Foreign Minister discusses Syria, US, Iran and EU
Foreign policy – Syria/Iran/European Union – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter
Paris, 2 September 2018
Q. – We’re going to start with Syria and the inhabitants of Idlib in the north-west of the country, who are holding their breath. It’s Syria’s last rebel region; the situation is alarming, to use the French President’s word. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is preparing the offensive; have the die been cast? Has Bashar al-Assad already won the war?
THE MINISTER – He’s won the war, we have to recognize it, but he hasn’t won the peace; the same can also be said about the people who support him – I’m thinking in particular of Russia; and in order for there to be reconstruction in the future, in order for there to be a minimum level of calm in Syria in the future, the peace must be won. And winning the peace means having a political process and not taking military victory to the very end. And that’s where the issue of Idlib arises.
Q. – Before talking about peace, there’s a risk of a humanitarian tragedy in the region; is France in a position to act to prevent it, or at any rate alleviate it?
THE MINISTER – There’s a humanitarian risk and there’s also a security time-bomb. It’s a very serious situation that may explode in the space of just a few days, because clearly Bashar al-Assad’s regime wants a military reconquest. But there are currently three million people in the Idlib enclave – three million –, which means that if there’s a battle for Idlib, Aleppo will be nothing compared to what might happen in terms of suffering and disasters. And so international public opinion and everyone who can take action must do so, to prevent that time-bomb exploding. That’s what the French President and I tell our interlocutors – not only the Russians but also the Turks, because the enclave is near the Turkish border… which is closed… And furthermore, of the three million people present inside [Idlib], there are 700,000 or 800,000 refugees, plus many diverse terrorist groups, because you have those who once identified as what was called al-Nusra, i.e. directly or indirectly linked to al-Qaeda, and you also have people who have come from Daesh [so-called ISIL], because what hasn’t been properly understood in Syria’s development is that Bashar’s forces gradually recaptured territory and power, and when there was resistance they invited terrorist groups to go to Idlib. So much so that it’s an explosive mix in every sense of the term.
Q. – The question was: what can France do, ultimately? One gets the impression that France is currently watching what happens; you perfectly describe what’s happening – at any rate, so we imagine – but France can no longer do anything!
THE MINISTER – France is talking to everyone, as it happens, but let me add a final point on the situation in Idlib before coming to your question: there’s also a risk of chemical weapons being used again. It hasn’t been verified, but it may be a temptation. Judging from what various people are saying about this theory, I think the risk exists once again.
Q. – And what does France do then, if chemical weapons are used?
THE MINISTER – The French President was very clear on this issue in his speech at the Ambassadors’ Conference: there’s already been a precedent, and if it’s verified that lethal chemical weapons are used, the reaction will be the same as previously.
Q. – But could you use that very mistake on Bashar al-Assad’s part precisely to regain control of rebuilding the country?
THE MINISTER – Frankly, I hope we don’t reach that disastrous outcome. It so happens that the countries known as the Astana trio, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran, are going to meet in a few days’ time; I hope that between themselves they find ways of averting this disaster, and it’s in their interests; it’s in their interests in terms of image and also to prevent conflicts between them, because unless action is taken, unless they act – because they’re the powers that are present on the ground and there militarily –, there may be tragic consequences, if only with regard to Turkey. Where are the refugees going to go if there’s a battle, conflict, attacks? And there’s also the risk of the terrorist groups dispersing. So it’s an extremely complicated situation that requires clear-sightedness, control and a determination by those involved to overcome this specific situation and grasp all its future consequences.
Now, in that framework – to answer your question – we have a place of dialogue… which regularly brings people together, which is going to bring together the United States, Egypt, Germany, Britain, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in New York at the end of the month. That group was started by France, and it’s working in coordination with the so-called Astana group to try and make progress in parallel along the path to a peaceful solution, because the only solution to prevent carnage in Idlib is to make progress on a political solution. What does a political solution mean? It means we talk to the various parties to reform the constitution and prepare elections.
Q. – But Bashar al-Assad isn’t doing that.
THE MINISTER – (…) Yes, but Bashar al-Assad isn’t the only one in control of the game; at least there’s also an international context, an international community that is alarmed by the situation, and the players that carry weight – particularly President Putin – must take strong action to enable that process to begin. In any case, France will continue to play that game, the game of responsibility, because we’re members of the Security Council and the issue will certainly be raised in the coming weeks at the Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly. (…)
Q. – President Macron has called for a political solution that doesn’t include Bashar al-Assad – in other words, he wants Bashar al-Assad to go. But isn’t that also a very vain wish? Who specifically are France’s allies when it comes to that solution?
THE MINISTER – I think Russia has an interest in a political solution, because it absolutely doesn’t want to be dragged into a kind of quagmire, which it previously experienced in Afghanistan. And in this respect, the fact that we’re searching with Russia for a solution which would allow a political road map that could be validated by Bashar al-Assad is a good thing; they still have to have the means to support that approach, to prevent the humanitarian tragedy that inevitably risks impacting Russia’s image itself and also the responsibility of the other players, namely Turkey and Iran. So we’re in a very complicated period. We’re talking regularly. Yesterday evening I spoke to my colleague the Iranian Foreign Minister; President Macron has talked to President Erdoğan and he’ll be talking to President Putin; we’re seeking this way out, not only for humanitarian reasons but also for the whole region’s overall stability. (…)
What will happen to the refugees, what will happen to the terrorists if a peace solution isn’t properly identified with all the players?
Q. – Does that mean, in practice, that you’re afraid terrorist attacks in Europe will get worse?
THE MINISTER – Perhaps not in Europe. The terrorist groups also contain – as Russia knows – a lot of people who come from Central Asia.
Q. – We’ll come to Europe in a moment, but you used the expression “the international community”. Does that still exist? We saw the French President and you yourself, during the Ambassadors’ Conference, trying to define French diplomacy and foreign policy, but “the international community” seems like an empty phrase when you look at the deep divisions in the world we’re living in, as if the multilateralism France traditionally believes in were sick or perhaps dead.
THE MINISTER – It’s in crisis. (…) The issue of multilateralism was central, because the theme chosen for the conference was “alliances, values and interests”. The reality is that the United States is undermining multilateralism, methodically and systematically undermining all the agreements that previously existed, because what is multilateralism? It’s about trying to live together in the world on the basis of cooperation, on the basis of common rules that ensure we get a collective bonus if they’re respected; it’s as simple as that. It’s the approach that was started after the 1939-1945 war and has gradually been strengthened, which enabled the United Nations to exist and has enabled a whole series of actions. And today there’s a crisis in that diplomatic approach…
Q. – (…) Do you still believe in it?
THE MINISTER – You have to believe in it; we believe in it… You have to believe in it because it’s what makes our co-existence strong, and if the alternative President Trump has initiated were to develop – it’s starting to be implemented –, then our international life would be nothing but a sum of bilateral relationships and power games, because the American position is to say: “I talk to such-and-such a country, I play my zero-sum power game and I don’t enter into global negotiations, so I disregard international rules and I also disregard my signatures and my agreements”, because the United States has withdrawn not only from UNESCO but also from the climate agreement, the Vienna agreement on Iran and a law that helps Palestinian refugees… In short, the successive withdrawals methodically lead to this crisis; we must be the founders – because we’re members of the Security Council, because we have responsibility in the world – of a new multilateralism, taking [with us] other potential allies.
Q. – Did you properly assess Donald Trump from the outset? Or must we hope that he’ll improve? Did Emmanuel Macron and French diplomacy ultimately make the right judgment about what risked happening?
THE MINISTER – Donald Trump is strident at times…
Q. – Unpredictable…
THE MINISTER – No, he’s not unpredictable… I’ll come to that; he’s strident at times, he’s very flamboyant at times, but he’s consistent. And that consistency is about ensuring that the America of “America first”, lone America, even isolated America withdraws from the world’s affairs, lives from its own situation and has power relationships with various countries, and if there’s a trade deficit between the United States and a particular country it must be restored through various means, in particular customs tariffs. This world view is a significant change for the United States, which – as the French President said in his speech to the ambassadors – is not automatically linked solely to Donald Trump. Shifts were already under way previously. In the history of the United States, there have been times when the United States has withdrawn into itself. It’s relatively recently that the United States has taken an interest in the world’s affairs, and now there’s a very significant withdrawal, and I say this quite solemnly. Not long ago the NATO summit was held in Brussels, and it went well; the conclusions of that Alliance summit were positive, but both before and after it President Trump publicly wondered whether the United States would continue to ensure the security of the various NATO member countries in Europe. At any rate, it wasn’t inevitable, and there’s now some doubt, including about that, which leads us – we’ll talk about Europe again in a moment – to question ourselves about our own security, and so France must take the initiative, including the initiative of a new multilateralism with other countries facing the same concern. That’s why we’re developing our relations with Canada, with Australia… with Japan, with India, with powers which are democratic and are also confronted with this American disengagement from multilateralism and which want to build with us an alternative to this crisis of multilateralism.
Q. – Now, a very specific issue, namely Iran: you absolutely want to keep the nuclear agreement alive, and we can see the United States starting to impose trade sanctions. How do you make France’s voice heard in that country? Do you think you can still keep the Iran agreement alive?
THE MINISTER – On Iran, we’re working together with Germany, Britain, China and Russia, because with the European Union we’re co-signatories of the Vienna agreement. We think the Vienna agreement was a good agreement, because that agreement prevented Iran… is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons…
Q. – We must talk in the past now…
THE MINISTER – No, we’re talking in the present: the agreement is preventing. I’m especially talking in the present because there was a report yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency showing that Iran is complying with the agreement. So I really am talking in the present. And the agreement is enabling us to prevent this, and if by any chance Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons tomorrow, then we’d risk having a situation of major breakdown in the region, with major risks of conflict, including with the closest neighbouring countries, so we must prevent the agreement being undermined, and we’re saying to Iran: comply with the agreement, we’re complying with it. But in the face of this, Iran wants to get the beneficial effects of the agreement, namely its ability to trade in particular. And the United States has now imposed sanction measures that it wants to extend, through so-called extraterritorial measures, to companies which are not American but operate in Iran while also having a direct or indirect link with the American economy, if only because they use the dollar. These extraterritorial measures are not legal, but they’re being imposed.
Q. – They’re being imposed on Renault, they’re being imposed on Peugeot… And the companies don’t want to go there.
THE MINISTER – Each company – and I haven’t finished on this issue – assesses its risks. And you can understand major automotive companies wondering about their presence in Iran, insofar as there’s the American market too. What should we do? We must try and find a mechanism: it won’t make companies go back, but it will enable Iran to endure its situation, prevent them breaking the agreement, find a financial provision, a financial mechanism enabling Iran to continue selling its oil and, in exchange, have the resources necessary to buy consumer goods. It’s not easy to find; that’s where you can see the need for having a strong Europe…
Q. – Who’s thinking about that at the moment?
THE MINISTER – The other signatories. We meet regularly, we’re going to meet in New York in a few days’ time, we talk about it regularly and I talked about it yesterday to Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran. We’re working; I’m going to China in a few days’ time to see Mr Wang Yi to discuss it. Can we find a solution enabling us to guarantee the agreement? We also think two points have to be added on the Iran issue. Firstly, the United States’ analysis on the issue strikes us as erroneous. They think that by exerting sufficiently strong pressure, through sanctions, they could bring about regime change. We think the opposite. Moreover, I can see that it’s the opposite and that there’s actually very great resilience, Iranian pride, Iranian nationalism, meaning that they close ranks in the face of aggression. And it’s the hardliners who threaten to take power and who could then say: we’re breaking the Vienna agreement and restarting Iran’s nuclear activity and acquiring capability. And then failure will have been inevitable, because by trying to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear nation, the American action will actually have enabled it. That’s the first thing. But there are also other contentious issues with Iran that we mustn’t neglect, which I highlighted very firmly at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Vienna two days ago, namely missiles – this missile frenzy of Iran’s which is leading to risks for the neighbouring countries but also to Iran extending this missile capability to both Yemen and Hezbollah, which poses a risk to the security of both Iran and Israel. In short, we want to talk about this. And we also want to talk to Iran, about its role; we get back to the initial question about Syria, preventing Iran from exploiting the situation to gain a form of hegemony over the territory. We also have to talk about that. We have to achieve a comprehensive agreement that includes this dimension. On this point, we agree with the Americans, and the discussion with Iran on this issue is very difficult, which means the situation really isn’t very simple, but in the current situation we’re working to maintain the Vienna agreement, and Iran is currently complying with it.
(…) When the United States decided to adopt protectionist measures for itself against European interests, the European Union stood firm, asserted itself and unanimously put counter-measures in place to prevent, to react to the American initiative.
Q. – We’ve no more peanut butter, that also isn’t…
THE MINISTER – No, the announcement was far more serious than that. We’ve already put measures in place to counter the US initiative to tax steel, aluminium – these exist and when the Americans wanted to harm car production, particularly in Europe, the Europeans came together and said no, we’re going to put in place counter-measures which will ensure that although we’ll lose, so will you Americans. So what happened? Negotiations began. So Europe, for the first time, took a firm stance against attempts to destabilize its own market – that’s the first example. The second example: when President Macron talked in his Sorbonne speech about the need to get a directive on the posting of workers, no one really believed it. He managed it. Third example: last November during the Gothenburg summit, the Europeans – all united – also agreed on a set of minimum social rights in Europe. This is social progress; never has there been tougher European social legislation. Let me add one point which isn’t any less important, it’s just as significant a step forward: Europeans – all of them – have agreed on a European defence fund and greater defence cooperation. Which shows the progress implemented in European strategic autonomy. I might add that all this has come about in the past year, and the past year has also seen the development of European universities…
Q. – The list is long – very long –, but there are also problems, there’s also the crisis, there’s also concern…
THE MINISTER – I’m coming to this. So much is being said about it that I want to say the opposite too. Never, not for a long time, has there been so much progress and I also think Europe is much stronger than it believes and than Europeans think it is, so much so that President Trump and President Putin – as part of the approach described earlier of breaking with multilateralism – are in the process of playing with individual European countries to try and break down Europe, and they aren’t succeeding. (…) The second paradox is that there’s a repeated response to the fears being exploited by certain governments, to the worries, the loss of identity, a sort of loss of bearings felt by some of our fellow citizens, European citizens; the response is powerful, done for effect and uses slogans based on nationalist withdrawal and rejection. (…)
The paradox is that (…) those who want to fight unbridled globalization by turning inwards actually achieve the opposite result. (…)
Europe’s strength lies in solidarity and power; Europe must realize that it’s strong, and the examples I’ve just given show that there’s been a very serious change in that area. (…)
We’re developing – the President in particular – the idea of radically reforming Europe at several levels: those who want to move forward are doing so and then there’ll be those going more slowly, but at any rate this momentum must be maintained because…
Q. – That’s the vision, but how does it work in practice? How do you take your idea further?
THE MINISTER – In practice, we’ve got to start by strengthening the bond between France and Germany; this is happening.
Q. – With a Germany which is nonetheless much weaker.
THE MINISTER – Yes – I don’t think it’s that weak…
Q. – We’ll see on 14 October.
THE MINISTER – When I see what Mrs Merkel is saying about the need for Europe from now on to have strategic autonomy, I note that there’s a real change. A little while back I visited Mali as Foreign Minister, and I happened to travel in a German military plane. Five years ago this was impossible to contemplate – in other words, we must strengthen this foundation. During the last Franco-German meeting, we put together a road map which also includes strengthening the Euro Area and tax convergence. We put together a road map which is hopefully going to lead to a new Elysée treaty in January. The Franco-German engine must provide momentum and I don’t share your view of a weak Germany. There’s been a tough period politically…
Q. – At any rate, [a Germany where] opinion is not totally behind Mrs Merkel.
THE MINISTER – Mrs Merkel is back in control today, I strongly believe this, and the issue at stake in the European elections is about having – with those who really want to make headway with us on those objectives – the necessary support for [members] progressing several at a time.
Q. – But do you think by the end of the five-year term Europe will have actually changed…
THE MINISTER – This is the central issue, and let me repeat at the same time – we tend to forget this, but must remember even if it sounds a bit like a mantra – that Europe’s founders had as their basis the fact that there had to be a Europe of peace, a democratic Europe, one of growth – these were the three fundamentals. They hadn’t at that point implemented a Europe of power. Europe needs to show how powerful, how strong it is as well. Moreover, that point is reached because it’s a major market, it has industrial might and, depending on the statistics, is the number two or number one economic power worldwide in a world where, at the end of the day, the major powers are starting to forge ahead independently, not bothering about partnerships. President Macron’s great aim is for Europe to forge ahead like that. (…)./.