What lessons have you drawn from the first Russian strikes in Syria?
Russia’s initial declaration, about us all taking action against the terrorists of Daesh, was interesting and positive. The problem is that so far, the Russians have focused their strikes on the moderate opposition, rather than on Daesh and Al-Qaida. We have intelligence which confirms this. This raises a legitimate question: is the aim of Russia’s deployment above all to consolidate the Assad regime? These strikes have claimed civilian victims. Terrorism cannot be fought by bombing women and children. On the contrary, that is a way to fuel it. I hope that the Russian strikes will, from now on, truly and exclusively target Daesh and the groups close to Al-Qaida.
If Russia’s next strikes mainly target the opposition supported by France and the United States, what will you do?
Last Wednesday, I clarified to the Security Council what we consider to be the three conditions for concerted action with Russia: strikes that really target Daesh and the other terrorist groups, but not the moderate opposition or civilians; an end to barrel bombing of civilian populations; and a political “transition out”. The fight against terrorism should not serve as a pretext to restore Assad to power, for that would contradict the goal we are pursuing, namely a free and united Syria.
France has been calling for Bashar al-Assad’s departure for five years without success. Is it time for a change of strategy?
I understand the reasoning that is sometimes given and appears simple: Bashar al-Assad and Daesh are both reprehensible, but Daesh is worse so we should ally ourselves with Bashar al-Assad. Beyond the moral aspect - let us not forget that Bashar al-Assad is responsible for 80% of the deaths and refugees. This approach would lead to an impasse; Bashar al-Assad’s departure is, on the contrary, crucial for the very sake of effectiveness. For the chaos and despair caused by Bashar al-Assad are precisely what Daesh thrives on. It will not be possible to lastingly stabilize Syria or effectively combat the terrorist threat without reconciling the Syrian people. And the Syrian dictator is very definitely an obstacle to this. Allying ourselves with him, as some are proposing, would perpetuate the civil war, foster the radicalization of a population that he has tortured, and drive an ever-increasing number of refugees on to the road and across the sea. As the French President said, the future of the Syrian people cannot be embodied by their tormentor.
Why has it not been possible, in five years, to find someone to replace Bashar al-Assad? Where have the Western countries failed?
There have been many attempts, but the worsening of the Syrian crisis is a clear failure for the international community. In Geneva, Bashar al-Assad’s allies theoretically accepted the idea of a political change, but in reality, they have continued to support him. As for the Western countries, especially those that decided not to take action against Bashar al-Assad in the summer of 2013, at a time when Syria’s future was in the balance, they are also responsible. Since June 2012 and the Geneva Communiqué, we have known the parameters of a transition out: building a transitional governing body with full executive powers, composed of both elements of the regime and elements of the moderate opposition which refuse to accept terrorism. We also know the players in this transition. We have worked and will continue to work without revealing any names. It is now time to start the process which, in our view, requires broad negotiations led by the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Mr de Mistura, with the support of all the countries concerned, starting with the permanent members of the Security Council. We are discussing this with the United States, countries in the region, Russia, China and Iran. We have moved from an internal crisis to a regional one, and now to a real international crisis. It is dangerous, but paradoxically, it may also give us hope of progress. It would be a disaster if it prolonged the Syrian conflict and also precipitated a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites. That would open the door to unprecedented turmoil.
You and President Hollande have voiced your support for a no-fly zone in Syria. Doesn’t that effectively mean entering into direct conflict with Syria?
We want to put an end to the indiscriminate bombing carried out by the regime, especially the use of barrel bombs and chlorine, which are responsible for many of the civilian deaths and a mass exodus. We are closely examining the question of whether we can and should ban the Syrian air force from flying over certain areas where the civilian population is particularly targeted. Protecting civilians is a priority.
Is it possible to establish such zones without deploying ground troops?
There are several options, but let us be clear about this: France absolutely does not intend to deploy ground troops in Syria. Moreover, no Western country is envisaging or suggesting this. External powers will not be able to restore security in Syria. That is up to the Syrian people themselves, or regional forces.
During the UN General Assembly, Russia and the Western countries continued to clash over Syria and the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Is this a complete diplomatic impasse?
For the moment, yes, but we are continuing to hold discussions with everyone, including Russia and Iran, for that is the role of diplomacy and France’s custom. We will not give up. After the United Nations General Assembly, it is now clear that the solution is to be found in a dual approach, combining counter-terrorism efforts and a political transition out. We are taking this as our starting point and trying to move forward. President Putin was in Paris yesterday and Syria was, of course, discussed.
The fringe of the Syrian opposition which is supported by France is now marginalized. How can it represent a replacement?
The President of the French Republic met the President of the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled Khoja, in New York. Despite huge difficulties, he is bravely seeking to bring together those who share a vision of Syria that we also share: a united, democratic Syria that respects all communities. This movement needs to spread. On the ground, this moderate opposition is trapped between the bombing by Bashar al-Assad and the attacks of the terrorist groups. In the last few days, it has also been bombed by the Russian air force. And there may be other developments on the ground. Should we abandon it, when it is an alternative to terror? That is not France’s position.
Will you vote against the Russian resolution put forward at the Security Council calling for a broader coalition against Daesh?
In its current state, the text does not meet the three conditions for concerted action that I mentioned above: military action that exclusively targets Daesh and terrorist groups; protection of civilians; and the need for a political transition. We will see if it can be amended to achieve this, as I hope it can be. But there is naturally no question of legally justifying an operation which, on the pretext of combating terrorism, in reality seeks the desperate rescue of a discredited dictator. We have no hidden agenda. Our aim is clear: France, an independent power with many links to this region, above all seeks peace and security.