Syria – Excerpts from the interview given by François Hollande, President of the Republic, to the daily newspaper Le Monde (August 30, 2013)
Q. – Does France have proof of the use of chemical weapons in Damascus on 21 August?
THE PRESIDENT – It’s no longer a question of whether chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August. It’s an established fact. Even the Syrian authorities are no longer denying it. No, the question is: who were the perpetrators of that appalling act? France has a body of evidence that suggests the regime was responsible. Firstly, several chemical attacks had already taken place in Syria. But that of 21 August, in its scale and its effects, changes the nature of things. It’s been confirmed that the opposition possesses none of those weapons, whereas all the stocks are under Bashar al-Assad’s control. Secondly, the district in question wasn’t struck accidentally or inadvertently: it’s a key area for the regime’s control of communication routes into Damascus. Finally, everything was done in the hours following the atrocities to wipe out the traces of them through bombardments, and we’re certain who was behind those.
Q. – How legal would military action be?
THE PRESIDENT – The 1925 [Geneva] Protocol bans the use of chemical weapons. Gassing a population constitutes, as Ban Ki-moon has said himself, a crime against humanity. That’s why the matter has been referred to the UN and an inspection mission has been sent to the site. But the fear exists that, whatever the evidence, the Security Council might be prevented from adopting the resolution necessary for action. It’s been in deadlock for two years over Syria.
Q. – And what if it remains deadlocked?
THE PRESIDENT – The Damascus chemical massacre cannot and must not remain unpunished. Otherwise it would mean taking the risk of an escalation that would trivialize the use of those weapons and threaten other countries. I’m not in favour of an international intervention aimed at “liberating” Syria or overthrowing the dictator, but I believe the regime must be stopped from committing the irreparable against its population.
Q. – What are the goals of war?
THE PRESIDENT – I wouldn’t talk about a war but about punishing a monstrous human rights violation. It will act as a deterrent. Not acting would mean letting it happen. The civil war in Syria has lasted too long. It’s claimed 100,000 lives. France took initiatives very early on. In the summer of 2012 it brought together the Friends of Syria and recognized the [Syrian] National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It provided it with its political support, then material and humanitarian assistance and, more recently, military resources, with due respect for our European commitments. Today, a threshold in horror has been crossed. And it’s reaction, not inertia, that will ensure a political solution prevails.
Q. – What form may the intervention take?
THE PRESIDENT – All options are on the table. France wants proportionate and firm action against the Damascus regime.
Q. – What countries would be led to intervene?
THE PRESIDENT – If the Security Council is prevented from acting, a coalition will be formed. It will have to be as broad as possible. It will draw on the Arab League, which has condemned the crime and alerted the international community. It will have the Europeans’ support. But there are few countries with the capability to inflict punishment through appropriate means. France is one of them. It’s ready. It will decide on its position in close liaison with its allies.
Q. – The first parliament consulted – that of the United Kingdom – has refused the principle of an operation in Syria. Can we act without our traditional British allies?
THE PRESIDENT – Yes. Each country has the sovereign right to participate in an operation or not. That’s true of both the UK and France. Today I’ll be having an in-depth discussion with Barack Obama.
Q. – How is this choice different from what the American Neoconservatives may have been criticized for in terms of armed intervention?
THE PRESIDENT – In Iraq, the intervention was carried out when no proof had been provided regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, unfortunately, chemical weapons have been used. In fact, the operation in Iraq was aimed at overthrowing the regime. No such thing for the response envisaged in Syria. Since the beginning of the civil war, France has stubbornly been seeking a political solution. What has changed since 21 August is the chemical massacre. It’s a red line defined a year ago, which has undeniably been crossed.
Q. – Libya, Mali, Syria – doesn’t France risk increasing the number of times interventionism is resorted to?
THE PRESIDENT – In 2011, I approved France’s engagement in Libya. But I regretted the fact that its consequences weren’t brought under control. In January 2013 I took the decision to intervene in Mali. I note that it was effective, coordinated with the Africans and carried out in a short time. It made it possible to move to free and indisputable elections. For Syria, I’ll ensure that the international community’s response halts the escalation of violence. Each situation is different. For each of them, France shoulders its responsibilities in the name of its values and principles.
Q. – How will the relationship with Russia be handled the day after the strikes?
THE PRESIDENT – Russia refuses to admit that the regime could have committed this abomination, because it’s so afraid that chaos might ensue in the event of Bashar al-Assad’s collapse. So I want to persuade it that the worst-case scenario is the current situation. It’s what is encouraging the rise of jihadist groups. I’ve always told President Putin that I’d in no way call into question the special ties his country has long had with Syria. And it would be in Russia’s interest to achieve a political solution as soon as possible.
Q. – Are you assured of the public’s support?
THE PRESIDENT – When I decided to send our armed forces to Mali, the French were not yet fully aware of the scale of terrorism in the Sahel. Today, they’re proud that our armed forces liberated a friendly country. What I owe them under all circumstances is the truth about France’s commitments and their validity, without concealing the threats to our own security. There’s no question of dragging our country into a risky venture. But what is the greater danger: punishing a country that has used chemical weapons or letting a beleaguered clan do as it pleases, when it may be tempted to start again? Chemical weapons are a danger for humanity.
Q. – Do you rule out strikes before Parliament has been able to speak?
THE PRESIDENT – I rule out taking a decision before having all the evidence that would justify it. I’ve summoned Parliament for an extraordinary session on Wednesday; it will debate the situation in Syria. And if I’ve committed France, the government will inform it of the methods and the objectives pursued, in accordance with Article 35 of the constitution.
Q. – Do you rule out an intervention before the inspectors have left Syria?
THE PRESIDENT – Yes.