Interview with Jean-Yves Le Drian - Le Journal du Dimanche (15 April 2018)



Did the air strikes conducted by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in Syria achieve the objective of neutralizing the remainder of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal?

These strikes were strictly limited, proportionate and legitimate. They aimed solely at the regime’s clandestine chemical weapons arsenal. The targets were chosen jointly. As for Russia, I would like to recall what Vladimir Putin said the day after meeting with Emmanuel Macron at Versailles in May 2017, where the French President set down our red lines: “I agree. […] No matter who uses chemical weapons, the international community must formulate a common policy and find a solution that would quite simply make the use of such weapons impossible for anyone.” Those are Vladimir Putin’s own words.

How do you analyse Russia’s hostility since Sunday to this response plan against the Syrian arsenal?

Russia’s protection and backing of Bashar al-Assad is unjustifiable. I cannot understand how they can reach this level, while the violence employed by Assad is limitless. It boils down to denial of reality, as already observed on several occasions. As early as 2013, then in 2017 at Khan Sheikhoun, the Russians denied the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. At the time, the mechanism established by the UN Security Council to verify and attribute responsibility for chemical weapons already determined the regime’s responsibility. It is therefore no accident that Russia voted against renewing the mechanism in autumn last year. And this week, when we proposed setting up a comparable mechanism, there were 12 votes for at the Security Council, and one veto: Russia’s.

So why seek to maintain dialogue with Russia, given this posture?

The President of the Republic has determined France’s position on the use of chemical weapons and on Syria. We now have to hope that Russia will understand that, after the military response against Syria’s arsenal, we need to join forces to promote a political process in Syria enabling an end to the crisis. France is ready to help achieve that. Except that what is blocking the process today is Bashar al-Assad himself. It is up to Russia to put pressure on him. The first step is a truce that is genuinely respected, this time, as required by Security Council resolutions.

How do you see this next sequence unfolding, following the air strikes?

On chemical weapons, the decommissioning of the Syrian arsenal has to continue first and foremost, and the absence of any residual armament needs to be validated by the Organisation for the Prohibition (OPCW). That is required to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which was adopted after the events in August 2013 and voted for by Russia. Next, a truce is needed that enables the resumption of humanitarian assistance, as provided for by Resolution 2410, also supported by Russia. Lastly, the political process set out in Resolution 2254, providing for the adoption of a new Constitution and free elections, needs to resume.

“Russia’s protection and backing of Bashar al-Assad is unjustifiable.”

Eastern Ghouta has been seized back totally by the regime, which has warned that the next stage in its war will take place in Idlib. Are we not going to see a repetition of the scenario of a siege and deadly assaults?

There are now 2 million inhabitants in Idlib, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians evacuated from rebel cities taken back by the regime. There is a risk of another humanitarian disaster. Idlib’s fate needs to be settled within a political process that involves disarming militias. We will also remain attentive as regards the situation in the north-east, which was freed from Daesh control with our support. I would like to stress that our main enemy remains Daesh, along with the other terrorist groups taking advantage of this period to regroup in the east of the country.

Following Israel’s raid on an Iranian base in Syria on Monday, will Israel be continued to be left to address the Iranian military presence in the country?

In our strategy, the resumption of the political process requires all Syrian and regional players to take part. We are going to discuss the matter with our partners in the Small Group [United States, United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan], but everything possible must be done to avoid Iran’s military presence in Syria resulting in the conflict overflowing beyond Syria’s borders. On Monday, I will ask the EU Foreign Affairs Council ministerial meeting to stand alongside the Syrian people by providing the assistance they need.

The raids on Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal come as we await a decision from Donald Trump by 12 May on whether or not to uphold the Iranian nuclear agreement. Do you think that what just happened could have an impact on the situation?

France considers the Vienna Agreement to be a major achievement in the fight against proliferation. It is essential to preserve it as a bulwark against Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and, consequently, the risk of regional proliferation. Whatever enables us to guarantee chemical or nuclear non-proliferation internationally must be respected with the greatest vigilance. That is why we need to continue our conversation with the United States to convince them of that. That does not mean that we are not determined to avoid Iran continuing its ballistic activities, which are aggressive towards its neighbours, and to stifle its temptations of hegemony over the whole region, from Yemen to Lebanon.

Proliferation is also central to the North Korea issue, twelve days ahead of the Summit between the leaders of the two Koreas.

The thaw in relations between leaders Kim and Moon appears positive. It shows that sanctions and international pressure have eventually paid off. The aim is to achieve the denuclearization of the peninsula. However, in Syria, North Korea and Iran, it is clear that collective security requires compliance with non-proliferation agreements.

Le Journal du Dimanche – Sunday, 15 April 2018