New York, September 30, 2015
Q – Laurent Fabius is here. He is the French Foreign Minister. He is in town for the United Nations General Assembly. There have been important developments in Syria and Iran. Russian warplanes have been conducting airstrikes in Syria but it appears their target is not ISIS but rather the coalition.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, says he has grave concerns about Russia’s targets in Syria. Iran has put hundreds of troops on the ground and Syria sources say it will support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops against rebel forces.
The French government has opened an investigation into whether Assad has committed crimes against humanity, and France announced it would welcome 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. I am pleased to have Laurent Fabius back at this table. Welcome.
THE MINISTER – Hello.
Q – This is a busy time at the United Nations .
THE MINISTER – Yes, it has been a busy time, with some satisfaction and some big problems. The satisfaction is that the much-talked-about COP21 conference on the climate is going in the right direction and that is very important. We shall see that at the end of this year in Paris.
Q – Better than Copenhagen and better than Mexico, better than the other…?
THE MINISTER – Yes. We have learned the lessons of Copenhagen and now nearly everybody is aware of the reality of the problem, which was not the case before. Therefore we have to be active; we still have a lot of problems to solve, but I’m fairly optimistic.
Q – And what kind of result do you expect from that? What do you hope for?
THE MINISTER – Four things. The first is a legal agreement to ensure that we will not be over 2°C at the end of this century, 2°C more than today. That is the first thing: the first universal agreement. It has never happened before. The second thing is that every single country must deliver what we call an INDC, a commitment. And today, as we are speaking, 140 have notified what they intend to do by 2020 and 2030, which is completely new. It is the first time that 140, and maybe tomorrow 160 countries, will have said, “this is how we will deal with energy issues, transport issues”. Third, finance and technology. Poor countries need finance and technology in order to move over to renewable energy. And number four is non-governmental action, because obviously the issue has been taken up by the governments but we are looking at who is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions: it is towns, regions, companies, and they are now committed for the first time. And therefore we have to make progress on these four items. We shall not resolve everything, but I think, hopefully, Paris can be a turning point.
Q – Do you believe China is on board?
THE MINISTER – Yes, completely. One of the main differences with the Copenhagen conference you were referring to is that China is completely on board, because it is a vital problem for them. And President Obama is very committed, and other countries, Europe, are committed. It’s a new state of play.
Q – And you have a kind of an agreement between President Obama and President Xi on some of the aspects .
THE MINISTER – Yes, exactly, and that is good.
Q – What can go wrong in Paris?
THE MINISTER – First, it is very difficult to convince 196 countries. It can be decided only by consensus and you will therefore be aware of the difficulty.
Q – OK, but are France and the US on the same page?
THE MINISTER – Yes, we are on the same page.
Q – Are France and China on the same page?
THE MINISTER – Yes.
Q – Sort of?
THE MINISTER – Yes, they are. But we have to convince a number of other countries. You know if you tell oil producers that the future will have to be less carbon and less production, it is not easy.
Q – That’s the bottom line as they see it?
THE MINISTER – Well, I’m pretty optimistic.
Q – Let me turn to the Iran nuclear deal. You are given credit, with your fellow foreign ministers of the P5+1, for upping the deal, because you all came to Washington, talked to members of the Senate about why you were on board for this deal, and that was the convincing argument, it has been reported .
THE MINISTER – It is true, but before that, France was said to have been tough in the negotiation.
Q – Yes, they were tougher than the Americans.
THE MINISTER – I would not make comparisons, but that is true, I say it is true. Why?
Q – What is true? That you have influence on Democratic senators?
THE MINISTER – No, that we were tough. But why? Because the idea is not only to prevent Iran from getting the nuclear bomb, because that was the idea. The thing was to convince the regional partners that our agreement would be effective, because you know we could have signed anything, but if the other countries – let’s say Egypt, the Saudis, Turkey, others – would have said “OK, so you’ve signed something but it is not realistic”, they would have gone for nuclear as well. It would have been a catastrophe, because the region, which is already erupting, would have been nuclear.
Therefore France’s position has been: “we think it is necessary but we have to be tough in order to convince people”. To be honest, it was a contagious approach and I think it has been helpful.
Q – Do you believe the Saudis really support it or are they simply giving lip service?
THE MINISTER – We have an excellent relationship with the Saudis. I think they are convinced that, for the next 10 years, things are secure. After that, it is more open for them.
Q – Are they right? Because that is one of the concerns, what will happen after the 10 to 15 years .
THE MINISTER – I am aware of that argument, but today …
Q – Is the argument right?
THE MINISTER – Today, what we call the breakout time – the time needed to get the bomb if the Iranians want to get the bomb…
Q – It’s about two to three months now, and it will be a year under this agreement.
THE MINISTER – Yes, but for more than 10 years, which makes a difference. After that, according to the international relationship and what we are doing between us, it will get back to maybe three to four months. But that is a great advantage and I think, all in all, it was a necessity. But it is not a protection for ever after.
Q – In other words, “after” meaning you’ll have a new agreement, a new understanding, and governments will change, technologies will change, and you have to constantly look at changing circumstances.
THE MINISTER – That is right, and as you know we have this mechanism called “snapback”: there are inspections by the IAEA which are absolutely serious, we have discussions with the Director General of the IAEA, who is highly competent, and it will be closely…
Q – It is said, and I want you to confirm this, that the verification procedure, both in terms of technology and what’s in the agreement, is stronger than any verification procedure that has ever been on this .
THE MINISTER – That is right.
Q – It is also said that what was convincing for many of the Democratic senators was the argument – put by you or others within the foreign ministers’ group – that if this agreement was not confirmed, there would be no possibility of putting the coalition and the sanctions back again .
THE MINISTER – That is very true. Could you imagine – and I’m not talking here just about France – that if we had signed something and it was turned down, can you imagine that the Russians and the Chinese, just to refer to them alone, would come back…
Q – They would never agree to sanctions again .
THE MINISTER – …that they would come back and say, “OK, so we are going around again and restarting the negotiations”? No. That was not realistic.
Q – I am glad you brought up the Russians. President Obama has said the Russians have been very helpful.
THE MINISTER – In that negotiation?
Q – Yes, in the Iran negotiation.
THE MINISTER – It was positive. As you know, it was a collective approach. In fact, what was very important, because we were six on one side and one, Iran, on the other side, [was that] we decided that the six had to be united, because if we were not united, the discussions would have been very difficult. And as a matter of fact, we have been united. The Russians have played a positive role. The Chinese as well.
Let me tell you an anecdote, because I have it to mind. You know that there have been many phases in the discussions but in one phase, two years ago, it was fairly tense and France in particular was rather on edge because what was being proposed was, in our view, not really serious, and not enough. For that reason, there were difficult discussions among us and with the Iranians. And I remember that Javad Zarif, a very smart man, said at one point: “if it is like that, I’ll leave, I’ll get up and leave”.
My Chinese colleague then said in a very loud voice: “If I were you I would sit down.” And you had the feeling that this man had 13 billion people behind him, you know. They have been very helpful – all of us: I mean it is a collective agreement.
Q – The last time you were here, you said we are not going to be engaged in air strikes at this time in Syria.
THE MINISTER – That is right.
Q – What’s changed?
THE MINISTER – We are not in the same position as Russia. But it is true.
Q – But you changed from no air strike in Syria to having air strikes .
THE MINISTER – There has been some movement on this particular point; that’s smart of you because you are absolutely right. Why? Up to recent months, we were saying that we were committed in Iraq in the air, but Syria is a different story because in Iraq we were asked to intervene by the government ,whereas in Syria with Bashar al-Assad this is obviously not the case. Therefore we were not present in Syria. But, as you know there have been many terrorist attacks in France, and we had precise information showing that some elements were coming from Syria.
Q – Some of the terrorist elements had connections .
THE MINISTER – Yes, and attacks, and preparation and that kind of thing. And therefore the French President, M. Hollande, decided, and I think he was absolutely right, to send in planes for surveillance and to find out exactly what was happening on the ground. And he said, it was a few weeks ago, if we see that Daesh – ISIL – is preparing action against us, we will strike. We did so last Sunday. And that’s all.
Q – Just one strike?
THE MINISTER – No, but…
Q – But is it a new turn of events for France to join the coalition operating airstrikes or joining the coalition only on this one, or are you doing this independently because of the information from your own intelligence sources?
THE MINISTER – Yes, exactly. But we are acting in self-defence, and this is not simply a legal point - Article 51 of the UN charter – because you know when you are a minister, when you know there are people who are preparing to kill French citizens, you can’t just stand by. And that is the reason why we moved, and were right to do so.
Q – President Putin says, “the reason I’m in Syria is entirely legal: because the President of Syria asked us to come in. That’s why I’m there” .
THE MINISTER – From a legal point of view, that may be true. But what the Russians originally said was, “we want to fight Daesh and we want to have a general agreement against…”
Q – But also “we want to prop up the government too” .
THE MINISTER – That’s a different story. But when Lavrov came to the Security Council, he said, “Gentlemen, join us, everybody must be together against Daesh”. If it is that, it is a very good idea.
Q – That was this week.
THE MINISTER – Yes. But the problem is that it may change, that when it comes to reality, the strikes today are much more against opponents of the regime and not against terrorist groups.
Q – But help us understand that. You have access to intelligence that I don’t. Who are they striking? Who are these airstrikes directed against? And a second question: do you think they have enough intelligence about what is happening on the ground to be choosing to only strike so-called rebels and moderate rebels?
THE MINISTER – I’ll try to answer both questions. First, they have a lot of information, either directly, or through their Syrian friends. Now we have direct information on their targets, and when you have these targets, until now they have mainly been the rebels, not Daesh, but maybe that will change; hopefully it will change.
Q – But Islamists, jihadists or…
THE MINISTER – No, the moderate opposition. As you know, they consider that everybody who is against Mr Bashar al-Assad is a terrorist. No. And our point, as far as France is concerned but other countries as well, is therefore to say, “if the action is against Daesh and al-Qaeda, that is fine, and we need to coordinate our actions because we are also against Daesh and al-Qaeda, but if it is some sort of pretence aimed at striking the opposition to the regime, and therefore to reinforce Bashar, that is another story”. And that is the point. Maybe they will change.
Q – Who says that Bashar has to be the future of Syria?
THE MINISTER – Iran is saying that. And we are discussing that, and I have discussed it very often with the Russians, who say, “We’ll see but we have to reinforce him”. And what are they doing today? They are reinforcing him.
Q – But they acknowledge that too; they said that .
THE MINISTER – What?
Q – They said they were there to prevent Assad from being overthrown. Because they think they need him right now.
THE MINISTER – We want to avoid chaos, so the argument is a very good one. But to avoid chaos is not to keep Bashar there for ever after. It is not a question of individuals, I have to be clear on that. But you cannot accept a contradiction in terms. Imagine that you are a Syrian; your family has been destroyed by Bashar, which is the situation of over 50% of the population. And you say to those families, “Bashar is the one”. No, that is just not possible. They will go to Daesh. We want to beat Daesh, and we need Russia, the Iranians, the Americans, the Arabs, everybody.
But if you say at the same time, “Bashar is the one”, that is a contradiction in terms. That’s my point.
Q – But I don’t understand what your position is on the ground militarily .
THE MINISTER – It is very clear, we are not on the ground.
Q – I can understand that, but in terms of air strikes, is the French government prepared? If you think this bad of Assad, and everybody in the world seems to have that view, and I think the Iranians certainly have that view…
THE MINISTER – (Inaudible)
Q – Terrible damage has been done to the state of Syria, and its people. But my point is how do you say, “we want to get rid of Assad and we want to get rid of Daesh”? How do you do it at the same time?
THE MINISTER – You have to have military action to deal with Daesh. You know, this is not a problem which will be solved in the Sorbonne, but by military action. And that is the reason why the Russians’ proposal, if it is to attack Daesh, is a good one. Everybody must join in militarily.
Q – Everybody would join in that.
THE MINISTER – So far as the future of the regime is concerned, that’s diplomacy; we have to talk.
Q – OK, but in the meantime that’s what I’m missing: so here is Daesh, you attack with French air strikes and British air strikes and American air strikes against Daesh, let’s say, and over here is the Assad government.
THE MINISTER – The Assad government is not capable of acting if the Russians and the Iranians are not supporting it.
Q – But do you attack him now?
THE MINISTER – No.
Q – There is no military action against Assad now?
THE MINISTER – No, we are not attacking. Militarily we have to concentrate on Daesh and al-Qaeda. At the same time, we must add diplomatic action in order to prepare the transition.
Q – So what you are saying is that Assad must engage in a diplomatic transition, while you figure out where you are going to go and what’s going to happen?
THE MINISTER – That’s what diplomacy is about. And President Putin is in Paris on Friday, because we have to discuss Ukraine and Syria as well.
Q – Do you believe they have an interest in convincing you, as a representative of the French government, and Secretary Kerry representing the American government, that they want to eliminate ISIS and they are prepared to strike ISIS in the future?
THE MINISTER – Sure.
Q – And they say that?
THE MINISTER – Sure.
Q – And you say to them what? Show me?
THE MINISTER – We say to them, “show us”. And until now the information we are getting is not moving in that direction. But we shall be very happy if the reality is what you said at the beginning: “let’s join together in order to fight Daesh”. But Daesh is not the opposition to Bashar, the moderate opposition. They are different people.
Q – But does the moderate opposition have any strength at all?
THE MINISTER – Yes they have. But when I refer to the moderate opposition, it’s not only militarily. My guess is that most people in Syria are victims, and obviously they are living in terrible circumstances and we have to organize things to ensure they have a future.
I want to add another point which is important. It is very likely that in the coming days there will be new developments, I would imagine. One of the greatest dangers would be if it all turned into a sectarian conflict.
Q – Which happened in Iraq.
THE MINISTER – Yes. And we have to pay attention to that, all of us: obviously the regional powers, but us as well, and also the Russians, because it is not in their interest.
Q – Has the world in the West – the French government, the American government, the British government and others – shown enough urgency about the fight against ISIS? Did you recognize what the threat was and did you organize and have you organized sufficiently to stop them? Because you can’t stop them without ground troops as well.
THE MINISTER – Two answers. First, we might have forgotten, but when we were in discussions in Geneva in June 2012 there were no terrorists in Syria.
Q – When was this?
THE MINISTER – June 2012. No terrorists in Syria.
Q – No al-Nusra?
THE MINISTER – No, it was a minor factor. I remember because it was my first international conference as a new minister.
Q – June…
THE MINISTER – 2012. And we were discussing the right formula for a new government. Nobody mentioned terrorists. And I think a lot of time was wasted afterwards. And so one year, two years on, you had al-Nusra, you had Daesh and all that, which, at the beginning I should add, so far as Daesh was concerned, was encouraged by Bashar for various reasons. And I honestly think time was wasted. Afterwards, when Daesh had become increasingly powerful, there was a reaction, the international coalition, but that has not been enough. We need to be more coordinated, we need to tackle the different factors: military, financial, as well as others. And there is a lot of goodwill, but that may be changing; it is an enormous threat and we are therefore committed to fighting, we in France and many others.
Q – There is a sense of urgency and priority.
THE MINISTER – Yes, and what I would like to explain, although I don’t know if I’ll convince you, [is] that to say, “the solution is Bashar”, is a contradiction in terms. The solution obviously [is that] we have to fight Daesh extremely strongly, because they are appalling, and al-Qaeda and so on, but we have to find a political solution which can help the population rather than driving them into the arms of Daesh. That’s the point.
Q – Let me turn to one last question. Help us understand the migration/refugee issue in Europe and the responsibility of governments there, Germany, France, the responsibility of the US, of the Vatican.
THE MINISTER – It is obviously closely linked to what we are discussing. Not all refugees come from Syria, many come from other places, but it is true that the numbers are very high and Europe is therefore in a difficult position because it is something we are not accustomed to. It could be a long debate, but our view is that so far as political refugees are concerned we have a duty – political asylum is a tradition in Europe. But where economic migration is concerned, that is a different story, because we cannot take in everybody. And we obviously have to do our utmost to solve the Syrian problem, because if you deal only with its consequences, it will always be very difficult.
Q – Do you worry that most of the people are coming for reason of political persecution but some may come because they want to use this as a covert way to engage…?
THE MINISTER – Well, there are different people, different situations.
Q – How do you separate them, how do you make sure…?
THE MINISTER – We have what we call “hot spots” at the entry points to Europe, and there are people responsible for checking out who is who. That is a difficult, but necessary, job.
Q – It was a pleasure to have you here again.
THE MINISTER – Thank you so much./.
¹M. Fabius spoke in English.