Prime Minister explains France’s strategy on Syria

Syria/government statement on the engagement of air forces – Speech by M. Manuel Valls, Prime Minister, in the National Assembly (excerpts)

Paris, 15 September 2015


The French President announced on 7 September that France has decided to proceed with reconnaissance flights over Syria.

As stipulated in Article 35 paragraph 2 of the Constitution, I immediately informed the presidents of the two assemblies, and I decided to organize this parliamentary debate: here with the Defence Minister and in the Senate with the Foreign Minister. I want to explain to you why we’re intervening and in what context, and tell you what goals France is setting itself.

Chaos reigns in Syria. It’s destabilizing the whole of the Middle East. It’s a haven for jihadist terrorists, from both Daesh [ISIL] and other groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s fuelling the tragedy of refugees who are fleeing not only Daesh but also, and above all – let’s never forget this – the barbarism of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In recent months, the territory controlled by terrorist groups on Syrian soil has spread, destabilizing the whole region even further. Let’s be clear: this advance by Daesh is, above all, the result of Bashar al-Assad’s cynical calculation. Daesh was initially a tool to capture the moderate opposition in a pincer movement and then crush it. It was also, for the regime, a terrible means of justifying crimes, the use of chemical weapons, against its own people. Today, the result is the abandonment of entire regions to the jihadists’ control. The whole of eastern Syria – 30% of Syria – is now a solid bastion for Daesh, with the grim consequences we’re aware of.

The first consequence, as I’ve said, is the threat to our security. As we know, the jihadist threat – the one directed against France – comes from the areas Daesh controls. The organization has command centres in Syria. It’s also in Syria that the networks which recruit a lot of individuals wanting to take up arms and carry out fighting there, but also strike their own country when they return, are organized. Finally, it’s in Syria that the propaganda which, through the staging of violence, constantly feeds social media, including in the French language, is organized and fuelled. Currently – the Interior Minister and I have often recalled this – between 20,000 and 30,000 foreign nationals are known to be in Iraq-Syria networks. We estimate the number of French people or French residents who have enlisted in jihadist networks to be 1,880: 491 are over there and 133 have so far died, increasingly by means of deadly actions in the form of suicide attacks.

Second consequence: in that huge area, Daesh is holding sway. Daesh is more than a terrorist organization wanting to coordinate different movements of a composite jihadism. It’s a new totalitarianism which distorts Islam in order to impose its yoke. It stops at nothing: massacring resistance movements, staging torture and barbarism, enslaving minorities, trafficking, selling human beings. There’s also the systematic annihilation of the region’s cultural and world heritage: the Tomb of Jonah, Mosul’s museum and library, the Assyrian ruins of Nimrud and the ancient remains of Palmyra. Part of humanity and its spirit have vanished forever.

The third consequence – very closely bound up with the second – is of course the refugee tragedy. Syria today is a people decimated and dispersed. More than 250,000 people have died in four years, 80% of them victims of the regime and its repression. They’re a people displaced. Millions of Syrians in the country are caught in a pincer movement, between Bashar al-Assad’s repression and Daesh’s barbarism. Finally, they’re a people forced into exile. Four million Syrians have taken refuge in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. They often have a single hope: to reach Europe and find asylum here. The refugee crisis is the direct and immediate consequence of Syria’s chaos. (…)

So, ladies and gentlemen deputies, since Tuesday 8 September our air forces have been flying over Syria. Firstly and above all, it’s a campaign to gather intelligence by means of reconnaissance flights. Several missions have already been conducted. The campaign will last as long as it takes: most probably several weeks.

We must better identify and locate Daesh’s operation in order to be capable of striking it on Syrian soil and thus exercising – I want to emphasize this especially – our self-defence, as set out in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. These reconnaissance missions are being conducted in a national capacity, with full autonomy in terms of decision-making and action.

Full decision-making autonomy, because we alone choose the areas to fly over to do our research.

Full autonomy in terms of action because, as the President repeated yesterday, strikes will be necessary. And we alone will choose the targets to strike. But of course, it’s out of the question for us to help strengthen Bashar al-Assad’s regime by means of these strikes.

These missions, coordinated – for obvious operational reasons – with the coalition led by the United States, draw on the resources currently deployed in the framework of Operation Chammal. Twelve Rafales and Mirage 2000s, one Atlantique 2 and one C135 refuelling aircraft are involved. Meanwhile, our frigate Montcalm, deployed in the Mediterranean, is continuing to gather intelligence on the situation in Syria. And I want to pay tribute here to the action of our soldiers engaged in the Levant. They are bravely, doggedly and professionally defending our interests and values, protecting our compatriots and working for the nation’s security.

Is this air strategy sufficient? In other words, must we consider intervening on the ground? I’ve heard people arguing for such an option. And if so, how? France alone? We did it in Mali, but as everyone acknowledges, the circumstances were totally different.

Intervening with the Europeans? But who among them would be ready for such a venture? With the Americans? Do they want to? No! And you must also be able to learn lessons from the past. They’re painful lessons. I’m thinking in particular of the Battle Of Fallujah in Iraq.

More broadly, what the examples in Iraq and Afghanistan teach us is that you’d have to deploy several tens of thousands of troops, who would then be exposed to very great danger. That’s also the trap set for us by the jihadists: to force us to intervene on their soil to get us bogged down, accuse us of a so-called “crusading” spirit and arouse solidarity in the face of a supposed “invasion”.

So the President has given a very clear answer: any ground intervention – i.e. any ground intervention by us or the West – would be irresponsible and unrealistic. Moreover, none of our partners are considering it.

But if a coalition of countries in the region were formed to go and liberate Syria from the tyranny of Daesh, then those countries would have France’s support.

Waging a war isn’t about making big declarations or setting unrealistic timeframes, as some people do. Waging a war is about setting goals and providing yourself with the means to achieve them. Above all, it’s about showing consistent, coherent action.

We’re not changing our strategy. We’re not changing our target. We’re combating terrorism. But – with Jean-Yves Le Drian’s vigilance and knowledge of the situations – we’re adapting our military capabilities and our presence according to the political context.

In the Sahel-Sahara strip, in the framework of Operation Barkhane, our armed forces are deployed alongside African units. They’re inflicting heavy losses on the terrorist groups AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJAO – all groups which also thrive on the collapse of states. I’m thinking in particular of the political vacuum created in Libya after the 2011 intervention.

We’re also fighting in Iraq, where, for the past year, our air forces have been engaged at the Iraqi authorities’ request. The coalition operations have made it possible to check Daesh’s progress, particularly in Kurdistan.

But as we’ve known since the outset, and without being populistic, we owe it to our fellow citizens to tell them this truth: combating terrorist groups, fighting Daesh can only be a long-term battle. It must be conducted in support of local forces, who are on the front line on the ground. I’m thinking in particular of the Kurdish Peshmerga, whom we’re helping and to whose bravery I want to pay tribute.

We’re only at the beginning. So we must continue taking action, consolidating achievements on the ground, and in no way giving up. All these military actions are necessary. They’re not sufficient. Without a lasting political solution, the situation won’t be stabilized. The imperative is to halt a fatal spiral: the breaking-up of the Middle East.

Today we must do everything to halt this infernal cycle: the regional gulfs that are reappearing, the tectonic shifts being reawakened, of ancestral rivalries, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, and the thirst for power that is turning Syria into a battleground for regional ambitions and preventing Iraq from recovering from the consequences of the 2003 intervention.

Given the risks of fragmentation in the Middle East, we must step up our efforts to facilitate political solutions that restore the unity of those countries and peoples. In Iraq first of all, where the government must bring together all the country’s communities to combat Daesh – the French President said this powerfully during his visit to Baghdad in the summer of 2014 –, because a government that doesn’t respect the Sunni minority will continue pushing it into the mortal grip of Daesh.

We must also step up our efforts in Syria. We will do nothing which might strengthen the regime. What’s urgent, on the contrary, is to move towards an agreement which turns the page for good on Bashar al-Assad’s crimes. He’s a major part of the problem. In no way can he be a solution. With a man responsible for so many deaths, war crimes and crimes against humanity, no compromise, no arrangement is possible. Making a deal, a pact, as some are proposing, would first of all be morally wrong. We were ready to react back in August 2013, but in the end the United States and Britain didn’t deliver.

It would also be politically, strategically wrong. The fighters won’t lay down weapons in Syria until the Syrian state guarantees their rights and is no longer in the hands of a criminal gang. This is why we have to work continuously to speed up the political transition. It will have to bring together, in a transitional government, the opposition forces – which are still too weakened – and the least compromised elements of the regime. But in no way can this transition bring the terrorist factions back into play. There’s a line which can’t be crossed.

This political solution will see the light of day only through the convergence of diplomatic efforts, all diplomatic efforts.

We’ve known the parameters for resolving the Syria crisis not for a month, not for six months: they were determined during the Geneva meetings, as early as 2012, and adopted by the main countries concerned by Syria’s future. The task, of course, is a difficult one, but this mustn’t serve as an excuse for the status quo, for doing nothing or giving up.

France talks to everyone. And I’d like to pay tribute to the remarkable action Laurent Fabius is carrying out as head of our diplomacy.

We talk firstly of course to our partners who are permanent members of the Security Council. Contrary to what I occasionally hear said, we talk particularly to Russia – President Hollande and President Putin regularly raise this issue –, whose positions remain far-removed from ours. We all have a duty of responsibility: any military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime only feeds the spiral of violence. It’s all the more necessary for us to talk to Russia because we have to overcome with the Russians the mistrust born out of the Libya intervention in 2011.

Talking to everyone also means working with all the region’s players. History speaks, but geography plays an essential part too.

Talking to everyone means firstly talking to the Sunni Arab countries: Egypt and Jordan, of course, Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries. It means talking to Turkey as well, which needs the European Union, and which we need. However, it has to be clearer about its goals.

Finally, it means talking to Iran. The French President will be welcoming Iran’s President Rouhani to Paris in November. We, France, are welcoming Iran because after the conclusion of the agreement on its nuclear programme, Tehran must be a positive influence in promoting a political solution.

France talks to everyone. It’s in keeping with its position and its natural role: to take military action, political action and also act on the humanitarian front to protect the minorities in the Middle East.

At stake is the survival of entire communities – Christians, Yazidis, and with them that region’s cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. A few days ago, I had a meeting, like you, with His Beatitude Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church of Iraq. He issued another urgent appeal to us, an appeal for help, but he also told me of his great confidence in France.

On 8 September, he was, moreover, present at the meeting organized under the aegis of France and chaired by Laurent Fabius. During this international conference devoted to the victims of ethnic and religious persecution in the Middle East, those taking part were all deeply moved by the eyewitness account given by Jinan, a young Yazidi. The Paris action plan was adopted. Our duty is to ensure it is implemented.

Pending Syria’s return to stability, we have to go to the aid of the Syrian people. France – the French President proposed this – will organize an international conference on refugees to mobilize all the countries, come up with the financial resources which are so lacking today – I’m particularly thinking of the resources which the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme must have –, and organize, beyond the initiatives taken by Europe, the solidarity effort to take in refugees with the host countries.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen deputies, as I’ve said to this assembly, France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism. It’s a battle which is rallying the whole nation behind the President; a battle to which all the resources we deem necessary are being devoted.

We know it will be long. It must be said. Truth and transparency demand it. Those who claim that we’ll be able to resolve the problem in a few days are deceiving themselves and deceiving the French people. We know that this battle will be long, that it will be marked by difficult times, because the threat is serious. But we know, too, that it’s a major battle, because our values, what we are and what we believe in are at stake. At stake is the future of peoples who are neighbours, friends, and our own future too. And our fellow citizens clearly sense that something fundamental is riding on this.

This is why we must try to come together and not make this issue one of domestic policy and polemics. So let’s be united and serious, be equal to the challenges in order to take action and lead this battle. That is how we’ll be able to win. And I firmly believe we shall win, because we are France. (…)./.

Published on 28/09/2015

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