Syria: it is necessary to establish a “transition out” mechanism (09/29/2015)
Press conference by Mr. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development - 29 September 2015
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to see you again. I wanted to gather you here this morning to review the General Assembly so far. The President of the French Republic left yesterday. I am staying until Thursday evening. Then I am returning to France for we have a meeting with Russia, Ukraine and Germany in the Normandy format. Between now and then, I will participate in a whole series of activities. I wanted to report to you on the two main topics that mark this General Assembly: Syria and climate issues.
I will start by talking about climate issues.
I have attended a whole series of important events and meetings in my capacity as the future President of COP21: the lunch for Heads of State and Government was important and interesting because, although each one made only a brief speech, there was widespread agreement that we need to achieve success in Paris; and, as François Hollande mentioned, a dinner with Michael Bloomberg, who is really helping us to bring local governments together.
Beforehand, I attended - and indeed, chaired - a meeting with businesses, called Business Dialogue, where we mainly discussed carbon pricing. This issue is becoming increasingly central, even though COP21 will not in itself determine the carbon price. I think there is growing agreement that it must be understood that if we want to shift to a low-carbon economy, we must do two things at once: reduce the cost of new, low-carbon technologies and put a price on carbon. It is interesting to see how these two issues, which I will come back to shortly, are starting to take centre stage.
Of the many meetings I have taken part in, one of the most interesting was the three-way conversation between France, India and Bill Gates, where the main topic was innovation. The Indian Prime Minister, Bill Gates and I myself all firmly believe that technological innovation is what will enable us to bring about change. So there is a plan for India, France, the United States and a whole series of entrepreneurs led by Bill Gates to undertake a series of major initiatives to develop innovation and enable rapid technological progress. You will see how this develops in November but I wanted to announce it now because it is something that will certainly have a major impact, given the prominent figures I mentioned and the countries concerned.
Alongside our Brazilian friends, we have launched a mechanism to facilitate technology transfer. Today and tomorrow, I have several other meetings. Firstly, on John Kerry’s initiative, we are holding a Major Economies Forum (MEF) meeting, which will be unusual in that it will be ministers of foreign affairs discussing climate issues. I will take that opportunity to galvanize my colleagues, to tell them what stage we have reached and what I expect from them in the few weeks that we have left.
I will also co-chair a meeting with the United Arab Emirates and Peru, and tomorrow there will be a meeting with our German friends on the topic of “Climate and Security”, which is of major importance. Incidentally, at our request, the Minister of Defence will organize a climate and security meeting too in Paris in a few weeks’ time with his defence colleagues, which will be original and useful.
As for me, my colleagues now call me the “climathonien” (climate marathoner). It is a new nickname. It is not very good for my own carbon footprint but it is useful, I think. Next week, I will be in Lima for a very important meeting, where the OECD will announce what stage we have reached in terms of financing. So we will see exactly how much further we need to go to reach $100 billion per year. Then, on my way back, I will stop in Bolivia to meet with President Morales. Afterwards I will return to Paris, where we will have a whole series of meetings. In particular, as you know, I have invited around one hundred colleagues to a “pre-COP”, because the French President and I would like to ensure that as many issues as possible have been addressed before COP21 begins, to avoid the disappointment that we had in Copenhagen.
In concrete terms, the first positive point is the mobilization to reach an agreement. We have made good progress in that respect. There is still work to be done but everyone is feeling actively optimistic. That is the feeling that really is shared by all.
We have moved forward on a major issue, which I feel is one of the most important: the need for a revision mechanism at the Paris Conference. Let me explain. The French President has mentioned this. We are in the process of gathering the commitments of all countries. As I speak, we have reached 90 commitments, accounting for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions. Let me remind you that the record was Kyoto, 15%. We have greatly surpassed that. But 90 countries is not 190 countries. There are still some efforts to be made and in the next few days more commitments should be announced. It is likely that when the UNFCCC secretariat adds up all the commitments, we will have achieved a great victory, for we will no longer be at risk of a temperature rise of 4, 5 or 6°C, as the IPCC predicted would happen if nothing was done. But I fear that we will not yet have reached 2°C. We therefore need to give ourselves a revision clause and I hope that the decision will be made in Paris so that, as new technology is developed and outcomes are achieved in the future, we can revise our commitments upwards - “no backsliding”. This revision clause underpins the “sustainable ambition” we are pursuing.
Something else that is gradually standing out as a point of consensus is the need for a long-term ambition for 2050, in addition to the 1.5-2°C target. For the moment, this is being expressed slightly differently. We will see what the ADP suggests in Bonn in four days’ time. But this idea that, beyond the 1.5-2°C target, we need a long-term ambition linked to decarbonization is something that is really progressing in the right direction.
And, as I said, we took action with several other colleagues to put climate financing at the top of the agenda. France has set an example. The President announced yesterday in his speech that our climate financing, in precise terms, will rise from €3 billion per year today to €5 billion per year by 2020, in addition to a little over €350 million in donations. By making this major effort, France will step up to the mark in terms of climate financing solidarity. And we hope that this commitment, which matches that made by our German friends, will encourage other developed countries to follow suit. We will, of course, address this subject in Lima next week at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF.
Another point on which we have made progress, as I mentioned earlier, is the issue of technology, which was addressed in particular at the meeting with Prime Minister Modi of India and Bill Gates.
So those were a few points on climate issues that may be useful to you, since various things have been said. That should give you an overview.
The other subject that I would like to come back to is Syria.
France has had the opportunity to address this issue with many countries and this will be supplemented by the meetings that I will hold in the coming hours and days. Naturally, we discussed it with the President of Iran, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, and the Prime Minister of Turkey. For my part, I have had many discussions, including yesterday morning and continuing this evening, with John Kerry and my British and German friends, as well as a certain number of key Arab partners in the region. I have also spoken with my Iranian colleague, Mr Zarif, my Emirati colleague, my Saudi Arabian colleague and my Turkish colleague. I will see my Russian colleague and my Chinese colleague today. We are therefore speaking to everyone, without exclusion.
I have read a whole series of statements and comments on the heart of the matter, but I would like to start by saying that what is important in the fight against Daesh is not the media impact but the real impact. It is important to bear that in mind when reading the newspapers.
What do I mean by that? We want to strengthen our action against Daesh, and luckily we are not the only ones. In fact, this morning we have a meeting chaired by President Obama on the fight against terrorism. France’s position is absolutely clear. We have been effectively combating Daesh in Iraq for several months already and we decided, in conditions that you are aware of, a few days ago, in view of Daesh’s threats against France from Syria, to send out reconnaissance aircraft. On Thursday, the President of the French Republic gave the order to strike. That strike happened a few days ago. We will continue to do this each time our security is under threat. This means that, along with many others, not only are we ready to fight Daesh but we are actually fighting them. This sets us apart from others who talk a lot about combating Daesh but so far, unless I am mistaken, have not committed an aircraft to the fight against Daesh. If they do so, bravo. And even with regard to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, until last week, there had been no strikes. So let us be clear: there is the media impact, which is very important in today’s world, but we, France, want a military impact.
Secondly, we clearly need a political transition mechanism. Experience has shown that we cannot definitively resolve problems using military solutions, especially not from the outside. We are, of course, discussing this issue with many others.
We - and France has not changed its stance - believe that we need to focus on effectiveness and, if possible, morality. As far as morality is concerned, there is nothing to discuss. Bashar al-Assad has been described by the Secretary-General of the United Nations as a criminal against humanity. And everyone knows that he is responsible for the fact that, starting from a small rebellion involving a few young people in Syria three and a half years ago, 250,000 people have now been killed. So on this basis alone, I would say there is nothing to discuss: not that he is the only tyrant in the world or in history, but that it is clear that he cannot call for moral recognition of any kind. But let us state our position, because it is crucial in terms of effectiveness. What do we want for one another? We would like Syria to be free, to be able to regain all of its territory (for the Syrian government currently only controls a small portion of its territory), and to recognize community diversity and the law. And we would like there to be a transitional governing body, as stated in the Geneva Communiqué, that would enable all of those things. It is in the name of this quest for effectiveness that we say it is necessary to establish a “transition out” mechanism. Because it is not a question of affection or personal determination. It is unimaginable that the Syrians, the Syrian refugees, 80% of whom have left Syria because they were threatened by Bashar al-Assad, could return to Syria and participate in this free, united and respectful Syria that we are seeking if they are told that “the future of Syria is Bashar al-Assad”. It is a contradiction in terms. That is why, over and above the moral aspects, we want there to be a transition out. Of course, it is very difficult because of all the different positions, but it is the role of diplomacy to achieve this. And that is the position adopted by France and many others. And we also want Bashar al-Assad to promptly stop what is known as barrel bombing, that is, the indiscriminate bombing of his own population, because civilians are still being killed in their hundreds. We are currently discussing various initiatives in this regard, for example Turkey’s proposal, and others. But it is important to ensure the safety of the Syrians, or at least as many of them as possible. That is the point that I wanted to emphasize because sometimes, no doubt in all good faith, we let ourselves be led. To put it bluntly, Daesh are absolutely terrible people and must be fought without restraint. And to be precise, they must be fought not through the media but through concrete action, as some are doing, including the Coalition and France.
But combating Daesh is not enough. We must also enable a political transition and that is the discussion that needs to be held, and we hope to find a way for the major powers and others to reach an agreement. I will chair a P5 lunch with Mr Ban Ki-moon, where this very issue will be addressed with my fellow permanent members of the Security Council.
Those are a few points that I wanted to provide for your understanding. I will close by highlighting two points that you have probably noted.
The President of the French Republic made a major announcement yesterday on the use of the right to veto at the Security Council. You know that for three years now, we have been developing the idea that in the case of mass crimes, the permanent members of the Security Council should voluntarily - it is not a question of altering the texts - refrain from using their right to veto. We are supported in this initiative by many countries of the United Nations, several dozen, even though, unsurprisingly, some of our fellow permanent members of the Security Council are much more doubtful. We wanted to back our words up with decisions, so the President declared that France would not use its right to veto in the case of mass crimes.
Lastly, I will address one last topic which is important at the end of this General Assembly and which, until now, it has to be said, has been pushed into the background even though it is absolutely essential, namely the Middle East peace process. During my meetings in the last few days, I have continued to advocate certain changes to the method and especially, broader mobilization of the international community. A meeting is scheduled tomorrow, in a new format, which should bring together, as we proposed, at once the Quartet, the Arab partners of the peace process and the Europeans that wish to contribute actively, as well as other partners. Our aim is to re-establish a political horizon, in a context that remains very worrying on the ground. As a sign of our continuing support for the two-State solution, I will personally attend the ceremony tomorrow to raise the flag of Palestine - a non-member observer State - in front of the United Nations building, in the presence of President Abbas.
I am at your disposal.
Q: Is it conceivable that Assad might be part of this “transition out” in Syria at the beginning and for a period?
Minister: We are discussing these aspects, which are important. In any event, it must be clear that it is not him who is being proposed as a component of the resolution at the end of the process, otherwise there can be no movement whatsoever for the reasons I have explained to you. Naturally, various arrangements are possible and it is necessary to make discussions possible with all concerned; each party has its own concerns at the outset.
But it must be clear, for reasons – as I have said, close attention should be paid to this – that relate not only to morality but also to effectiveness, that it cannot be said in any way whatsoever at the beginning of the process that the end of the process will be the maintenance in power of Bashar al-Assad, because that would be a contradiction in terms.
Q: You do not wish to show all your cards before beginning negotiations?
R: That is what diplomacy is about.
Q: I will repeat the question I put to the President of the Republic yesterday. How do you expect to get rid of Assad? He does not want to go and is hanging on to power. What do you intend to do?
R: The question of what one man wants is one thing, but what really counts is the welfare of his people and the destiny of Syria. I have said this before, and I hope to convince you. Given everything that has occurred, nobody can imagine, at least no reasonable person, that we are going to build a reunited Syria, whole once again, if I may say, free and protective of its communities if the person leading it for the duration is responsible for so many dead. That is inconceivable.
Between the current situation, in which Bashar al-Assad is where he is, and the situation towards which we need to move, which I describe as the “transition out”, stands the subject of our ongoing discussions.
Q: Let’s talk about effectiveness. France has begun strikes in Syria. For the last year, the Americans have been conducting strikes in Syria: 2,500 strikes and no results. The training program for local troops is a fiasco, and has in fact just come to an end. Who in your way of thinking is going to fight Daesh on the ground?
R: That is why we certainly need to make changes to the approach. Where France is concerned, it is engaged and will continue to be engaged, but not on the ground. Where the coalition and our American friends are concerned, we had discussions at the meeting yesterday or the day before and we will be having further discussions this evening because there are practical steps to be taken. Where air strikes are concerned, I would say that we have everything we need. As for presence on the ground, that must be the task, in our view, of the Syrians and regional elements.
Q: That is not working.
R: Because, in our view, things have not been done in a sufficiently coordinated manner.
Q: Persistence is needed …
R: No, adaptation is needed. The results, you cited the figures that have, I believe, also been cited in the US Congress, are completely unsatisfactory. Strong engagement is therefore needed, real engagement, and also by the Syrians and regional populations on the ground.
Q: Yes, but who? If you could be a little more specific …
R: Look at the map.
Q: A secondary question, would you oppose the parallel initiative of a coalition led by the Russians? What would you do in such a case?
R: There was, I believe, an idea for a resolution in one of the speeches yesterday. But for the moment, that has not been translated into fact and we have received nothing of that kind.
If there is a willingness to act, and not only in the media, but real willingness. Those who are against Daesh are those who are conducting strikes against Daesh. Take that as a starting point – it is, I think, fairly easy to understand. If there is a willingness for engagement, why not. But there are obviously two conditions to the analysis I have offered. The first is that there must be the “transition out” I mentioned to you. Because this is not a mechanism designed or even to be used to maintain in position the person responsible for the situation. And the second is that it must be possible – we, along with others, are thinking about this – to free up one or more zones in which Syrians would be protected. As you know, there are initiatives on this from Turkey and others. And the barrel-bombing has to stop. But of course, if there is real willingness, let us go forward. But real willingness, not just for the media.
Q: The Russians are increasingly active in Syria. Are we at risk of being excluded if we have preconditions on Assad?
R: Active… they have sent in a fair amount of equipment on Bashar Al Assad’s side. But, unless I am very much mistaken, I have seen no strikes by them against Daesh. However, the actual objective is to destroy Daesh. For our part, we prefer to be realists. We will see what happens. And whether there is a desire for a political solution, I was speaking about this only yesterday, because we had a meeting attended by my colleague and friend Mr. Lavrov and with Mr. Zarif. We must arrive at a transition, what I call a transition out. And major discussions remain to be conducted on that point.
Q: Would you take a favourable view of a Russian and Iranian intervention, as is much discussed, against Daesh in Syria at the present time?
R: That has not been proposed for the moment.
Q: And how would you view it?
R: I deal in realities.
Q: Minister, you talk about real strikes, and I put a question to the President yesterday and received no answer so I hope to have better luck with you. The French strike was aimed notably at training camps where French nationals could potentially be present. Given that you are talking in terms of a threat to France, I would like to hear what you have to say on France’s position with regard to the fact that a democratic State, a State governed by the rule of law, is potentially targeting its own nationals in strikes conducted abroad. The Americans have been criticized for this when drones have killed American citizens – what is your position? Is there debate on this point within the armed forces?
R: He did in fact answer you. Perhaps he did not satisfy you, but he did answer your question. For our part, we are acting under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which provides for a right of self-defence. Once we have identified – a training camp in this case – elements for which all the evidence is that France may be targeted, given that, the right of self-defence applies. Naturally, maximum precautions, and I stress this, are taken to ensure that there are no victims that can be described as civilians. However, I fully agree that it is difficult to make that distinction and in particular, the terrorists of Daesh, who are people who think ahead, seek to mix with the civilian population and we do everything we can therefore to avoid that but at the same time it cannot lead to a paralysis of action that would allow Daesh to advance and which would destroy us without our having been able to take action.
Q: I was not referring to civilian victims. I will simplify my question: does France consider today that it has a legitimate right to target a French national abroad in a missile strike?
Of course we do not target French nationals. In this specific situation we are targeting training camps under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Q: You mentioned zones in which Syrians would be protected? Are you referring to No Fly Zones and at what stage are the discussions on this?
R: As you know, there are very many complicated discussions about terminology: “Safe Zones”, “No Fly Zones”, “Secure Zones”, etc. Leaving aside such technical discussion, there is here an idea which is simply common sense, but we have to see if it is feasible, and that is that many Syrians under threat both from Bashar and Daesh are trying to flee. They are going to the neighbouring countries and may also travel to Europe. The neighbouring countries are basically Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. If we want to avoid that, firstly Bashar Al Assad and his supporters have to stop barrel-bombing. That is what we are asking for and it is absolutely within his power. And that has nothing to do with Daesh. Secondly, a zone needs to be freed up, perhaps in the north, perhaps in the south, where they would be protected, be safe, which would mean that they would not need to travel to other countries. It is not straightforward; there are discussions with various parties and we are taking part in those discussions, but no decisions have been reached.
Q: Minister, on a different subject, concerning the Central African Republic, there have been incidents of which you are well aware. Do you consider that elections are still possible this year and do you think that MINUSCA is capable of handling the situation on the ground?
You will have seen that Ms Samba Panza has had to return to her country, which is understandable because the events there are grave. It is the role of MINUSCA to prevent, to react to those incidents, and it has begun to do so. Sangaris has also contributed to this. As for the question of the referendum on the constitution, followed by elections, major progress has been made on the electoral census, because it was necessary to begin with a census of the population. There may have been some delay in this but we consider that the schedule laid down should be adhered to as far as is possible. There are no doubt many reasons for these incidents but if we wish to leave this situation behind, there must be an established power. Ms Samba Panza is a remarkable woman of great worth but she is heading a transitional authority. For that reason preparations have been made with the African Union to ensure that elections take place and it is desirable that they should take place without delay.
Q: Two questions please. Do you believe the refugee crisis is adding new momentum to the idea of a safe zone somewhere in Turkey? And secondly, what do you make of the Russian proposition? President Putin was very clear on this; he said that while you are fighting ISIL, you cannot remove Bashar al Assad as army in chief. Do you agree with that position and for how long can that go on?
R: Briefly speaking, as far as the refugees are concerned. If we want to stop the movement of refugees: many of them are leaving Syria because of Bashar al Assad and because of Daesh. Therefore, we have to find a solution for Bashar al Assad. It is what we call the transition out. And to fight Daesh. Meanwhile, it could be an idea - and we are working on that with different countries - to have within Syria one or two or three – there are different wordings: safe zone, security zone, and so on – in order that, these zones would be able to welcome Syrian people, without forcing them to go out of the country. We are working on that, no decision has been taken yet.
There, the point is about the whole conflict. We think that because, both for moral reasons and reasons of effectiveness, both, we have to organize a transition out process for Mr. Bashar al Assad. Why? Because morally, he has been described as a “criminal against humanity” by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. And, it is very difficult to imagine that somebody who is responsible for 80% of 250,000 dead can be the future of his people. But even if we leave aside this moral aspect, from the standpoint of effectiveness, what is our common aim for Syria? It is to have a free Syria, with respect for the different communities, every community living in peace with the other communities, and respecting the integrity of the territory. How could one imagine that it would possible, with the prospect of a permanent, not only power, but dictatorship, of the one who is responsible for the present chaos? It is a question of good sense. And therefore, we have to organize all of us, and it is very difficult. Because Geneva 1 was in June 2012. We have, but that is the role of diplomacy, to organize things in such a way that we can find a transition out. That is the point.
But, coming back to the fight against Daesh and against terrorism, it’s an absolute necessity. But it must not be a fight only in the media; it must be a real fight. And when I’m looking at who is really committed in the fight against Daesh, I ask you to think about it. So, as far as Mr. Bashar al Assad is concerned, it is fairly recent, fairly modest. As far as Russian partners are concerned, up to now - maybe it will change - they haven’t gone against Bashar. The international coalition is involved against Bashar. We, the French, have bombed a Daesh camp this week. And, we have to judge realities. Not mass media. And, the first criterion for judging who is really acting against Daesh, the first criterion, is to see who is involved and committed to the real fight on the ground and in the air against Daesh.
Q: In terms of short-term effectiveness, do you consider it to be possible to engage a political process in a country already at war before the balance of power has already been reversed?
R: Strikes are necessary. Both are necessary.
Q: At the same time?
R: Both have to be done, of course. We must strike Daesh and at the same time organize a process of political transition.
Q: Sir, but given the ineffectiveness of the strikes?
R: They have not been sufficiently effective for the moment because they have not been conducted in a sufficiently satisfactory manner. And because not everybody has been conducting strikes. The international coalition must of course improve its methods. France can help in this even if it is acting independently. But all those who are against Daesh must be effectively against Daesh.
Q: Hubert Védrine was saying yesterday that monsters are not necessarily measured by numbers of deaths and that if that were the case we would never have made an alliance with Stalin against Hitler.
R: We can of course look at any number of historical comparisons. Where I am concerned, I have to say that I am not an observer. I head our diplomacy alongside the President of the Republic. We need to hit Daesh, which is an absolute danger and when answering a question earlier I pointed out – something not given sufficient attention – that the international coalition is hitting Daesh, France is hitting Daesh, Bashar al-Assad is doing so very little and for the moment the Russians not at all. So you do need to look at who is doing what.
Secondly, we must obviously begin a process of political transition and to do that we need to have discussions with everybody and arrive at a transition that will enable Syria – and this is very difficult – to restore its integrity and protect all its communities. To think – as Hubert Védrine, who is an intelligent man, does not for a moment – that we can arrive at a position in which the Syrians agree that all communities must be respected if we say that the man who is the cause of the chaos is to lead them for all eternity, no. We must – and this is the role of diplomacy – find both the way to initiate the political transition – that is why I am in discussions with everybody – and conduct strikes at the same time.
Q: Are you inviting the Russians and the Iranians to intervene? Are you asking the Russians to make strikes?
R: I am not asking for anything at all but I find that there is a certain coherence in what I would express in the following way: if you are against terrorists, it is not illogical to conduct strikes against terrorists.