Q. – Why has France changed strategy in Syria?
THE MINISTER – There’s a slight shift, but not a change in the general philosophy; there are three reasons for this. Since the beginnings of the coalition and our Operation Chammal in Iraq, Daesh [ISIL] has made such huge gains moving west and on Syrian territory that it is in a position today to threaten Aleppo and the very existence of the groups linked to what’s still being called the Free Syrian Army. These gains are enough to pose a threat regarding the main road between Damascus and Homs, on the part still held by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. If this breakthrough occurs, Lebanon will be under threat.
Secondly, we have a lot of information showing that training centres for foreign fighters now exist no longer solely to help Daesh fight in the Levant, but to intervene in Europe – and France in particular.
Finally, the forces loyal to Bashar have a reduced area in which to act and, today, striking Daesh doesn’t mean helping Bashar militarily. So we can’t accept France having a blind spot on Syria in the way it sees the threats and risks.
Q. – Is this legal justification for the French operation?
THE MINISTER – The legal framework is Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which concerns self-defence.
Q. – In this framework, would France strike only at Daesh? Not the al-Nusra Front or other Salafist groups? How are you going to make the distinction?
THE MINISTER – We haven’t struck yet. We’ll act in the framework of international humanitarian law, which applies to the armed conflict situation Syria is experiencing.
Q. – So it will be groups which have already targeted France?
THE MINISTER – All those threatening France.
Q. – How are things being coordinated with the other players?
THE MINISTER – For the time being we need, completely autonomously, to carry out the necessary information-gathering to establish what are called, in military terms, “target folders” in order to be in a position to strike if necessary. These intelligence-gathering operations are being conducted with the military capabilities already over there: six Rafales, six Mirage 2000s and an Atlantique 2. We’re conducting these completely autonomously. Obviously we’re coordinating with the Americans, but our position is autonomous in the operation, outside the coalition.
Q. – Are our planes under American command?
THE MINISTER – No. We fall within the American operation to make the skies over Syria safe, but we have freedom to exercise discretion, and [freedom] when it comes to our intelligence targets and our actions, should the issue arise. The situation is different in Iraq, where we’re in a coalition and carry out strikes within that framework. (…)
Q. – What would the legal implication be of a strike on a French national?
THE MINISTER – We aren’t targeting anyone in particular. We aren’t fighting individuals but a terrorist group made up of citizens of different nationalities, with due regard for international humanitarian law, which I mentioned a moment ago.
Q. – Do you share the analysis of Russia scaling up?
THE MINISTER – Yes. Over the past fortnight we’ve noted the reinforcement of the Russians’ military capabilities, mainly around Tartus and Latakia, seemingly aimed at building an air base south of Tartus and reinforcing their port capacity. The Russians themselves are saying this.
Q. – Are they going to station fighter aircraft?
THE MINISTER – There are still questions about the level of this reinforcement. Does Russia’s new positioning signify a pre-emptive stance to safeguard its own interests in the event of Bashar’s collapse? Is it stronger support for Bashar due to the risk of the main road between Damascus and Homs being cut off by Daesh? Is it so that they’re in a position of strength in possible future discussions? A bit of all three? It’s hard to assess all that today. Moreover, Russia makes no secret of the fact that it’s going to initiate naval manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.
We don’t think Bashar al-Assad can be part of the solution, but we firmly believe Russia is part of it. But the Russians shouldn’t put themselves in a difficult position which would deny them the opportunity of being partners in the transition. (…)
Q. – How is the operation in Iraq going?
THE MINISTER – We’ve carried out 200 strikes; this has helped check Daesh’s advance. Remember, a year ago the question was whether Daesh was going to enter Erbil or Baghdad.
We always thought it would take a long time. If the strikes stop, Daesh will regain ground. The coalition’s role is to support the ground forces, the Iraqis and the Peshmerga, who alone are able to take back the territory. This depends on the al-Abadi government being inclusive not only politically but militarily too. (…)
Q. – Is the aircraft carrier going to be dispatched for carrying out strikes in Syria?
THE MINISTER – It’s not on the agenda. The aircraft carrier has already carried out a mission within the coalition in Iraq; it’s possible it will carry out others, as an additional force, as it has already done.
Q. – Does there need to be an air buffer zone, as the Turks are demanding?
THE MINISTER – The solution is for everyone to work for a political way forward, including the Turks. There mustn’t be any illusion. The question is: are the countries of the region in agreement to act together for a political transition without Bashar, full stop? All the rest is military hypotheses. (…)
MIGRATION CRISIS/LIBYA/EUNAVFOR MED
Q. – France, along with four other countries, is sending a frigate with a helicopter and special forces in the European naval operation EUNAVFOR Med to combat those smuggling migrants off the coast of Libya. How effective is militarizing this action if Libya isn’t authorizing action in its territorial waters?
THE MINISTER – In June, the European Council took an initiative – which is a textbook case, because it’s the first time a decision has been taken so quickly – by creating EUNAVFOR Med. The first phase – that of establishing a headquarters and gathering intelligence about people-smuggling rings – is over. We’re in the second phase: we’re going to take action in international waters. The military capabilities are intended to intercept and deter the smugglers. The first thing is to rescue the migrants, then destroy the boats and imprison the smugglers.
Secondly, the operation will go into Libyan waters. For the first time in two years, there are grounds for hope. We support the Leon mission, which should allow the creation of a national unity government. This will be able to take action and call on the European security policy, in order to hunt down these traffickers of hope, who are also purveyors of terrorism. (…)
Q. – What is the link between smugglers and terrorism?
THE MINISTER – The smugglers’ money is also used in arms trafficking throughout the area stretching from Libya to the regions where Boko Haram is. We have seen this.
In another respect, there’s a major risk of infiltration, even though for the moment this hasn’t been proven. If chaos continues in Libya, and particularly given that Daesh is present around Sirte, terrorists could infiltrate via that route, much more probably than from Syrian refugee camps. I’m very vigilant. (…)./.