Government Declaration and Debate at the National Assembly and Senate
In the early hours of August 21, a few kilometers from the center of Damascus, nearly 1,500 civilians, including hundreds of children, died, asphyxiated, in their sleep. Murdered by the Syrian regime, in what represents, in the early days of this century, the most massive and most terrifying use of chemical weapons.
Each one of us was able to find out about these events immediately after the tragedy, through dozens of videos. Videos shot by doctors, neighbors, relatives, who were both terrified and aware of their duty to inform the world of the horror of what had just occurred.
Each one of us could see the abominable images of the victims’ agony, the rows of children’s corpses. There was not a drop of blood on those corpses, not a wound. Only the silent death by gas, whose use that night is no longer being denied by anyone.
Beyond those terrifying images, what do we know with certainty?
Last Monday, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense and Parliamentary Relations, and I met with the Presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate, the relevant committee heads and the leaders of the political parties of those two bodies to provide information on this subject to our national representatives. The government is convinced: The gravity of this moment calls for transparency and republican dialogue.
We are certain of the scale of the death toll, which could reach up to 1,500 victims. This has been confirmed by independent assessments such as the one carried out by Médecins sans Frontières. By analyzing the videos, which we have had authenticated, our own personnel has concluded that all the victims were located in neighborhoods controlled by the opposition. All the symptoms observed are consistent with poisoning by chemical agents. We have evidence in our possession, and in our allies’ possession, indicating that sarin gas was used.
We are certain that Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world. More than 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents and dozens of delivery systems.
We are certain that the Syrian regime has already used chemical weapons on several occasions in recent months, on a much more limited scale, with the aim of recapturing areas held by the opposition and spreading terror there. We have recovered and analyzed samples that have confirmed the use of toxic gas in Saraqeb and Jobar. This information has been transmitted to the United Nations.
We are certain that this attack is part of an offensive to recapture a key area that serves as a gateway to Damascus. Preparations were already under way in previous days, including the movement of chemical agents from the regime’s main storage facilities. After the attack, we are also certain that intense bombing operations represented an attempt to erase the evidence.
And finally, we are certain that the opposition does not have the capability of conducting such a large-scale operation. No rebel group has the necessary quantities of chemical agents, the delivery systems or the know-how to carry out such an attack.
It is therefore certain: There was indeed a massive chemical attack on August 21, in the Ghouta plain, for which the Syrian regime bears full responsibility.
We share this certainty with our American, British, German and Turkish partners. The Arab League itself confirmed it during its ministerial meeting on Sunday, evoking the regime’s responsibility.
It is not the mission of the UN investigators to assign responsibility. Those investigators will only be able to confirm the use of chemical weapons.
Given these indisputable facts, what should we choose: action or resignation? Can we be satisfied with condemning them, and with calling on the international community to wake up, to finally begin the peace negotiations that have not been forthcoming?
Ladies and Gentlemen, Senators, President Hollande offered a clear response to these questions, one in line with France’s mobilization since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. We were the first to recognize the Syrian National Coalition, to offer it our support, to respond to the humanitarian emergency, to promote a political solution. And we relentlessly multiplied our contacts with our European partners, our allies, the countries of the region, Russia and China, to seek solutions to this tragedy.
Not responding would be allowing the massive use of chemical weapons to go unpunished.
Not responding would be sending Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people a terrible message: that chemical weapons can be used again tomorrow against Damascus, against Aleppo, perhaps even more massively.
Not responding would be endangering the peace and security of the entire region, and beyond that, our own security. For – we must ask – what would it do to the credibility of our international commitments when it comes to halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons? What message would we be sending other regimes, such as Iran or North Korea?
That message would unfortunately be very clear: You may go ahead. Possessing these weapons gives you impunity and the divisions within the international community protect you.
Not responding, finally, would mean closing the door to a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Yes, the solution to the Syrian crisis will be political and not military. But let’s face up to reality; if we don’t put a stop to such acts by the regime, there will be no political solution. Why would Bashar al-Assad negotiate when he believes he can “liquidate”—that is his own word, which he repeated in writing early this week—“liquidate” his opposition, notably by using weapons that sow terror and death?
For all of these reasons, President Hollande has chosen to take action: legitimate, collective and considered action.
Legitimate, first of all, because the Syrian regime has violated its international obligations on a massive scale. By using chemical weapons, Bashar al-Assad has violated his obligations under the 1925 Protocol, which prohibits their use and which Syria ratified in 1968. He has flouted international humanitarian law by carrying out indiscriminate attacks, which are banned under the Geneva Conventions. He has committed a war crime. He has committed what the UN Secretary-General described as a crime against humanity.
In addition to these violations, the Syrian regime has continuously refused to cooperate with the international community. By preventing the International Commission of Inquiry access to monitor human rights. By refusing to allow inspectors to investigate the presence of chemical weapons. By dismissing the various attempts to broker a ceasefire. By increasing the number of obstacles to humanitarian action in Syria.
Of course, the explicit authorization of the Security Council would be preferable. But let’s look at the reality. Russia and China have blocked any response to the Syrian tragedy for two and a half years now, including by exercising their veto three times. Our attempt a week ago to propose a draft resolution authorizing a strong response to the chemical attack on August 21 was also stopped dead in its tracks.
The seriousness of the threat associated with the use of chemical weapons compels us to take action.
The action we’re proposing is considered and collective. President Hollande stated that it should be – I quote – “firm and proportionate.” A one-time response with meaningful but targeted objectives. There is no question of sending in ground troops. There is no question of launching military operations to overthrow the regime.
Of course, we want to see the departure of Mr. Bashar al-Assad, who doesn’t hesitate to directly threaten our country and who even believes he can intimidate the national representatives. Yes, we want to see his departure within the framework of a political solution. France will continue to take the lead in promoting a political solution.
Our message is clear: the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. We want to both penalize and deter, to respond to this atrocity in order to prevent it from happening again. We also want to show Bashar al-Assad that the only option he has is to negotiate.
Some say that a response would further complicate the situation. But, again, I appeal to your clear-headedness. The destabilization of the countries of the region dealing with the influx of more than two million refugees is a reality. Ensuring that the Syrian regime’s crimes do not go unpunished is, on the contrary, a way for our democracies to support the moderate Syrian opposition.
By doing this we will be true to our values, on which France’s commitment throughout the world is based. Indeed, France has a special responsibility. It’s an opportunity and a duty which contribute to the greatness of our country. Let’s unite in order to be true to this vocation.
France will not act alone and will combine its efforts with those of other partners, beginning with the United States of America, with which it has always aligned itself at critical moments when the cause was just. We are also counting on the support of the Europeans and the countries of the region, notably within the Arab League. President Hollande is continuing his efforts of persuasion in order to bring together the broadest coalition possible to support this action. The G20 summit beginning in St. Petersburg tomorrow will provide such an opportunity.
Next year we will commemorate the centenary of the First World War, which marked the first extensive use of poisonous gases as a combat weapon. A century later, while chemical weapons have been banned under international law, we cannot accept an appalling step backwards.
In these grave circumstances, the national representatives must be informed. That’s why we pledge to continue keeping you informed over the next few days of changes in the situation, while respecting the institutional balance arising from our Constitution. In any event, the final decision can be taken only by President Hollande once the coalition has been formed, which is the only way to establish the conditions for action.
Senators, in the face of barbarity, doing nothing is not an option, in any case not for France. By not responding, we allow Bashar al-Assad to continue his atrocities, encourage the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction, leave Syria and the entire region to fall into chaos and give in to threats. Together with its partners, France will therefore assume its responsibilities./.