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8 September 2012 - Syria - Interview of Gérard Araud, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, with NPR News

Last week the French ended their rotation at the head of the United Nations Security Council. France’s Permanent representative, Ambassador Gérard Araud, had one preeminently difficult issue on his agenda: what to do about Syria.

Ambassador Araud joins us now from his office in New York City. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for being with us.

Good morning.

Mr. Ambassador, there seems to be more reports of civilian deaths everyday in Syria. How frustrating were these last few months for you ?

It was extremely frustrating because we have seen Syria sinking into what is now a real civil war. We have desperately tried to avoid it, because this country has an incredible potential for violence: violence within Syria and unfortunately also beyond the borders of Syria.

Can you give us an insight at the discussions that have been going on at the Security Council and especially why wouldn’t the Security Council agree on a course of action to try much of anything ?

Actually, we have faced three Russian vetoes in a row on the same crisis, and we have not seen such a crisis since the end of the Cold War. I think there is a fundamental political difference. The Russians are telling us: “We have a choice between, on one side, Assad, and on the other side, the Islamist radicals. We don’t like Assad so much, but we prefer him to the Islamist radicals”. They are supporting Assad and they are trying to prevent, successfully, the Security Council from putting pressure on Assad.

On our side, we are telling them “with your policy, we are going to have Assad and then the Islamist radicals”. The more we wait, the more the Islamist radicals are influential within the opposition, the more the opposition will be radicalized. It is a real and very tough political debate.

Mr. Ambassador, are the opposition Islamist radicals ? Is that accurate ?

At the beginning, they were not Islamist radicals. They were simply Syrians protesting against a dictatorship which has been around for fourty years, and which is quite brutal and corrupt. But the more the time goes by, the more radicals are coming. Al Qaeda has started to be active in Syria coming from Iraq, and we know there are Salafists coming from Iraq too. It is obvious that, in a civil war, usually the opposition radicalizes as time goes. At the end, there is a danger that the radicals have an influence on the final outcome of the crisis. This is the reason why, beyond the humanitarian aspect, we really want to solve the crisis as soon as possible.

Mr. Ambassador, I probably don’t need to tell a French diplomat that there were some of these anxieties, very similar anxieties, that went on in Bosnia years ago, with the result being massacres continued to occur and I think the European democracies including France and Britain who actually did commit some troops to Bosnia and peacekeeping forces have wound up regretting their inaction. Is there that risk now ?

I suspect that we can conclude unfortunately that now action is out of the Security Council. We have all concluded that nothing is possible within the Security Council because of the Russian and Chinese stance. We are working with our American, British, but also Turkish, Arab friends out of the Security Council, working with the opposition, supporting the opposition in its fight against the regime.

We do believe that, still now, the opposition fighting Assad is not dominated by the Islamist radicals. There are Syrians who simply want to have a democratic country. Of course, the opposition is very divided, fragmented, because they are simple people demonstrating in their city, and after that, fighting against the regime. We do consider that, to avoid the civil war and chaos after the fall of Assad, to avoid also the victory of the radicals, we have to work with the moderate opposition, to help it to organize itself, to have a real government which would be able to give guarantees to the opposition.

During our presidency, we tried to unite the Security Council around the humanitarian issues, because two million Syrians are living in very precarious situation. They are lacking food, medicine, children food. But frankly, it was impossible. The Council is too divided; there is a fundamental difference between the Russians and the Chinese on one side, and us on the other side. For the moment, I don’t see any way of getting the Security Council involved. If one of the two sides decides to negotiate, if the government decides to negotiate, maybe the Security Council could come back to the stage but for the moment, I don’t see any way to get out of the blockage that we are facing.

Ambassador Araud, that raises another question. What’s the future of the United Nations if it can’t find a common course of action for what is one of the preeminent disasters on the planet ?

Frankly, I’m always a bit surprised by this sort of question because the United Nations in itself is a group of disunited nations. The United Nations may work only when its members decide to work together. On a lot of issues, for instance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the members of the Security Council are so divided that the UN can’t do anything as you know. The UN is effective when, on some issues, the member states decide that they have a common interest to find a common solution. There are a lot of issues where we don’t succeed to do so. On Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of the UN is very marginal. There are issues, in Africa, where we are working together. But on a lot of issues, we simply can’t. It is not the responsibility of the UN, it is the responsibility of the nations which disagree.

Are you looking forward to your next rotation ?

Our next rotation is in fifteen months.

And do you think you’ll be addressing the same issues ?

I do hope and pray that in 15 months the Syrian crisis will have found a peaceful solution. But for the moment, beyond this act of faith, I cannot answer your question.

Thank you.

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Organisation des Nations Unies Présidence de la République France Diplomatie La France à l'Office des Nations Unies à Genève Union Européenne Première réunion de l'ONU