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Syria (Q&A - Excerpt from the daily press briefing - June 14, 2013)

Q - Are you sure there are chemical weapons in Syria? To what extent is France supporting the Syrian rebels?

A - Not only are we sure that chemical weapons have been used –specifically, sarin nerve gas, used by the Syrian regime against the opposition – we were the first nation to announce it publicly last week, via the foreign minister.

We also noted that all of our information was made available to our closest partners and to the UN commission led by Mr. Sellström, established by the UN secretary-general in conjunction with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW].

What’s new are yesterday’s statements by U.S. officials. The Americans concur with us on three points:

-  They are confirming the information that Laurent Fabius provided last week on the Syrian regime’s use of sarin. Both of our countries have scientifically proven that sarin was used repeatedly and on a small scale. The Americans say they conveyed this information to those conducting the OPCW probe, as we did.

-  Early this week, the Americans announced that they, like us, will step up their non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, particularly to its military command.

-  Third, they believe we must formulate a coordinated response based on this new evidence.

The question now is what are the new deadlines with respect to our support for the Syrian National Coalition:

-  In the next few hours, we will be having several high-level discussions on this topic with the Americans. The foreign minister will speak with John Kerry this afternoon. Conversations will also take place between the heads of state and government on the sidelines of the G8 early next week.

-  Our ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, is in Turkey today for meetings with Salim Idriss, the head of the Syrian National Coalition’s military structure. The purpose of these discussions, which bring together several nations who support the Syrian opposition, is to determine the needs of the Syrian rebels and what kind of response we can provide. We hope this response will be both collective and coordinated.

-  Third, in the very near future, we will be providing a large amount of medical equipment and medicine to the Syrian National Coalition. And not for the first time. We have very close contacts with certain Syrian doctors’ organizations and especially with the Syrian National Coalition unit tasked with coordinating humanitarian aid.

Also – since you’re going to ask me about it anyway – attention is currently focused on the question of possible arms shipments. Let me remind you that for the time being, at least, the Americans are talking about non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. It is indeed a legitimate question that, for the moment, has not yet been resolved as far as we’re concerned. But there are other forms of aid that are equally important and that could be provided to the Syrian opposition – notably in terms of intelligence, training and help with operational planning. These are some of the subjects being discussed in Turkey.

Q - The foreign minister is saying that France is bound by the European agreement to refrain from providing arms until August 1. He also said the balance of power needs to be reestablished on the ground. Isn’t there a contradiction there?

A - The European package of sanctions/the embargo legally lapsed on May 31. We renewed the sanctions against the regime and lifted the embargo on weapons to Syria. It was a legal decision to lift the embargo, not to deliver weapons. It was accompanied by a political agreement between all the EU ministers, who pledged not to supply weapons before August 1. The foreign ministers have decided to reassess the operational modalities for implementing the decision to lift the embargo by that date.

Q - Reestablishing the balance of power – isn’t that a contradiction?

A - The fall of Qusayr actually introduces a whole new element, for two reasons: the strategic importance of that city, which has fallen into the hands of the regime; and the clarification of the role played by Iran, a true co-belligerent in this war, and Hezbollah, which seems to be providing support for the Syrian forces. This is radically new, not only with regard to events on the ground in Syria itself, but also because of its consequences for the region, and Lebanon first and foremost.

What the French have always said is that we must take into account the situation on the ground. The international community’s ultimate objective is to find a political solution to this crisis. That objective cannot be met if one of the parties is permanently and deeply weakened. In that case, there can’t be effective negotiations. This is all the more true in that following Qusayr, offensives are imminent in Aleppo and Homs. A city like Aleppo has more than two million inhabitants. If the same thing happens there that happened in Qusayr, we will see a massive flow of refugees to the Turkish border.

The idea that we must reestablish a balance of power is thus very directly linked to the viability of a political solution. How can we reestablish this balance? That is the question being raised today and which we must begin answering. There are three tracks we could act on:

-  the humanitarian track, trying to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. That is why France is providing aid to doctors’ networks. It also explains our work with refugees in the countries neighboring Syria.

-  the political track, in order to bolster the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition. There are a certain number of decisions it should take next week.

-  the security-related or military track. We are already doing a certain number of things in this area. We will continue doing them, notably in terms of providing non-lethal equipment, encryption equipment and protective equipment – and also technical assistance, training Syrian fighters to use the very sophisticated equipment we are providing.

Q - The White House noted the use of sarin and said that arms would be provided, without specifying that they would be non-lethal…

A – I invite you to address that question to U.S. officials and refer you to the terms of the official White House statement. […]

That said, the question of arms shipments – which is being raised in France and in Europe – is also being raised in the U.S. We Europeans are now capable of providing arms, unlike a few weeks ago. The question is whether this can be done effectively.

More generally, on this subject and on the topic of how to best help the Syrian National Coalition and its military component, the heads of state and government will discuss this topic in three days during meetings scheduled on the sidelines of the G8.

Q - Has the idea of a no-fly zone become a possible option?

A - It is a recurring subject. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of confusion: talk of an air exclusion zone, a buffer zone, etc. These kinds of measures can be implemented only if they’re internationally authorized. A Security Council decision has to be adopted under chapter 7 of the UN Charter, because it’s a coercive measure.

But given the positions expressed by the permanent members with veto power, it seems highly unlikely that such a measure would be approved by the Security Council. Without a legal basis, the probability of such an option, at least in the short term, is very low. That could change. But at least two of the Security Council’s permanent members would have to change their positions.

Q - You mentioned technical assistance. Has France already begun training Syrian fighters?

A - This is indeed a new element, introduced last February by the Foreign Affairs Council, which has made technical assistance possible, notably with respect to anything relating to the protection of the civilian population in Syria. We are therefore working on training programs that could be implemented in very different areas. When you deliver highly sophisticated medical or encryption devices, that delivery must be accompanied by training programs to ensure that the equipment can be used effectively. We are going to step up our programs once Mr. Idriss has spelled out what he needs in concrete terms.

[…]

Q - […] The OPCW itself has not taken samples on the ground. As long as it hasn’t done so, how can there be international certainty [about the use of chemical weapons].

A - That’s why it’s essential for that mission to finally travel [to Syria]. The evidence provided by the French and Americans obviously makes that need stronger. Up to now, we were in the situation of having to plead for the mission to do its work. We’ve now moved beyond that; we have evidence and we are asking them to confirm it. That’s fundamentally different. As Ban Ki-moon said, the mission must proceed “without delay, without conditions and without exceptions.” It must simply be allowed to do its job.

If you’re so sure of yourselves, has the “red line” been crossed?

The French have never used that term. But beyond the expression itself, what’s important is the international community’s response to what’s going on in Syria.

Q - What consequences do you see?

A - There can only be one: stepping up aid to the Syrian resistance. That’s the very logical conclusion we arrived at a week ago and which the Americans are arriving at today. […]

Q - We haven’t talked about Geneva 2. Don’t you think these latest developments might compromise that conference?

A - The whole world is focusing on Geneva 2. What’s important in Geneva 2, what we want to accomplish there, is a political process – the implementation of a political transition.

We’ve always said the only lasting solution to the Syrian crisis can be a political solution. No one here thinks that the fighting can be resolved simply through military means. The only possible solution is this political process.

It must be carried out under certain conditions, notably on the basis of the gains made at Geneva 1, so that we don’t begin again on a completely new or false footing. This political process must have a format that makes it possible to come to decisions at the end of the conference, not a format that we know from the start would prevent any decisions. It must respond to the legitimate expectations of the Syrian people. We sometimes tend to forget that what has changed between Geneva I and 2 is the presence of the parties at the table. If the parties aren’t there, the exercise has no meaning. A certain number of conditions must be met to enable each party to have a seat at the table. Finally, the situation on the ground must be conducive to negotiations, and not prevent them due to an imbalance of power.

Q - But if you’re supplying arms to the opposition, it could further jeopardize Geneva 2…

A - One could say the exact opposite. It could help restore a balance of power that has become dangerously unbalanced, thereby fostering such negotiations

[…]

Q - Has France ever tried to verify allegations of the use of chemical weapons by rebels?

A - Of course.

Q - Without success?

A - We have no evidence that would allow us to draw the conclusions we’ve drawn about the regime with respect to the opposition. The same holds true for U.S. officials. Not only is there nothing to indicate that the opposition might have used such weapons, everything leads us to think that that isn’t the case.

So let’s allow the commission of inquiry to do its work in Syria to verify, on the ground, the accusations made by the regime against the opposition. And we will then see how true the regime’s accusations are. What we can say today, officially, affirmatively, and proven scientifically, is that the regime has used them against the opposition. To be even more specific, they have sprayed sarin by helicopter.


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