Q. – You’ve just come back from Moscow. (…) Didn’t your dialogue with your Russian counterpart reassure you? Is the Russian side still basically hostile to any agreement?
THE MINISTER – No, I wouldn’t say that. The Russians have taken a good initiative – you saw it last week – namely to propose that chemical weapons, which are terribly dangerous, should be banned in Syria. That’s good. Now it’s necessary to move on to deeds. That’s very difficult. Moreover, chemical weapons are one thing, but there are other weapons, and every day hundreds of people are killing each other there.
Q. – It has to be guaranteed that Bashar al-Assad will play the inspection game; there’s no guarantee of it whatsoever. The Russians are refusing to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad and rejecting a military threat.
THE MINISTER – Yes, they ought to be consistent. That’s what I tried to explain to my Russian colleague, Mr Lavrov. I said to him: “you’ve taken an interesting initiative, everyone deemed it positive, but you must go all the way. If you later ban it from being implemented, people will say there are double standards.”
Q. – What was the atmosphere of the conversation? Was it rather tense?
THE MINISTER – I told him – we know each other well, we often see each other – that when a square is a square, there’s no point calling it a circle: it’s a square. That was how the conversation began.
Q. – Did he understand that?
THE MINISTER – Yes. He understood.
Q. – Clearly the Russians still aren’t recognizing that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus was responsible for the 21 August chemical massacre. How can progress be made?
THE MINISTER – Yes, it’s absolutely incredible! (…) On 21 August there was a chemical massacre: 1,500 people were killed by chemical weapons, which have been banned for 100 years now. The French intelligence services were immediately mobilized and said that they were indeed chemical weapons and that Bashar was responsible. There was a UN report – we know it – that says people were killed by chemical weapons. If you look at the origin of the delivery systems used, it was Bashar. The Russians are still saying “no”.
Q. – Why are they doing that?
THE MINISTER – Because they want to protect Bashar al-Assad at all costs. But they’re obviously going to discredit themselves.
Q. – But how can we continue talking, then, if we don’t have the same starting-point?
THE MINISTER – Because, over and above the chemical weapons issue, we want to make peace, and this requires all the warring parties to come to a conference, which is called Geneva 2. The situation in Syria is terribly complicated, but you have to understand that there are basically three groups. On the one hand, you have Bashar al-Assad, who relies on the military. On the other hand, you have jihadist terrorists. And then, in the middle, you have the people we support: moderate resistance fighters who want Syria’s unity.
Q. – And they represent around half of the fighters?
THE MINISTER – More!
Q. – Except that there’s a study by a British defence institute that seems to be saying that today, in the current state of things…
THE MINISTER – Which is worrying, yes. There are more and more terrorists.
Q. – Are we helping the jihadists? Are we arming them? (…)
THE MINISTER – No! Absolutely not! On the contrary!
Q. – As things stand, can a UN resolution be voted for or not, and in what timeframe are you thinking of presenting one?
THE MINISTER – It’s being discussed. We’ve reached agreement with the Americans and British on a resolution that will be really strong.
Q. – Are the Russians going to vote for it?
THE MINISTER – For the time being, the Russians are rejecting it. We’re hoping to have arrived at a solution around the end of the week, but there’s no certainty.
Q. – In practical terms, if no agreement is reached, could military strikes be on the table again?
THE MINISTER – If no agreement is reached, there will continue to be deaths every day. Syria isn’t at the ends of the earth, it’s just on the other side of the Mediterranean. We’ve kept the threat on the table; in other words, everything is on the table. Why did the Russians change their position and make the proposal to ban chemical weapons? Because they knew that if they didn’t, the Americans and the French would call in strikes. It was because of our firmness that they budged. But they should budge all the way.
Q. – The end of the week: is that the deadline you’re setting yourselves?
THE MINISTER – I’m being cautious. Throughout next week, there’s the big meeting of the United Nations. I imagine the Russians must be doing some complicated thinking: do we reach a compromise beforehand or afterwards? I can’t commit myself because it depends on Mr Lavrov’s goodwill. It’s important to say there are points we don’t agree on but this doesn’t prevent us from talking; that’s diplomacy.
Q. – Since the start of the civil war in Syria, the words used by the President and yourself have had the ability to surprise. It was you who began by setting the bar quite high. It was last summer; you’d just visited a camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey, you were very moved when you left, and here’s what you said: “Bashar al-Assad seems not to deserve to be on earth, because he’s carrying out an operation to destroy a people.” The words are extremely tough, and that vocabulary…
THE MINISTER – He’s a murderer. I’d just seen Zaatari camp, where there were several tens of thousands of people, [including] women and children, who had absolutely nothing, in the middle of the desert.
Q. – Yes, you were very moved!
THE MINISTER – Outrage counts, but also reasoning! How can you let a regime like that, which kills its own people, remain in power? (…)./.