French ex-prime minister: Without Assad, neither EU nor US will be able to end Syrian crisis

Conflicting views over the Syrian crisis are stalling the fight against global terror. Under the pressure of the economic and refugee crises, European unity is too strained. Can the escalation of fighting be stopped - and what are the instruments that are needed to finally solve the problems that EU is facing for months, if not for years? To find out, we speak to a former prime minister of France. Dominique de Villepin is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Dominique de Villepin, It's really great to have you on our show, welcome.

Dominique de Villepin: Thank you for receiving me.

SS:So previously you have proposed pulling France out of NATO's integrated military command system. Do you still believe that's the way it should be or France's okay under NATO and maybe under U.S. protection?

DV: Well, France traditionally had an awkward position, very specific position, which is the one that General de Gaulle wanted after 1966, which is not to be part of the military organization. I was not in favor of going back to this military organization when French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided so - because, I saw that France had to preserve its traditional diplomacy. Traditional French diplomacy has been to act as a mediator. A country in-between other countries, trying to make things happen when it was difficult. Facing a crisis, you have to be able to dialogue and to speak with everybody. Being part of military organization makes it much more difficult to send some messages, because there are some doubts about your independence - so I believe that the French position should be a strictly independent position that helps France to be a factor of solution, in front of many crises of the world.

SS:So, just to make sure: France being part of NATO dilutes French foreign policy and makes it non-sovereign - do I understand correctly?

DV: No, I won't say "non-sovereign", because France, of course, keeps its sovereignty, but it doesn't give the same kind of credibility and legitimacy to act as a mediator facing crisis: whether we are talking about the Syrian crisis or any crisis between big or small countries. When you have totally independent position, being outside any kind of military organization, it gives more strength, more credibility, more efficiency.

SS:France has recently expanded its anti-ISIS campaign in Syria - as you know, Russia's also bombing some of the ISIS targets. French President Francois Hollande doesn't want to coordinate efforts with Russia on that - is it a wise move? Do you think France should embrace coordination with Russia, cooperation with Russia on that?

DV: In your question, there are two different questions. The first one is - is the military option the good one to solve the Syrian crisis?...

SS:No-no, I didn't ask that, I asked do you think France and Russia should work together on eliminating ISIS?

DV: Yes, but this is two different questions - whether we are going to be able through the military option to solve the Syrian crisis? I don't think so, it can be one element at one point, but the process of solution, the solution is going to be based on political... a political solution. So, I believe that it is needed to cooperate as much as we can when we are using the military option, but I don't think the solution will come through the military. The Syrian crisis is such a complex crisis, taking into account history, taking into account political matters, religious matters - if we go deep into comprehension of the Syrian crisis, we must face the fact that we are not going to be able to solve the situation through the military. We cannot fight terrorism only with the military option; and I think, what is absolutely needed is cooperation with Russia, and that's why we need so much Russia in the Syrian crisis, in order to build up a political process. That is the key; this is going to be the way we might really find a way out of the Syrian quagmire - by a political dialog, by having a new political transition in Syria. That's why we need trust between our countries and I believe that through cooperation, through the dialog we might find the way out.

SS:Like you've said, France's anti-IS campaign in Syria is not the only way to solve the crisis, and France, like you've said, is traditionally a mediator - but in this case, what is there to mediate about? What I mean is, can you really be talking to ISIS?

DV: Well, no, of course, it sounds quite difficult, but can we talk to the Sunni tribes and population of Syria, which are supporting ISIS? Yes. And if we do so, then the problem of ISIS will be totally different. Without the support of the Sunni population in Syria as well as in Iraq, ISIS is going to be in a way more difficult position. Then, it might be able to fight against ISIS much more efficiently. So, I think the key is political, how to take out the support of Sunni population to ISIS, and for this we need some strong political gesture. Trying to imagine a new Syria, having a more federal approach, giving protection to different groups and communities - that will be a signal sent to the Sunni, and to every community which goes in the good way. That's why I think we should work along this political process, if we want to solve the Syrian crisis. Just using bombs, just using the military weapons is not going to solve the crisis by itself.

SS:Okay, so, in your answer I hear two main points: basically trying to de-radicalize the Sunni masses, right? And also, you're proposing federalization of Syria. So, let's go through that. How do you deradicalize Sunni masses? I mean, it sounds great in theory, when we talk about it, but how do you technically do that?

DV: If we now send signal to this community that they have a future, whether we are talking about Iraq, whether we are talking about Syria, that we are going to give them more importance in the new political Iraq and the new political Syria, then they are going to find a way out of terrorism. Today, out of despair, they choose, very often, to support ISIS and to support Daesh - because they see no future. So, I believe that through discussions, and through the convening of a new conference of security for the region that should put together not only the big countries - Russia, U.S., Europe - but also some of the regional, main countries of the region, we are going to have a forum, which may discuss these different subjects, and may give a picture to all of these diverse communities, and guarantees to these communities.

SS:But these major players - I'm not talking about the Europeans or the Russians or the Americans - but the regional major players, they are pretty religious states. How do match this two together - deradicalizing the Sunni masses and having these religious neighbors take part in de-radicalizing them while at some they are pretty radical themselves?

DV: For the country like Saudi Arabia, for the Gulf countries, the more we are waiting, the more instability might gain their own countries because of the support of the Shia minority and because of the support of the Sunni majority, which is very much supporting ISIS, also, so, they have to understand that they should accept a political process, trying to integrate everybody, and trying to show the way for a new Syria. They have to understand that taking position like sometimes they have done in the past, through religious interest - like Saudi Arabia, the wahhabis have done….it is not the best way to stabilize the region.

SS: Really quickly about federalization - wouldn't federalization of Iraq and Syria mean eventual disintegration; and if so, is it such a bad thing in the end?

DV: Well, disintegration is exactly what we have today, so it cannot be worse than today. Federalization is trying to go pragmatically, to try peace-by-peace to find answers. For example: we should have a process where we could accept local peace. Local peace in Aleppo. Local peace in Irbil. Local peace wherever we can in order to build up a political process, that is going to be a guarantee to each community, and if we can have, through this policy, a guarantee for the refugees that want to go out of Syria, creating humanitarian zone in Syria with the protection of the aviation of Russia, the aviation of the coalition - then we will have a situation which might be better tomorrow than today. So, pragmatically, try to sign local peace deals and, pragmatically, try to create a political process in order to give guarantees to each community.

SS:When we talk about the peace settlement process in Syria, Assad's name comes up more and more often, by the West, in the context of "maybe he should be part of this peace settlement process", well, at least temporarily, "maybe, it's better that he helps us moderate" What do you make out of this U-turn? Because, for 4 years he had to go, now maybe he should help...and if he does, then what happens? He stays or he goes with guarantees or once ISIS is gone he's the enemy once more?

DV: I believe that we should create a process, in which, if Assad is going to stay in power for the next years or months, at the end of the process it should be clear that he should go - but, giving all guarantees for him, for the regime and for the Alawite population that they should have their place in Syria. So, it's a process, in which you can combine the interests of everyone: the interests of Russia, which are national interests, the interests of the Western community that does want Assad to go, but we should compromise on the fact that it should be a creative process, at the end of which Assad should go; but, in the meanwhile, we should find the right men, the right people to be able to direct and govern Syria.

SS:I want to talk a little bit about your country. One place where France has been acting pretty independently is, obviously, Africa. Ever since President Hollande came into office, he's commanded many military operations: Ivory Coast, you have Mali, you have Somalia...

DV: Central Africa.

SS:...Yes, Central Africa - to counter terrorism. Do you believe it is to do that only or it is also, you know, the Françafrique is alive, so "we wanna stay the main gendarme in the region"?

DV: I think, Françafrique is really a policy of the past. You cannot deal with Africa today without taking into account, in a very important way, the concern of the societies, the concern of all parts of African societies - young people, women... And this implies a very different approach to Africa today than yesterday. France has been willing to address some urgent matters, like the risk of having Bamako taken by the Islamists. Of course, that was not acceptable, and that's why France has taken a strong stand in country like Mali, or tries to separate different communities in Central Africa. Is this military policy enough? I don't think so. I think, in the long term, it's always dangerous to rely on this kind of military strategy. Why: because every foreign intervention, in Africa and elsewhere, creates the destabilization of the societies, creates the day responsibility of a people of a country, and creates a very strong capacity for terrorism to gain the minds of these people. That's why it should only be part of the strategy, and it should go with a strong political strategy, a strong economic and financial strategy, and I'm pledging very much today for a huge mobilization of Europe in favor of Africa, which is not only in favor of Africa, but also in favor of Europe. Africa today has a growth of 5-7% a year. Europe is in a very big economic difficulty. We should understand that our fates are common. We have a common fate for the next centuries, and most of our problems, we believe, are coming from Africa: refugees, terrorism, trafficking. We fear what's happening in Africa. If we want to solve this, we have to do it with the Africans with a huge project. The Chinese have invented the new Silk Road to stabilize Caucasus, to stabilize Central Asia. We should invent a new partnership with Africa: sending money to build new infrastructure for more development, which is the only answer to growing Islamism, the only answer to the instability created by terrorism. You see, Chinese understood that to face Islamism, to face terrorism, you need development, you need growth. You need to help people and societies. We need to do the same towards Africa, and I believe it should be the same project for the Middle East. How can you give a future to people when they are in despair, when they have nothing to eat and nowhere to live. We should try to work together to give them future and that will minimize the rise of religious extremism, of ideology in these regions.

SS:You have what you have right now on your hands, and that is flow of immigrants, immigrant crisis in Europe, from Syria and Libya and that is making EU members very nervous, and that has Europe split, actually.

DV: Absolutely.

SS:Because, for instance, you have the Hungarian Orban coming out and saying: "France and Germany, stop, you're way too soft for this whole multiculturalism, Islam was never part of Europe. Why should I be taking in Islam" - and, I'm thinking, France has 5 million Muslims living in your country right now. Can you afford any other policy other than multiculturalism?

DV: Well, there are some separate issues. The answer of Europe has been to be part of Western coalition in Syria, thinking that they would accelerate a settlement in Syria by using the bombing of ISIS in Syria. We see that this is not the solution, it is not enough. We have to use different tools. One is to give a future to refugees on the spots, creating humanitarian zones in Syria and around Syria; helping the countries that are receiving so many refugees - Lebanon, Jordan and a country like Turkey. Turkey is receiving 2 million refugees. So, if we don't create a political framework that is going to allow to assist the refugees in the region itself, then of course, they will come to us, and we are in a situation where the winter is coming and it's going to be more and more difficult and dangerous for these refugees to try to come to Europe. So, one solution is on the spot in the region. Another solution is, of course, try to find the way for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis as well as the Iraqi situation as well as the Libyan crisis. Without political settlement, we are going to have each time more waves of refugees, so that's why we should put more energy, more imagination in trying to solve this crisis, in order to have less refugees coming.

SS:Yeah, okay, but that's more of a long-term strategy, I'm saying today.

DV: No, no, today, if you convene a conference for the security of the region, with all of our countries participating and trying to find a political option for Syria. This is something that you can do in a matter of weeks. It doesn't take years to have Russia put pressure on the Assad regime, going with the Iranians and the other members of the international community, trying to focus on what could be the transitional process. This is something we have done in Ukraine, we should take the lessons. In Ukraine, France had played, with Germany, an important role in creating the Normandy format. I was very much in favor of this process and it has diminished the tensions in Ukraine. Today, there's less violence in Ukraine and we are able, if we continue, through the Minsk-2 agreements, we are able to try to find political solution through federalization of Ukraine. We need to find also an economic and financial solution for the situation of Ukraine; but we have less tension. So, we should go the same way: having a contact group, having a conference, trying to focus on a political transition and situation will get better.

SS: I am not arguing with you, I completely agree with you, actually, but you say: "it's a matter of weeks" - and I'm talking about today. Today you have 6 thousand refugees in French refugee camp in Kale. They want to get to UK, it's getting excessively difficult to actually make that happen. Should France try to resettle them?

DV: Well, I think, yes. I think we have to work in the coming months to face in the best possible the way the question of refugees. Why: because the way we are treating the refugees has enormous consequences in the region and can help the political process. If we consider, in a very selfish way, that we cannot receive these refugees, we cannot help them in settling in Europe, we are sending a very strong message that we, rich countries, don't care about the situation in this region, that not only we have been responsible on the large part for what was happening, but we don't care and we want these people out. On the contrary: if we agree to do our best to receive them, and, at the same time, to try to find a political solution in the region - we are sending a positive message, that religion should not be an element that should create more hate between us. Christian and Muslim are not in a war. We should, on the contrary, focus on terrorism, not on having the refugees, which are facing difficulties, being also on the side. So, having a humanitarian approach, having a humanist approach - Europe is faithful to its traditions and is helping in creating the basis that is needed for a political process. Also, we should make clear to the countries of the region: Saudi Arabia, Iran, all the countries of the Gulf, which are very rich countries, that they should also be able to bear their own burden. What do these countries do for the refugees? What do these countries do for fellow Muslims? I think, they should really be part of a global process in order to take responsibility, to take their own stand in front of a problem, which is a global problem, a common problem that we need to solve together.

SS:I have one last question for you, something to ponder about. The way I see it right now, the EU unity is also threatened and you have three main issues: you have sanctions against Russia, you have the refugee crisis and you have Greece. Do you believe in European unity right now?

DV: I believe in European unity. If Europe is able to mend its division and to be faithful to its own principles. The risk for Europe today is very clear. A rise of populism, a grown rejection of all the leaders of Europe - we see it today in Germany with Angela Merkel, we see it in France with Francois Hollande. If we want to change this situation, we need to show that, yes, we can have solutions, yes, we can work together. Whatever is the difference between Vladimir Putin and the Europeans, we have in common the necessity of success; success is not an "option". Success is an absolute necessity for the unity of Europe, for the democracy in Europe and for the stability of the world community.

SS: Monsieur de Villepin, thank you very much for this interview.

DV: Thank you so much.