Syria "most serious tragedy" of early 21st century, says President

Syria – Interview given by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, to TF1 (excerpts)

Paris, 15 September 2013

(…)

Q. – Syria first of all: the latest diplomatic negotiations in Geneva between the Americans and the Russians have led to an agreement (…). Is this agreement acceptable to you? (…)

THE PRESIDENT – (…) Syria is the most serious tragedy of the beginning of the 21st century. 120,000 deaths. Half the population is displaced: two million refugees. And then on 21 August, in this trail of horror, there was a chemical massacre: 1,500 civilians – women, men, children – were killed when gas was used.

The first matter I had to address (…) was that a reaction was needed, that this tragedy had gone on too long and was taking a turn, with the chemical weapons, which couldn’t be tolerated anymore because it was a violation of international law, of our oldest convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons. So we threatened to use force through strikes – not just France but the United States too, and at one point the United Kingdom.

Q. – You even said that Bashar al-Assad had to be punished. Don’t you regret saying that today, given the change in the situation?

THE PRESIDENT – If there hadn’t been a reaction, what would have happened? Bashar al-Assad would have gone on gassing people! Until only recently, a few days ago, Bashar al-Assad was denying he had chemical weapons; today, he’s owned up to it. The Russians were supporting Bashar al-Assad and believing that nothing was to be done, no punishment at any rate. The pressure exerted by France – not just France, [but also] the United States –, sufficiently strong pressure therefore, persuaded Russia, Mr Putin, to take an initiative. Fine. This initiative has made it possible to have an agreement now, in the past few days.

Q. – But France wasn’t present in Geneva. Do you regret France’s absence?

THE PRESIDENT – First, what should we think of this agreement? I believe it’s an important step, but it isn’t the end point. France isn’t alone, it was never alone. People tell me that I’m standing with Obama’s United States. What would the crime be in standing with President Obama on this issue of the essential right people have to dignity and our right to security? When chemical weapons are used, it isn’t simply one country, one region [that is affected], everywhere may be affected. France considers what has been forged between the Americans and the Russians over the past few days is therefore an important step.

What am I going to do tomorrow? I’m going to host a meeting with Laurent Fabius for Secretary of State Kerry and the British Foreign Secretary. And we’re going to finalize the next Security Council resolution, which is going to take the agreement and put it into practice. In what way? Number one, ensuring that on-the-spot checks can be carried out… (…) It’s very difficult, so it does merit our spending some time to be sure the 50 sites are properly identified. (…) Then there’s the destruction. A timetable has been set; it may be a little ambitious, but we’re not going to complain…

Q. – Some people are talking about 10 years…

THE PRESIDENT – The talk is of the first half of 2014.

Q. – That’s very tight.

THE PRESIDENT – It is very tight. So the threat of punishment must be properly included in the event of the agreement and the result of the Security Council resolution not being put into effect. We must ensure there’s the possibility of punishment if there’s no implementation. An important stage must now be pursued: this resolution at the Security Council, this possibility of punishment in the event of failure by the Syrian side. (…)

Q. – For Vladimir Putin, isn’t this a way of gaining time? It may be a blunt question, but today can we trust Vladimir Putin? Ultimately, the strikes are delayed…

THE PRESIDENT – People can’t tell us simultaneously to move towards the Russians because it may be an opportunity to overcome this crisis and, at the same time, that we can’t trust the Russians! The best way of gaining mutual trust is by going to the Security Council. Until now, the Russians and Chinese have been blocking the Security Council. The Russians have used their veto three times since the beginning of the Syria crisis. This time, because they’re a party to this agreement, they’ll also be able to be the judges of its application and implementation. So they’re party to a possible punishment, if the Security Council made that judgement because of a failure by the Syrians to participate. (…)

Q. – And could France take the initiative in drawing up that resolution?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes, we’re going to be working on it from tomorrow with the American Secretary of State and the British Foreign Secretary. Laurent Fabius will then be going to Russia to meet his counterpart and complete this process, and we could have a vote on the resolution before the end of the week.

Would this be the end of the matter, though? There’s still this violence, there’s still this war in Syria, and so the next step must be to find a political solution to the Syria crisis. We could do this if everyone’s aware of the gravity of the situation but also of the opportunity being given to us. We could do it at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September.

Q. – And you yourself, the French President, would you like Bashar al-Assad to go?

THE PRESIDENT – I’ve always said so, but the best way of achieving it is to have this political agreement and to be sure that the people who are going to be responsible for the transition are democrats. We’re not talking about installing people we fought against in Mali or, a few months ago, in Libya. We’re being careful about people we consider to be as dangerous as Bashar al-Assad not being installed, because Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists commit massacres.

Q. – Didn’t you, too, think of consulting Parliament [like the US and UK leaders]?

THE PRESIDENT – Of course I’m mindful of what Parliament can represent – what it can say, too – but I didn’t have to, because today we’re in a phase in which we now have the serious prospect of a diplomatic and political solution. But let me tell you, in order to be entirely clear to you: the military option must remain – otherwise there won’t be any pressure. Moreover, I’d like it to be exercised by the United Nations Security Council. (…)./.
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Published on 17/09/2013

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