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Syria/high-level international conference, “Supporting Syria and the region”

Published on February 5, 2016
Press briefing by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development¹

London, February 4, 2016

Q. – (inaudible)

THE MINISTER – Bashar Al-Assad is acting is such a way that today 260,000 people are dead and there are millions of refugees. Some have left for Europe or are leaving for Europe, but many have no option but to be refugees in Syria itself or the neighbouring countries, so we must deal with them. That demands financial resources: that’s the purpose of the meeting today. France, like the other countries, is doing its duty, and for the coming years we’ve provided for more than €1 billion, which is a considerable sum. But – and this is what I’m saying in no uncertain terms at the conference – we must focus on the consequences but we must also focus on the cause, otherwise we’ll meet again next year or in two years’ time, either in London or in another city, and we won’t have a million or so refugees, we’ll have twice as many.

Q. – Do you sense a feeling of urgency at this conference today?

THE MINISTER – I, for one, do have that feeling of absolute urgency. And in my speech I said what France is doing in terms of financial resources, but I emphasized the issue you very rightly raise with me: we must also, and primarily, focus on the cause, i.e. what’s happening in Syria, and so we must demand that Bashar al-Assad’s government and those supporting it, namely essentially Russia and Iran, comply with the law and Security Council resolutions, in other words we must demand a halt to the bombing that is killing civilians and a halt to the sieges that are starving hundreds of thousands of people. People say you have to talk: yes; we French were the first to ask for negotiations in Geneva. If you want a political solution there have to be negotiations. How do you expect there to be effective negotiations if the moderate opposition, which we nevertheless managed to bring here, is at the same time being murdered by those it has to negotiate with? So – and this is the absolute and most urgent matter – the regime’s bombing must stop, the sieges which are starving the Syrian revolution must stop, and people must get round a table to discuss the underlying issue, which is the situation in Syria and how to carry out the political transition which, in accordance with the Security Council and UN resolutions, will make it possible to move towards a new Syria.

Q. – Have you discussed this with the American Secretary of State, who is said to be as angry as you are?

THE MINISTER – I’m very angry, yes, basically very angry.

Q. – With the Russians?

THE MINISTER – I’m angry – well, the word “angry” may be inaccurate, but I’m simply asking… France is a peaceful power, an independent power. We have no hidden agenda. What we want is for Syria to be able to live freely and for a whole people to stop being murdered. So it’s primarily Bashar al-Assad, the president behind 260,000 deaths no less, and millions of refugees, but it’s also those who support him. A political solution is needed, people must get round a table, but – and this is an obvious fact that a 15- or 10-year-old child would understand – you can’t get round a table to negotiate while one of the parties is being murdered by the other. So that’s our role: to recall what the law must be. I did talk to Mr Kerry about it this morning in particular. I expressed to him the firmness of France’s position.

Q. – In your opinion, why isn’t the bombing stopping? This has been going on for five years.

THE MINISTER – There have been several phases. You must bear in mind that, at the beginning, all this started with a small rebellion by a handful of young people. Do you remember? People have forgotten that; it was in a corner of Syria; you haven’t forgotten it, and you’re right. I think it was eight young people, at the time of the Arab Spring, as it’s called; they held a demonstration. It was put down by Bashar al-Assad in such a way that today, four and a half years on, this has all led to 260,000 deaths, millions of refugees and a country that is absolutely devastated and a breeding ground for the terrorists of Daesh [so-called ISIL]. What a performance by this man, a criminal against humanity.

First there was what we called Geneva I; I was at that conference, there was an agreement at the time, and Bashar al-Assad was in a very vulnerable position, but the Geneva resolutions weren’t implemented and he grew gradually stronger. There’s another date we have to remember: [when] he used chemical weapons against his people. It was said that if he used chemical weapons it would be a red line and that there would be a reaction. France was ready. And then in the end there was no reaction, and he therefore grew stronger. And later there was the support of the Russians and the Iranians, whereas that didn’t exist at the outset, or at least not at all to that extent. And then Daesh intervened and the country was increasingly torn apart because the resolutions weren’t taken boldly enough when it was still possible. We can’t turn back the clock now, but the carnage has to be stopped, and in order to stop the carnage you have to talk, and in order to talk, Bashar al-Assad and those supporting him must stop murdering the people they must talk to.

Q. – Was it a mistake for France to send weapons to the rebels?

THE MINISTER – Certainly not. Those supporting Mr Bashar al-Assad sent the bulk of the weapons; we supported not everyone who was fighting against Mr Bashar al-Assad but everyone fighting with a democratic ideal in mind. That’s what we’re asking them: what kind of Syria do you want? Not a Syria dominated by terrorists, but one where everyone – whatever their religion, whatever their ethnic origin – can live in peace and see their rights respected, and this is why we’re taking action. But this is becoming increasingly difficult because it’s a country which is increasingly being laid to waste.

Q. – After the experience of Gaddafi, was it a mistake to leave Bashar al-Assad in power?

THE MINISTER – I think history will judge that whole period harshly.

Q. – What is the impact of the situation in Syria on the conference?

THE MINISTER – In fact, this is a call for pledges, and France, like other countries, has given the money which is necessary to take care of refugees. But obviously it is not enough to take into account not only the consequences, but the cause as well: the cause is Mr Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and those who support him. Therefore there must be a discussion, if we want a political outcome we have to hold a conference in Geneva, but it is obvious that it is not possible to talk if at the same time one party, that is Mr Bashar al-Assad and those who support him, namely [the] Russians, are bombing and killing the other party. Therefore: first, we need to stop the killing and the bombing; this is an obligation of human law. Then it will be possible to speak about everything and particularly about the political…

Q. – Is John Kerry as angry as you are?

THE MINISTER – Anger is neither political nor diplomatic, but determination is.

Q. – Is the expansion of Daesh playing into the Syrian President’s hands?

THE MINISTER – Of course. Daesh and Bashar al-Assad are two sides of the same coin. The people leading Daesh come, firstly, from Bashar al-Assad’s jails – he released them; and secondly, the calculation people are making is straightforward: Mr Bashar al-Assad would like there to be no moderate opposition any more, he’d like to face only Daesh, and at that point he would say: I’m not perfect – he’d be correct, there –, but I’m not as bad as Daesh, so if you want to fight the terrorists, come with me. That would be his argument. And if Daesh faced only Bashar, it would say: Mr Bashar al-Assad has murdered us, so even if you consider us terrorists, come with us. This is why the solution lies in recognizing and supporting the moderate opposition, which must form a government with some of the members of the regime – let’s be practical – so that the Syrian state doesn’t collapse. This is the solution France has supported from the outset, but France can’t do everything on its own.

Q. – Is Libya as worrying as Syria?

THE MINISTER – We don’t want Libya to be tomorrow’s Syria./.

¹The Minister spoke in French and English.

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