Interview given by Jean-Yves Le Drian to Le Figaro (15 October 2019)

Foreign policy – Syria/Turkish offensive in north-east Syria/United States/Russia/Iran/European Union/Libya/Sahel – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Isabelle Lasserre for Le Figaro

TURKEY/SYRIA/US

Q. – What are the risks of the Turkish intervention in Syria?

THE MINISTER – It’s a very serious matter. Firstly because this Turkish operation in north-east Syria undermines five years of fighting against Daesh [so-called ISIL]. Islamic State isn’t dead. Its fighters haven’t disappeared, they’re in camps and prisons or have gone underground and are waiting only for attention to be diverted to resume the fight. We saw this again last week with a suicide attack committed in Raqqa, a symbolic city for Daesh’s terrorist action, because that’s where the orders that led to the 2015 attacks in France originated. The Turkish offensive risks undermining everything that has already been achieved.
Moreover, it will swell the numbers of displaced people and refugees, and cause more suffering and death among the 700,000 civilians living in the area. Finally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been our partners in the fight against Daesh, are being destabilized today by the action of one country, Turkey, which nevertheless belongs to the coalition against the Islamic State group, and by the inaction of another country, the United States, which, until Sunday and the American decision to withdraw, had nevertheless spearheaded the coalition in Syria alongside the SDF.

Q. – What can France do?

THE MINISTER – France has taken national decisions to suspend its planned arms exports and closely coordinated with its European partners in the European Union council of [foreign] ministers on Monday, to demand an end to the Turkish offensive. It’s calling for an emergency meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh, which was created in 2014 and brings together 80 countries. This coalition, in which France has played a crucial role, led the battle to liberate Iraqi territory and, with the decisive help of the Syrian Democratic Forces, enabled Daesh to be eradicated in north-east Syria. Today the situation has changed and the coalition must meet again, as quickly as possible. Everyone there must shoulder their responsibilities, enable some stability to return to the north-east of the country and collectively take charge of the issue of foreign fighters.

Q. – But more precisely, how can Turkey be stopped?

THE MINISTER – By making it face up to its responsibilities. By reminding it that it’s been a victim itself of Daesh, which has claimed responsibility for 35 attacks on Turkish territory… We must also put all our relations with Turkey on the table. Given the threats this occupation is posing to Europe’s security, we must do everything to persuade the Turks to end their offensive.

Q. – Does Turkey still have its place in NATO?

THE MINISTER – That’s for it to say.

Q. – Does the Turkish offensive risk sparking fresh geopolitical chaos in the region?

THE MINISTER – The twofold decision – the Turkish one to launch an offensive and the American one to withdraw – represents a change of scale. Our priority is to preserve the coalition that has enabled us to combat Daesh, and not to allow the situation to provide that terrorist organization with an opportunity for resurgence. All this requires a real acceleration of the political process in Syria, too. The new situation on the ground has led to the Kurds being thrown into the arms of the regime and its allies. So Russia now has a heightened responsibility and must condemn the Turkish offensive, which plunges the area even further into chaos.

Q. – Did Donald Trump make a mistake by announcing his intention to withdraw American troops from north-east Syria?

THE MINISTER – The Turks took the decision to carry out the offensive unilaterally. Donald Trump didn’t oppose this and consequently gave a form of tacit authorization, because he decided on and announced the withdrawal of American troops at the height of the Turkish offensive against the SDF. I notice this decision sparked very lively debates in Washington. Hence the need to organize a rapid meeting of the international coalition, to clarify things and see where everyone stands…

Q. – Has France got used to Donald Trump?

THE MINISTER – Emmanuel Macron has learned to work with Donald Trump.

IRAN/NUCLEAR PROGRAMME

Q. – Is Emmanuel Macron’s initiative on Iran dead?

THE MINISTER – In Biarritz, then New York, the French President took initiatives to enable a de-escalation and define the parameters of an agreement with Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani. It’s about persuading Iran to once again fully honour the commitments of the Vienna agreement (JCPOA), open negotiations to discuss the crises in the region and discuss the agreement’s future after 2025. Concurrently, American sanctions would be gradually lifted and Iran could have its oil resources. These parameters still exist, even though the political space is narrowing, because Iran is threatening to go back on other JCPOA commitments at the beginning of November. Today it’s important for the two sides to grasp this opportunity for negotiation. Otherwise, pressure will mount as time goes by and the risk of an uncontrolled escalation will increase, when none of the players in the crisis, particularly the United States and Iran, say they want that.

RUSSIA/UKRAINE

Q. – Are hopes of negotiation between Russia and Ukraine already dead?

THE MINISTER – Since the election of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, the situation has changed. Prisoner exchanges and the release of the Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov are a sign of things calming down between the two countries. The two sides have agreed to withdraw heavy weapons and demilitarize three pilot areas in Donbas. Zelensky, who enjoys a sizeable majority, is in favour of a genuine discussion on the future status of Donbas. It’s now important for Russia to take advantage of this opening-up and respond to these positive signs. If it does so, the paths to a new Normandy summit may open up.

Q. – Has the thawing of relations with Russia hoped for by Emmanuel Macron materialized since Brégançon and the speech to the ambassadors?

THE MINISTER – Emmanuel Macron’s initiative in Brégançon is based on a twofold observation. We’re living in a state of mistrust with Russia based on significant disagreements, be they Ukraine, frozen conflicts, the annexation of Crimea, Syria, or the Russian nuclear posture. So we have substantial disagreements. But staring at each other doesn’t move these issues forward. The second observation is Russia’s gradual shift eastwards and its distancing from Europe. So it’s important to get back onto paths of trust. But we must do so frankly and without being naive. I went to Moscow in September with the Minister for the Armed Forces to make progress on the agenda of the Franco-Russian relationship. The structured dialogue of security and trust that we’ve proposed incorporates not only the major strategic challenges but also closer links between our societies and the need to understand – together if possible – the full range of crises. And since then, we’ve each appointed special envoys to draw up a timetable for implementing these proposals. But all this is still very recent.

Q. – Will Russia rejoin the G7 next year in the United States?

THE MINISTER – The conditions set by the G7 for this prospect are clear and were again the focus of a discussion in Biarritz. We can’t pretend nothing happened in Ukraine in 2014. But today there’s a genuine window of opportunity to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, as I’ve said – a chance that may not arise twice. We must seize it.

FOREIGN POLICY

Q. – Is foreign policy based more on realism than before?

THE MINISTER – Our foreign policy has three components. First of all it’s about protecting our interests and our security; that’s the foundation. Then asserting our values, the primacy of the law and of cooperation. Finally, and for those two reasons, developing multilateralism. In the face of world panic and permanent deregulation, France advocates coming up with a new multilateralism. It’s not an abstract concept but an action concept, illustrated for example by the big success of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. At the UN General Assembly, my German counterpart Heiko Maas and I launched an initiative to bring together everyone who wants to build this new multilateralism. Fifty serving ministers answered the call, on several key issues like drawing up digital rules for the 21st century. It’s a source of optimism. The proactive approach has a future.

EUROPE

Q. – How can we bring together the two Europes pitted against each other within the EU on fundamental issues like immigration?

THE MINISTER – We must move from the Europe of fear to the Europe of sovereignty. The Europe of fear has focused on immigration and fuelled our divisions. I notice that the migration crisis is no longer at its peak, the debates have calmed down and trust between the member states, born out of responsibility and solidarity, is gradually returning. So we must look to the future and the sovereignty issue, which must be a uniting and galvanizing theme. That doesn’t mean we must be open to all forms of globalization that don’t respect sovereignty. Above all, Europe must now stop being naive and genuinely be a Europe that protects. Then we’ll be in a position to reconcile those “two Europes” which, for me, are one and the same. It’s a message all Europeans can understand. The new Commission’s whole challenge is to assert this new Europe. If we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind by history and be merely the site of battles and struggles for influence between foreign powers.

Q. – Does Sylvie Goulard’s failure in Brussels signal a rebellion against France’s vision of Europe? How do you interpret it?

THE MINISTER – It’s a trial disputing her legitimacy which masks regrettable political scheming. We must move on from this in order to take Europe forward and implement the agenda the new President of the European Commission has presented. What matters is the European project; that every institution plays its role as constructively as possible. So I think the European Parliament, like the Commission and the Council, will have to play its full role in the major challenges ahead of us, which I mentioned.

LIBYA/SAHEL

Q. – How can we find a way out of the Libya crisis?

THE MINISTER – Those involved in Libya are starting to grasp the fact that there can’t be a military solution to the crisis. I also note that there’s an international consensus on this. We’ve now got to organize an international conference with all those involved and urge the Libyans to set a timetable for elections. For this to happen there must be compliance with the arms embargo, a truce then a ceasefire, unification of the economic institutions and a unified Libyan National Army. It is on these bases that results will be achievable. But this must also happen with the strong commitment of the African Union.

Q. – And how can we get out of the quagmire in the Sahel?

THE MINISTER – I’m not sure we should talk about a quagmire. Everyone knew that the crisis would go on a long time, and it will. The goal, ultimately, is for security in the Sahel to be ensured by the Africans themselves. I note progress in some regions, such as Mauritania. But a great deal of challenges remain, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the situation has been further complicated by the fact that terrorist groups, such as Iyad Ag Ghaly’s, are exploiting conflicts between communities and destabilizing entire regions. We must make Africans more determined to fight this battle./.

Translated and republished with the kind permission of Le Figaro