SYRIA/RUSSIAN AIR STRIKES
Q. – What lessons do you draw from the first Russian strikes in Syria?
THE MINISTER – Russia’s initial statement, which was about everyone mobilizing against the terrorists of Daesh [ISIL], was interesting and positive. The problem is that so far, the Russians have concentrated their strikes on the moderate opposition rather than on Daesh and al-Qaeda. The intelligence we have attests to this. Hence the legitimate question: isn’t the aim of the Russian deployment above all to consolidate the Assad regime? Those strikes have had civilian victims. You don’t wage war on terrorism by bombing women and children. On the contrary, it’s one way of fuelling it. I hope the Russian strikes will now genuinely and solely target Daesh and the groups close to al-Qaeda.
Q. – If the next Russian strikes target, above all, members of the opposition supported by France and the United States, what will you do?
THE MINISTER – I specified to the Security Council on Wednesday 30 September what are, for us, the three conditions for concerted action with Russia: strikes indeed conducted against Daesh and the other terrorist groups – but not against the moderate opposition or civilians –, a halt to the barrel bombing of civilians, and a political transition out. The fight against terrorism must not be a pretext to put Assad back at the helm: that would contradict the goal we’re all pursuing, namely a free, united Syria.
Q. – For five years now, France has been calling for Bashar al-Assad to go, with no result: should we change our strategy?
THE MINISTER – I fully understand the argument sometimes made, which appears simple: Bashar and Daesh are despicable but Daesh is worse, so we must ally ourselves with Bashar. In addition to the moral aspect – let’s not forget that Bashar al-Assad is responsible for 80% of the deaths and refugees –, this approach would be a dead end, and Assad’s departure is, on the contrary, a necessity for the very sake of effectiveness. The chaos and despair caused by Assad are in fact the most powerful fuel for Daesh. There will be no lasting stabilization of Syria or effective fight against the terrorist threat without reconciliation among the Syrian people. But the Syrian dictator himself is placing an obstacle to this prospect. To ally ourselves with him, as some are suggesting, would be to perpetuate the civil war, fuel the radicalization of a people he has tormented and drive an ever-growing number of refugees onto the roads and the seas. President Hollande has summed it up well: the Syrian people’s executioner can’t embody their future.
Q. – Why, in five years, hasn’t it been possible to find someone to replace Assad? Where has the West failed?
THE MINISTER – There have been many attempts, but the deterioration of the Syria crisis is a clear failure of the international community. In Geneva, Bashar’s allies theoretically accepted the principle of political change, but in reality they’ve continued providing him with their support. As for the Western countries – especially those which chose in the summer of 2013 not to intervene against Bashar at a time which could have been a tipping point for Syria’s future –, they too play their part. Since June 2012 and the Geneva Communiqué, we’ve known the parameters of a transition out: the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, composed both of elements of the regime and elements of the moderate opposition that rejects terrorism.
The players in this transition are also known. We’ve worked and continue to work with absolute discretion in terms of names. Now we must trigger the process, which, in our opinion, requires broad negotiation involving the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, with the support of all the countries concerned,
beginning with the permanent members of the Security Council. We’re discussing this with the Americans, the countries in the region, the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians. We’ve gone from a domestic crisis to a regional crisis and then a genuine international crisis. It’s a danger, but paradoxically it may also be a hope for progress. The disaster would be for the Syria conflict to be prolonged and crystallize into more of a war of religion between Sunnis and Shias. That would open the door to an unprecedented conflagration.
NO-FLY ZONE/GROUND FORCES
Q. – President Hollande and you yourself have lent your support to a no-fly zone in Syria. Doesn’t that amount, de facto, to entering into direct conflict with Syria?
THE MINISTER – We want an end to the indiscriminate bombardments carried out by the regime, particularly the use of barrel bombs and chlorine, which are largely behind the civilian victims and the mass exodus. We’re closely examining the issue of whether you can and should ban the Syrian air force from flying over certain zones where civilians are especially targeted. The protection of civilians is a priority.
Q. – Can such areas be established without troops being deployed on the ground?
THE MINISTER – Several options are conceivable, but let’s be clear: France has absolutely no intention of deploying troops on the ground in Syria. Moreover, no Western country is envisaging or proposing it. External powers won’t be able to restore security in Syria. It is a matter for the Syrian people themselves, perhaps even regional forces.
Q. – During the UN General Assembly, the Russians and the West continued to clash over Syria and the fate of Assad. Does there appear to be complete diplomatic deadlock?
THE MINISTER – For the moment, yes, but we’re continuing – this is the role of diplomacy and it’s France’s tradition – to talk to everyone, including Russia and Iran.
We aren’t throwing in the towel. Following the United Nations General Assembly, it is now clear that the solution requires a twofold approach, combining the fight against terrorism with a political transition out. This is the basis on which we are trying to move forward.
Q. – The section of the Syrian opposition supported by France is marginalized today. How can it embody change?
THE MINISTER – President Hollande had a meeting with Khaled Khoja, President of the Syrian National Coalition, in New York. Despite huge difficulties, he is courageously trying to bring together those who share a vision of Syria which is also ours: a united, democratic Syria which respects all communities. This movement must be broadened. On the ground, this moderate opposition is caught in a pincer movement between the bombings carried out by Bashar and the attacks by terrorist groups. Over the past few days, it has also been bombed by the Russian air force.
And there may be other developments on the ground. So should we be abandoning it when it’s an alternative to terror? That isn’t France’s position.
RUSSIA/DAESH/UN RESOLUTION PROPOSAL
Q. – Are you going to vote against the resolution Russia proposed at the Security Council calling for a broad coalition to fight Islamic State?
THE MINISTER – As it stands, this text doesn’t fulfil the three conditions for an alliance which I set out above. We are going to see whether it can be amended in this respect, which is what I’m hoping. But of course there is no question of giving legal cover to an operation which, on the pretext of fighting terrorism, would actually seek the desperate rescue of a discredited dictator. We have no hidden agenda. Our goal is clear: France, an independent power with so many ties to the region, is working above all for security and peace./.