to the table—which is understandable.

The report produced by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concludes that chlorine has been used twice by the regime against its people, yet there has been no Security Council decision…
The mandate of the UN joint investigation mechanism (JIM) has just been extended. Its work will only confirm what was condemned in its last report. We will not give way on the use of chemical weapons. There will be no impunity.

But Russia can use its right of veto once more…
We are aware of that. Along with the United Kingdom, we have contributed to nudging the United States to toughen its position. Other countries also share our indignation. The Russians will eventually condemn the use of chemical weapons. This is a constant battle of persuasion, and we do not have the right to resign ourselves. It is surprising that this conflict has not seen greater mobilization.

Because the tragedy of Aleppo is taking place in a Muslim country?
I wouldn’t say that. But this war, which has already lasted five years, is complex. More than 300,000 have been killed, and 10 million have been displaced or are refugees. These people who flee this horror stay, mostly, in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, with the hope of returning when peace is restored. How can anyone fail to understand that the more the regime strikes, kills and destroys, the more the opposition movements will radicalize and the terrorist threat will increase, including in Europe.

Do you think Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham are comparable?
Yes, as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham claims to represent al-Qaeda. Notwithstanding its new name, it remains a terrorist movement. We must not repeat the errors of the past, when some were tempted to distinguish between “good” and “bad” terrorists, such as in Afghanistan.

Not a single rebel group condemns Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Only the radical groups give the impression of being able to effectively combat the regime. The virulence and violence of Assad strengthens extremism. The regime is also playing on this ambiguity. It says it is bombing Aleppo to flush out the terrorists. Yet its goal is to strike the moderates, for they are the ones who could sit around the negotiating table. That is what Damascus wants to avoid.

What are France’s concrete proposals?
Experience has shown that, in the absence of confidence and a collective approach, truces are gradually eroded. Exclusive management by Moscow and Washington has shown its limitations every time. France has therefore proposed the creation of a monitoring mechanism to involve all the countries concerned, and Syria’s neighbors in particular. Such an approach would enable an objective view of the situation on the ground and of truce violations, while ensuring accountability of the countries providing military assistance to moderate opposition groups.

Is the endless war in Syria the largest foreign policy failure of the United States and even of Obama’s Presidency?
I was Prime Minister when the question arose as to whether to carry out targeted strikes against the regime after the “red line” was crossed: the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta. France was prepared—really prepared—to launch operations, but Obama pulled back at the last moment and the British gave up on the idea. Such strikes would certainly have changed how things turned out.

What do the Russians hope to achieve?
Like the Iranians, they say they want to see a united Syria. But between words and actions, there is reality. Like the current situation in Aleppo. Sergey Lavrov has always said he wants to see a united, secular Syria which protects the rights of minorities with a transitional government. But that is not happening. There is no longer any negotiation in Geneva. Every day that passes shows that Assad will never be able to lead a peaceful Syria. Those who think otherwise—including in France—are wrong.

Could loyalist forces take back Aleppo?
That would be very difficult. The regime’s army is very weak, and could only manage that with Russian air support. That is why we are calling upon Russia, which has thousands of men on the ground, to show responsibility. Venezuela said, at the UN podium that it was normal, as the country had been attacked by external forces. That is not true. This is a regime that Russia and Iran are supporting, against its own people. What we are saying is that: “We support a country called Syria, and we will help it to rebuild when a democratic transition is established.”

By Christian Losson and Luc Mathieu
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