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Seventieth United Nations General Assembly/Syria/Daesh/Russia

Published on September 30, 2015
Press conference given by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development¹

New York, September 29, 2015



THE MINISTER – The other subject that I would like to come back to is Syria.

We, France, have had the opportunity to address this issue with many countries and this will be supplemented by the meetings that I will hold in the coming hours and days. Naturally, we discussed it with the President of Iran, the President of the Syrian National Coalition and the Prime Minister of Turkey. For my part, I have had many discussions, including yesterday morning and continuing this evening, with John Kerry and my British and German friends, as well as a number of key Arab partners in the region. I have also spoken to my Iranian colleague, Mr Zarif, my Emirati colleague, my Saudi Arabian colleague and my Turkish colleague. And I will see my Russian colleague and my Chinese colleague today. We are therefore speaking to everyone, without exclusion.

I have read a whole series of statements and comments on the heart of the matter, but I would like to start by telling you that what is important in the fight against Daesh [ISIL] is not the media impact but the real impact. It is important to bear that in mind when reading the newspapers.

What do I mean by that? We want to strengthen our fight against Daesh, and luckily we are not the only ones. In fact, this morning we have a meeting chaired by President Obama on the fight against terrorism. France’s position is absolutely clear. We have been effectively combating Daesh in Iraq for several months already and we decided, in conditions that you are aware of, a few days ago, in view of Daesh’s threats against France from Syria, to send out reconnaissance planes. On Thursday, the President of the French Republic gave the order to strike. That strike happened a few days ago. We will continue to do this each time our security is under threat. This means that, along with many others, not only are we ready to fight Daesh but we are actually fighting them. This sets us apart from others who talk a lot about combating Daesh but so far, unless I am mistaken, I have not seen them commit a plane to the fight against Daesh. If they do so, bravo. And even with regard to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, until last week there had been no strikes. So let us be clear: there is the media impact, which is very important in today’s world, but we want a military impact.


Secondly, we clearly need a political transition mechanism. Experience shows us that we cannot definitively resolve problems using military solutions, especially from the outside. We are, of course, discussing this issue with many others.

We – and France has not changed its stance – believe that we need to focus on effectiveness and, if possible, morality too. As far as morality is concerned, there is nothing to discuss. Bashar al-Assad has been described by the Secretary-General of the United Nations as a criminal against humanity. Everyone knows that he is responsible for the fact that, starting from a small rebellion involving a few young people in Syria three and a half years ago, 250,000 people have now been killed. So on this basis alone, I would say there is nothing even to discuss: not that he is the only tyrant in the world or in history, but that it is clear that he cannot call for moral recognition of any kind. But let us state our position, because it is crucial in terms of effectiveness. What do we want for one another? We would like Syria to be free, to be able to regain all of its territory, for the Syrian government currently only controls a small portion of its territory, and to recognize community diversity and the law. And we would like there to be a transitional governing body, as stated in the Geneva Communiqué, that would enable all of those things. It is in the name of this quest for effectiveness that we say it is necessary to establish a “transition out” mechanism. It is not a question of affection or personal determination. It is unimaginable that the Syrians, the Syrian refugees, 80% of whom have left Syria because they were threatened by Bashar al-Assad, could return to Syria and participate in this free, united and respectful Syria that we are seeking if they are told that “the future of Syria is Bashar al-Assad”. It is a contradiction in terms. That is why, over and above the moral aspects, we want there to be a transition out. Of course, it is very difficult because there are different positions, but it is the role of diplomacy to achieve this. That is the position adopted by France and many others.

We also want Bashar al-Assad to promptly stop what is known as barrel bombing – that is, the indiscriminate bombing of his own population, because civilians are still being killed in their hundreds. We are currently discussing various initiatives in this regard, for example Turkey’s proposal, and others. It is important to ensure the safety of the Syrians, or at least as many of them as possible. That is the point that I wanted to emphasize because sometimes, no doubt in all good faith, we let ourselves be led.

To put it bluntly, Daesh are absolutely terrible people and must be fought without restraint. To be precise, they must be fought not through the media but through concrete action, as some are doing, including the coalition and France.

But combating Daesh is not enough. We must also enable a political transition, and that is the discussion that needs to be held, and we hope to find a way for the major powers and others to reach an agreement. I will chair a P5 lunch with Mr Ban Ki-moon, where this very issue will be addressed with my fellow permanent members of the Security Council. (…)

Q. – Is it conceivable that Assad might be part of this transition out in Syria at the beginning and for a period?

THE MINISTER – We are discussing these aspects, which are important. In any event, it must be clear that it is not him who is being proposed as a component of the solution at the end of the process, otherwise there can be no movement whatsoever, for the reasons I have explained to you. Naturally, various arrangements are possible and it is necessary to make discussions possible with all concerned; each party has its own concerns at the outset.

But it must be clear, for reasons – as I have said, let’s pay close attention to this – not only of morality but also of effectiveness, that it cannot be said in any way whatsoever at the beginning of the process that the end of the process will be the maintenance [in power] of Bashar al-Assad, because that would be a contradiction in terms.

Q. – You do not wish to play all your cards before beginning negotiations?

THE MINISTER – That is what diplomacy is about.

Q. – I will repeat the question I put to the President of the Republic yesterday. How do you intend to get rid of Assad? He does not want to go and is hanging on to power. What do you intend to do?

THE MINISTER – The question of what one man wants is one thing, but what really counts is the welfare of his people and the destiny of Syria. I have said this before, and I hope to convince you. Given everything that has occurred, nobody can imagine, at least no reasonable person, that we are going to build a reunited Syria, whole once again, as it were, free and respectful of communities if the person leading it for the duration is responsible for so many dead. That is inconceivable.

Between the current situation, in which Bashar al-Assad is where he is, and the situation we need to move towards, which I describe as the transition out: that’s the scope of all our discussions.


Q. – Let’s talk about effectiveness. France has begun strikes in Syria. For the last year, the Americans have been conducting strikes in Syria: 2,500 strikes and no results. The training programme for local troops is a fiasco, and has in fact just come to an end. Who in your way of thinking is going to fight Daesh on the ground?

THE MINISTER – That is why we certainly need to make changes to the approach. Where France is concerned, it is engaged and will continue to be engaged, but not on the ground. Where the coalition and our American friends are concerned, we had discussions at the meeting yesterday or the day before and we will be having further discussions this evening because there are practical steps to be taken. Where air strikes are concerned, I would say that we have everything we need. As for presence on the ground, that must be the task, in our view, of the Syrians and regional elements.

Q. – That is not working.

THE MINISTER – Because, in our view, things have not been done in a sufficiently coordinated manner.

Q. – Persistence is needed…

THE MINISTER – No, adaptation is needed. The results – you cited the figures that have, I believe, also been cited in the US Congress – are completely unsatisfactory. Strong engagement is therefore needed, real engagement, and also by the Syrians and regional populations on the ground.

Q. – Yes, but who? If you can be a little more specific…

THE MINISTER – Look at the map.

Q. – A secondary question: would you oppose the parallel initiative of a coalition led by the Russians? What would you do in such a case?

THE MINISTER – There was, I believe, an idea for a resolution in one of the speeches yesterday. But for the moment, that has not been translated into fact and we have received nothing of that kind. (…)

Those who are against Daesh are those conducting strikes against Daesh. Take that as a starting point – it is, I think, fairly easy to understand. If there is a willingness for engagement, why not? But there are obviously two conditions to the analysis I have offered. The first is that there must be the transition out I mentioned to you. Because this is not a mechanism which is designed or even used to maintain in position the person responsible for the situation. And the second is that it must be possible – we, along with others, are thinking about this – to free up one or more zones in which Syrians would be protected. As you know, there are initiatives on this from Turkey and others. And the barrel bombing has to stop. But of course, if there is real willingness, let us go forward. But real willingness, not just in the media.


Q. – The Russians are increasingly active in Syria. Are we at risk of being excluded if we have preconditions on Assad?

THE MINISTER – Active… they have sent in a fair amount of equipment on Bashar al-Assad’s side. But, unless I’m mistaken, I haven’t seen them attacking Daesh. Yet the objective is to destroy Daesh. For our part, we’re fairly realistic. We will see what happens. And if there is a desire for a political solution – I was speaking about this only yesterday, because we had a meeting attended by my colleague and friend Mr Lavrov and with Mr Zarif – we must arrive at a transition, what I call a transition out. And we still have major discussions to be conducted on that point.

Q. – Would you take a favourable view of a Russian and Iranian intervention, as is much discussed, against Daesh in Syria at the present time?

THE MINISTER – That has not been proposed for the moment.

Q. – And how would you view it?

THE MINISTER – I deal in realities.


Q. – You talk about real strikes, and I put a question to the President yesterday and received no answer so I hope to have luck with you. The French strike was aimed notably at training camps where French nationals could potentially be present. Given that you are talking in terms of a threat to France, I would like to hear what you have to say on France’s position with regard to the fact that a democratic state, a state governed by the rule of law, could perhaps be targeting its own nationals in strikes conducted abroad. What is your position? Is there debate on this point within the armed forces?

THE MINISTER – He did in fact answer you. Perhaps you weren’t satisfied, but he did answer you. For our part, we are acting under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which provides for a right of self-defence. Once we have identified – a training camp in this case – elements for which all the evidence is that France may be targeted, given that, the right of self-defence applies. Naturally, maximum precautions – and I stress this – are taken to ensure that no civilians are killed. However, I fully agree that it is difficult to make distinctions between people, particularly the terrorists of Daesh, who are people who think ahead and seek to mix with the civilian population. We do everything we can therefore to avoid that, but at the same time it cannot lead to a paralysis of action that would allow Daesh to advance and to destroy us without our having been able to take action.

Q. – I was not referring to civilian victims. I will simplify my question: does France consider today that it has the legitimacy to target a French national abroad in a missile strike?

THE MINISTER – Of course we do not target French nationals. In this specific situation we are targeting training camps under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.


Q. – You mentioned zones in which Syrians would be protected? Are you referring to no-fly zones and at what stage are the discussions on this?

THE MINISTER – As you know, there are very many complicated discussions about terminology: “safe zones”, “no-fly zones”, “secure zones” etc. Let’s not launch into this technical discussion. Simply, there’s a common-sense idea – we have to see if it is feasible – and that is that many Syrians under threat both from Bashar and Daesh are trying to flee. They are going to the neighbouring countries and may also travel to Europe. The neighbouring countries are basically Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. If we want to avoid that, firstly Bashar al-Assad and his supporters have to stop barrel-bombing. That is what we are asking for and it is absolutely within his power. And that has nothing to do with Daesh. Secondly, a zone needs to be freed up, perhaps in the north, perhaps in the south, where they would be protected, be safe; that way, they would not need to travel to other countries. It is not straightforward; there are discussions with various parties and we are taking part in those discussions, but no decisions have been reached. (…)


Q. – Two questions please. Do you believe the refugee crisis is adding new momentum to the idea of a safe zone somewhere in Turkey? And secondly, what do you make of the Russian proposition? President Putin was very clear on this; he said that while you are fighting ISIL, you cannot remove Bashar al-Assad as army-in-chief. Do you agree with that position and for how long can that go on?

THE MINISTER – Briefly speaking, as far as the refugees are concerned. If we want to stop the movement of refugees: many of them are leaving Syria because of Bashar al-Assad and because of Daesh. Therefore, we have to find a solution for Bashar al-Assad. It is what we call the transition out. And to fight Daesh. Meanwhile, it could be an idea – and we are working on that with different countries – to have within Syria one or two or three – there are different wordings: safe zone, security zone, and so on – in order that these zones would be able to welcome Syrian people, without forcing them to go out of the country. We are working on that, no decision has been taken yet.

There, the point is about the whole conflict. We think that because, both for moral reasons and reasons of effectiveness, both, we have to organize a process of transition out for Mr Bashar al-Assad. Why? Because morally, he has been qualified as a “criminal against humanity” by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. And it is very difficult to imagine that somebody who is responsible for 80% of 250,000 dead can be the future of his people. But even if we leave aside this moral aspect, from the standpoint of effectiveness, what is our common aim for Syria? It is to have a free Syria, with respect for the different communities, every community living in peace with the other communities, and respecting the integrity of the territory. How could one imagine that it would be possible, with the prospect of a permanent, not only power, but dictatorship, of the one who is responsible for the present chaos? It is a question of good sense. And therefore, we have to organize all of us, and it is very difficult.
Because Geneva I was in June 2012. We have, but that is the role of diplomacy, to organize things in such a way that we can find a transition out. That is the point.


But, coming back to the fight against Daesh and against terrorism, it’s an absolute necessity. But it must not be a fight only in the media; it must be a real fight. And when I’m looking at who is really committed in the fight against Daesh, I ask you to think about it. So, as far as Mr Bashar al-Assad is concerned, it is fairly recent, fairly modest. As far as Russian partners are concerned, up to now – maybe it will change – they haven’t gone against Bashar. The international coalition is involved against Bashar. We, the French, have bombed a Daesh camp this week. And we have to judge realities. Not mass media. And the first criterion for judging who is really acting against Daesh, the first criterion, is to see who is involved and committed to the real fight on the ground and in the air against Daesh.

Q. – In terms of short-term effectiveness, do you consider it to be possible to engage a political process in a country already at war before the balance of power has already been reversed?

THE MINISTER – Strikes are necessary. Both are necessary.

Q. – At the same time?

THE MINISTER – Both have to be done, of course. We must strike Daesh and at the same time organize a process of political transition.

Q. – But given the ineffectiveness of the strikes?

THE MINISTER – They have not been sufficiently effective for the moment because they have not been conducted in a sufficiently satisfactory manner. And because not everybody has been conducting strikes. The international coalition must of course improve its methods. France can help in this even if it is acting independently. But all those who are against Daesh must be effectively against Daesh.

Q. – Hubert Védrine was saying yesterday that monsters are not necessarily measured by numbers of deaths and that if that were the case we would never have made an alliance with Stalin against Hitler.

THE MINISTER – We can of course look at any number of historical comparisons. Where I am concerned, I have to say that I am not an observer. I head our diplomacy alongside the President of the Republic. We need to hit Daesh, which is an absolute danger and when answering a question earlier I pointed out – something not given sufficient attention – that the international coalition is hitting Daesh, France is hitting Daesh, Bashar al-Assad is doing so very little and for the moment the Russians not at all. So you do need to look at who is doing what.

Secondly, we must obviously begin a process of political transition and to do that we need to have discussions with everybody and arrive at a transition that will enable Syria – and this is very difficult – to restore its integrity and protect all its communities. To think – as Hubert Védrine, who is an intelligent man, does not for a moment – that we can arrive at a position in which the Syrians agree that all communities must be respected if we say that the man who is the cause of the chaos is to lead them for all eternity, no. We must, and this is the role of diplomacy, find both the way to initiate the political transition – that is why I am in discussions with everybody – and conduct strikes at the same time.

Q. – Are you inviting the Russians and the Iranians to intervene? Are you asking the Russians to make strikes?

THE MINISTER – I am not asking for anything at all but I find that there is a certain coherence in what I would express in the following way: if you are against terrorists, it is not illogical to conduct strikes against terrorists./.

¹ M. Fabius spoke in French and English.

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