French Ex-FM: Russia has historic opportunity to save Syria & end the war

Euro 2016 is in full swing in France, where the government has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to ensure security during the games. The root of the problem lies in the foreign policy sphere, however. As long as Syria remains divided, as long as ISIS keeps fighting and inspiring extremists in the Western world, even the toughest security could be breached. So, what can France – the second-strongest nation in the EU – do in this situation? How much influence does Paris have over events taking place across the globe – and within its borders? We ask former French Foreign Minister – Mr. Hubert Vedrine is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Today we have Mr. Hubert Védrine with us in the studio. Thank you very much for finding time for us.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, President Hollande declared a state of emergency, and then he extended it for the duration of the 2016 European Football Championships. But now activists are saying that not only has it had zero effect, it also violates the rights of the French citizens. Do you agree with that?

Hubert Védrine:Not at all. I don’t, because fighting terrorism involves protecting the population from terrorists in all countries affected by the problem – and there are dozens of such countries in the world.  Not only France has this problem. Therefore, protecting the population is the key duty of all governments, but it has to be done in compliance with the law. Declaring a state of emergency is an absolutely legitimate measure. The constitution, the law and parliament endorse it. Naturally, we need to uphold the supremacy of law and maintain the rule-of-law.

But democracies, democratic republics, have not only the right but also the duty to protect themselves from threats of this kind. Both legal and law enforcement systems need to be given the opportunity for improvement. Public opinion in France is predominantly in favour of that. There are even people who believe that this state of emergency was not strict enough. The opinions you mentioned are not at all representative of the majority. Only a few organisations have a certain view on the matter. So in general, this measure has been widely supported, and even if there have been doubts, they have not been about if – but whether the measures should be employed more seriously.

SS:But what’s the point of introducing a state of emergency if the terrorists can hide without any problems in a place that has no state of emergency – such as Brussels, or Milan, or Barcelona, and so on?

HV: It’s true, but with time all the countries facing this problem will be forced to do it.  I’ll emphasize again – this is more than just Europe’s problem. This gang of terrorists targets Muslims in the first place. In reality, there are more victims of terrorism among the world’s Muslim population than any other group. So terrorism actually targets Muslim society first and foremost. And this is not only Europe’s problem; it’s a problem for other regions, too. This is a global issue.

A state of emergency is a measure of choice for democratic countries, because democracies seek to comply with laws and the constitution. If we speak about Belgium, after they exposed an entire network [of terrorists] they introduced a series of measures pertaining to the police and the legal system. We’re talking here about enhancing the security system, knowing that the problem is here to stay. Tunisia has a similar problem, and in order properly address it, we need to talk with Tunisia and Egypt, the entire Arab world and Africa. This is a global problem, not just France’s. Even after everything possible is done, 100% safety can’t be guaranteed. It’s not possible.

SS:After the terrorist attacks in Brussels, the Prime Minister of Belgium called for the creation of a unified special service, a European version of the CIA.  Why hasn’t anything like this been set up already? Why do EU countries find it difficult to coordinate their policies in this area?

HV: The truth is that the police needs to be very careful about cooperation even in-house, even within one country. Confidential information is at risk as soon as it starts being passed on. In fact, even in the United States, major security agencies usually avoid running joint operations. It’s a known fact that aligning the work of all the police entities even in one country is a very challenging task. So instead of making Europe-wide proposals, Belgium should better focus on restoring its own rule-of-law, security system and making sure it works properly.

This would allow Belgium to further its cooperation with France, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries.  They will come to understand it. If we speak of a truly efficient response, it won’t be setting up a pan-European [security] system on paper. An efficient response would be closer cooperation between police services across Europe and other regions. It’s important for these services to work with other countries’ law enforcement agencies. Again, this is a global issue, not just something only Europe has to deal with.

SS:I would like to ask you a few questions about European integration. I know that in your interview you said that the EU should stop destroying what’s left of the [national] identities and sovereignty of Europe’s nations. But is it possible to have European integration without compromising the sovereignty of member states?

HV: It depends on how we define integration. Integration is already there, it's been there ever since the European Union became a reality. I must admit that at the moment, most of Europe’s population does not want to go back, yet at the same time it does not want to move forward either, towards a higher degree of integration. Europeans wish to keep their identity and sovereignty to a certain extent. So it’s all about finding the right balance.

To give you an example, it would be impossible to have the EU sign a new treaty today introducing a higher level of integration; no one would support it. Therefore, I think that the [EU] needs to take some sort of a break from history. It needs to make sure it doesn’t slip back into the past, while it’s not moving forward – you see?

SS:You mean to leave this problem unsolved? Just like the refugee problem, the European crisis… – because what I see is that in the absence of tighter economic and political integration, EU nations are simply pulling at both ends of the union, making it impossible for them to actually move forward as a whole.

HV: It’s true, but you can’t make it happen because we are a democracy. If Europe’s population doesn’t want further integration, which would involve passing on national governments’ authority to European institutions, we can’t make it happen. This is the democratic way.

We must respect people. But in terms of cooperation we can do a lot more. For instance, we can do better in terms of security with more cooperation between police services. We can improve our cooperation in controlling refugee flows. We don’t need to limit the sovereignty of Italy or Greece. It’s simply a question of cooperation. Therefore saying “integration” doesn’t mean much. Unless defined, this term is very vague. It’s a magic word. In any case, the nations of Europe don’t want to move further in this direction. There's been no progress.

SS:You said the EU needs to take a break. What does it mean?  

HV: By taking a break I meant putting integration on hold for a few years – but not cooperation. When I say integration I mean the directives coming from Brussels that try to manage things on the ground, on lower levels, which is something that was not part of the original plan. It wasn’t part of the plan for the European Commission in Brussels to be regulating how local markets should work, what shape the cucumbers should be and what kind of washrooms to install.

This is complete distortion (of the original plan). And this is exactly what many Europeans find frustrating. So a break needs to be taken in this sense. Not in terms of major cooperation projects, such as those in the area of European security.

SS: But the original plan was to have two centres of power in the union: Paris and Berlin. The last few years have shown that Berlin has the upper hand; Germany’s Chancellor Merkel is discussing the refugee crisis with Turkey and the Greek economic crisis as well. Why? Why Berlin? Why is Paris less active now? Why has France lost some of its influence and, so to speak, moved on to a supporting role in the EU (as opposed to the leading one)?

HV: It’s logical for Merkel to be in charge of the migration crisis talks, because it was largely her politics that aggravated the situation - her generosity. But this policy of generosity has caused the inflow of migrants to grow beyond expectations. The amount coming in is so large that Merkel herself has started losing popularity in Germany, so she’s now running the talks – that’s the effect of her policy. So this is hardly surprising.

SS: So you wouldn’t say that Berlin is the winner here?

HV: Wait, I’ve only answered a part of your question. Meanwhile, we are also dealing with another phenomenon here; while European integration has made Germany stronger as an economy, France has remained weak for more than a decade. That’s due its failure to undertake the kind of economic reforms that they have carried out in Germany, Sweden and practically everywhere else, except France.

So France is lagging behind, economy-wise. But that can be changed. Germany, for one, was once referred to as 'the sick man of Europe' some fifteen years ago, while Gerhardt Schroeder was administering his reforms. And today, Germany is the opposite of what it was fifteen years ago. If, or when, France manages to accomplish the much-needed reforms, it will get to the same level fairly quickly. But at the moment you’re right, France is indeed lagging behind. Besides, quite a few European governments believe it works rather well when you let Chancellor Merkel handle complicated negotiations.

But this cannot last forever, as Merkel’s popularity is notably declining, and so is the popularity of the ruling CDU-SPD coalition. So Germany’s political system isn’t that strong. That’s not very good, because we are interested in a strong Germany. We need a strong Germany, and we want France to grow strong again too.

SS:I would like to talk a bit about France’s foreign policies. As far as I remember, the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003 was the last time France refused to follow the United States into a war. Ever since, Paris has grown closer to Washington over foreign policy issues, pushing for regime change in Libya, and now in Syria, rejoining NATO’s military command structure and joining the sanctions imposed against Russia. Do you believe this really is in France’s best interest? Or can Paris afford to act independently in its foreign policies?

HV: No nation in the world is entirely independent in its diplomacy, as everyone is interdependent. You can have a more or less independent foreign policy, and that’s the right thing to pursue. But in the cases you’ve mentioned we are dealing with very different situations. When France opposed the idea of a US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003, it was absolutely the right thing to do. In the other examples you mentioned, it’s much more difficult to say for sure. It’s not always the same.

In the case of Ukraine, for instance, it’s more than one government that is responsible for the crisis. In the overall relationship between Russia and the West, the United States has made its mistakes, Europe has also made mistakes and so has Russia. In fact, it all depends what particular period of time we're looking at.

So I remain supportive of the current government’s foreign policies. They can be aligned with the U.S. on some issues (and really, why shouldn’t they be?), but they should be able to take a different stance on other issues. That is true independence.

But we have a hard time advocating such an attitude to our fellow Europeans, who in most cases have no heart whatsoever to take a contrasting stance to U.S. policy. They prefer not to have a clear, stated opinion on such issues. This makes it very difficult to agree on a common foreign policy among the 28 member states of the European Union. I would like France to remain forthright and determined in its policies.

The events in Syria are a separate story. The West, including the U.S. and France, might be very moralizing in its treatment of the Assad regime, but it’s justified, because that regime is utterly brutal. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that this attitude has not produced any results. Assad remains in power today, thanks to Russia who has rescued him. So, for the future of Syria, we must find a solution that would include [contributions from] Russia, the United States, Germany, France and a few other countries. But, as you can see, opinions are divided on different issues.

SS:Since we’re talking about Syria, and that’s a very important issue today, you said France should be fighting against Islamic State. And that is exactly what Russia has been doing together with President Assad. So why does Paris prefer to fight against Assad, even though it is already obvious he isn’t the…

HV: First of all, I never said we should be fighting alongside Assad. Pursuing cooperation with Assad makes no sense, because he is not independent in his actions. If you want to discuss the future of this country, you should talk to Russia, and you should talk to Iran. But talking to Assad himself is absolutely pointless.

Secondly, the reason why France, as well as other European countries and the United States, have insisted on removing the Assad government is that it was a brutal, oppressive regime. And then the Arab Spring came in the form of non-violent street protests. It all started in Damascus, mind you, not in France. The people themselves rose against the regime. Meanwhile, there are a lot of Syrians living in Europe – in France, in Brussels, in Berlin – and they dream of Syria becoming a democracy one day. So Europe has supported this push for democracy, especially since Assad’s power base in his own country is relatively limited.

That is exactly why Europe and the United States told themselves, that this looks like a good opportunity for installing democracy in Syria. But there were also others who said this is not going to work. If the regime falls, it will be Jihadists who will seize power. Hence the initial hesitation.

Be that as it may, we have what we have today. The regime has survived, rescued by Russia. Russia has a lot of leverage in this situation, and that means great responsibility. If Russia limits its military support of the Assad regime, in a way it would be a signal that this historic comeback has failed. And vice versa…

SS:Do you really think that Russia’s only goal was to save the regime?

HV: Time will tell. Here’s the question for today: Can Russia, a country which saved the regime, make its contribution and find a solution for Syria’s future? This is an historic opportunity for Russia. And today the West is ready to work with Russia on this issue. It means that Russia has a huge responsibility now.

SS:Russia insists that today it’s makes more sense to cooperate with Assad than to fight against him to resolve the Syria crisis…

HV: Indeed, but it’s not enough. This is what Russia is doing. But currently it’s not enough to just work with Assad, then expect all the Syrians to agree to live under the regime. The regime has committed horrible repression.

SS:But you have to end the war before talking about a regime change?

HV: This is Russia’s responsibility today.


HV: It was Russia who saved the regime.

SS:Do you think that…

HV: It would have collapsed. It was on the brink of collapse.

SS:ISIS would replace Assad then…

HV: Please let me finish.

The regime was on the brink of collapse, and Russia rescued it. Russia has all the cards in its hands, and with that responsibility it can play a huge role. Now Russia can really make a difference. Everyone now agrees that coordination is needed to fight ISIS, and we are seeing that ISIS is now on the retreat. We will soon be able to discuss the political process, i.e. what can be done to restore Iraq and Syria.

Russia doesn’t have that much sway in Iraq, though. However, in Syria its influence has been key. It means that Russia needs to think about Syria’s future – together with other stakeholders. Is it possible to make sure that all these people live side by side? What kind of institutions are needed, what security guarantees, and so on? I feel that the world wants Russia to take specific action, not just military, but also political.

SS:True, but what you said…

HV: Do we have time?

SS:Yes, we do.

HV: I am actually not that busy...

SS:Do you mean to say that when a country changes or saves the regime in a country, it is then responsible for its future, right? In the case of Libya…

HV: It doesn’t apply to all cases.

SS:I understand it.

HV: We were talking about Syria.


HV: I said that Russia might play a positive role…

SS:Yes. But what about Libya? NATO, including France intervened. But today it’s a land of chaos.

HV: Do you remember…

SS:Do France, the European Union and America have an obligation to help the Libyans and support them?

HV: And do you remember what triggered the Libyan intervention?

SS:Yes, of course.

HV: So you remember…

SS:But I’m merely pointing out what was there before and what we have now.

HV: Yes.

SS:One can’t say Libya is in better shape now.

HV: Before the intervention, while Gaddafi was in power, certain chaos was already there.

SS:But not that much chaos.

HV: In the case of Libya, the intervention took place because the General Secretary of the League of Arab Countries - League of Arab Countries! – asked for the intervention to protect the population from Gaddafi, who wanted to crush the revolt in Benghazi. And this initiative was not vetoed by Russia or China, because the LAG asked for it.

The Security Council passed a resolution. France or Great Britain alone didn’t propose it. It was the response from the Security Council, and it said to protect the population. That’s why the intervention took place. It went too far, because Gaddafi did not want to stop and had to be terminated. He did not want to stop hostilities.

And when the first election took place after the intervention, there was no chaos. At first everything went well. The situation was quite stable and the Islamists were destroyed. But after a while, since Libya had never existed as a state, its tribal reality took over. And chaos took over.

It is hard to say whether we should have overlooked the Benghazi slaughter and refrained from interference. It’s really hard. So the chaos had been there for several years, but at the moment, as you can see, the Tripoli government and the Tobruk government have been slowly finding some common ground - for instance, in fighting ISIS. And at last there is a Prime Minister supported by all sides.

It’s a very lengthy and complicated process, but it can be explained by the fact that Libya had not existed before as a state. And of course, a lot of help is coming from Europe, Egypt and the Sahel nations that contribute by protecting the southern border. And all these countries are ready to do even more for the future Libya…

SS: Is that so?

HV: Without doubt, and the Libyans know it, but there is one condition - they have to ask for it. So there is a problem of political legitimacy, the political authorities in Libya should…

SS: But that’s what we hear all the time.

HV: But it’s not our fault.

SS:You think so?

HV: I do, it’s not our fault.

SS:This isn’t the fault of the West?

HV: No, of course not. It was the decision of the Security Council. So it was not the West, it was the Security Council. There had been Western interventions, such as the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003, but this time the decision was made by the Security Council. It’s different.

Presently it’s connected with the situation in Syria, which makes things even more complicated. Different interested parties and forces have to work together. Besides, with Syria’s case, I’m not saying that the solution can be found by Russia on its own. I am saying that we need efficient cooperation between Russia, the USA, Germany, France, Italy and possibly Iran. Each time a proper mix of players is required.

SS:Can you say that the EU is pursuing a consolidated foreign policy?

HV: No, I can’t.


HV: Because the EU is composed of many countries.

SS:Does this mean that there is no need for Jean-Claude Juncker or Federica Mogherini?

HV: No, it’s not about them. You are being too categorical in asking it this way. If you could put yourself in their shoes, you would see how complicated it is.

To start with, the European Union was not designed to pursue a single foreign policy – that came about much later. Then, talking about foreign policy and collective security, you must bear in mind that this is a continuous process. This thought is illustrated by the European attitudes towards Russia; Poland, for example, thinks differently in this respect to Italy. And this is visible in every other area.

Continuous work is needed to provide coordination, whether you like it or not. All these countries lived independently for centuries; each one has its own history, mentality and fears. It takes time to develop a concerted foreign policy. Great figures in European history, such as Jacques Delors, Helmut Schmidt, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and some others, used to say that it would be a very long journey.

You cannot just say, here, we put our signature to a concerted foreign policy. And then every nation immediately adopts the same mentality. It’s impossible. These are all different countries.

It’s not like the United States, which is in fact a single nation. We are dealing with many different countries. That’s why the process of working out a single foreign policy is going to be very lengthy.

Europeans reach agreements, from time to time.  They tend to agree on some basic principles, say, pertaining to democracy. As for specific issues – Syria, the Middle East etc. – there are glaring differences. Step-by-step development of a single reconciled foreign policy for the EU requires a lot of effort.

Mrs Mogherini is really good but she cannot alter the deep-rooted mentality of Italians, or Spaniards, or Swedes all by herself. That’s why we need to view this as a continuous and lengthy process.

I believe, when the EU founding documents were drafted, there was too much pretense about them, too much grandiosity. It gave you the impression that everything could be done immediately. But it actually takes so much time to implement all that was planned back then. And it’s not surprising.

SS:You said that ever since the world ceased to be bipolar, it has grown somewhat chaotic and unguided…

HV: Half-way into chaos, I said.

SS:Right. So do you believe that a multipolar world model is viable – a world where Russia and China play important parts and the West no longer seeks to dictate universal rules for everyone?

HV: The world is the way it is, and that’s the point. The West has lost its dominance. It is still the most powerful, influential and wealthy part of the world on the global scene, but it has lost total control over everything. There are other countries – China, Russia and emerging economies. There are dozens and dozens of countries present on the global stage, and this is something new. The West has to adapt to this. Other…

SS:Is the West ready to exist on equal terms with other countries?

HV: It depends on the country; some are ready, some are not. It can be different.

The former of the two approaches is more pragmatic. The United States is somewhere in the middle. President Obama has grasped the advantage of such pragmatism, while George W. Bush did not and, instead, opted for another policy. In fact, preferences are defined by a number of factors. You need to go through a long period of adaptation to be able to make the right choice.

But other countries are no longer thinking of such things as globally controlled either. China, for example, would never be able to dominate the whole world. Russia is making its way back to the global arena on many fronts, but it is not able to win back the large-scale global influence it once had. So it has to take the present-day reality into account, too.

There is not a single country today capable of playing the same role that the U.S. played back in 1945, you see. I know that you are asking if the West is adapting to the changes. It’s a good question. It is important that all the parties should adapt to the current situation, when we are already halfway into chaos. There is no tragedy in that, but it is no longer a state of complete tranquility either. We are somewhere in between, and have been there for quite some time.

SS:Mr Védrine, thank you so much for this interview!

HV: Thank you!

* Islamic State is a terrorist organisation prohibited in Russia (note by RT).