"I would not call it a war, but the sanction of a monstrous violation of human rights," the French president tells Le Monde.
PARIS — In an exclusive interview published Friday, French President François Hollande spoke with Le Monde at the Elysée palace about the crisis in Syria.
LE MONDE: Does France have evidence of the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in Damascus?
President Hollande: The question is no longer whether chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 in the suburbs of Damascus. It is an established fact. Even the Syrian authorities have stopped denying it. The question is to find out who is behind this dreadful act. France has a body of evidence that implicates the Syrian regime. To begin with, several chemical attacks had already taken place in Syria before. But the one on Aug. 21, by virtue of its scale and consequences, marks a change in the nature of the attacks. It is also clear that the opposition does not hold any of these weapons, and that all the stocks are controlled by President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, the neighborhood that was hit was not targeted by accident or by mistake: It is a key area for the control of roads to Damascus. What’s more, in the hours that followed the violence, the utmost precautions were taken to cover up the tracks by air raids, whose origin we know for certain.
What would be the legal basis of a military intervention?
The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical weapons. Using gas on a population is, as (UN Secretary-General) Ban Ki-moon said himself, a crime against humanity. This is why the United Nations has been called upon, and a mission was sent to investigate. But there is concern that, whatever the evidence, the Security Council will be unable to take the necessary step toward action. It has been stuck for two years on the Syrian issue.
What if it remains stuck?
The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished. If it did, it could lead to an escalation that would trivialize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries. I am not in favor of international intervention that aims to "liberate" Syria or overthrow its dictator, but I think that a regime that commits such an irreparable crime on its population must be stopped.
What are the war aims?
I would not call it a war, but the punishment of a monstrous violation of human rights. It would have the value of dissuasion. Doing nothing would be like allowing it to happen. The civil war in Syria has been going on for too long. It has caused 100,000 deaths. France has taken initiatives at a very early stage. It organized a conference of the “Friends of Syria Group” in July 2012 and recognized the National Coalition as the Syrian people’s only legitimate representative. It provided political support, material and humanitarian assistance and, more recently, military means in accordance with our European commitments. Now, there has been an even more horrorible event. And it is retaliation, as opposed to inertia, that will impose a political solution.
Which form will the intervention take?
All the options are on the table. France wants a proportionate and firm action to be carried out against the Damascus regime.
Which countries are likely to intervene?
If the Security Council is unable to act, a coalition will be formed. It must be the largest possible. It will rely on the Arab League, which has condemned the crime and alerted the international community. It will benefit from European support. But there are only a few countries that have the capacity to inflict a punishment with appropriate means. France is among them. It is ready. It will decide its position in close cooperation with its allies.
The first Parliament to be consulted — the United Kingdom’s — opposed the idea of an operation in Syria. Can we act without our traditional British allies?
Yes. Every country is sovereign (and can) participate in a military operation or not. That applies to Britain as well as France. This Friday, I will have in-depth talks with Barack Obama.
In what way does this choice differ from what the American neo-conservatives have been blamed for with regard to military intervention?
In Iraq, the intervention was carried out even though no evidence had been given concerning the existence of weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, unfortunately, chemical weapons have been used. In fact, the operation in Iraq aimed to overthrow the regime. Nothing of the sort is considered for retaliation in Syria. France, since the beginning of the civil war, has never stopped looking for a political solution. But on Aug. 21, the chemical massacre changed the situation. The red line that was defined a year ago has been undeniably crossed.
France intervened in Libya, Mali and now possibly Syria. Do we not run the risk of too much intervention?
Back in 2011 when Nicolas Sarkozy was still president, I approved of France going to Libya, but I deplored that the consequences of our engagement were not managed well. In January 2013, I decided to intervene in Mali. It was done alongside the Africans and over a short period of time. It allowed for free and indisputable elections to take place. As for Syria, I will ensure that the response from the international community puts an end to the escalation of violence. Each situation is different. For each of them, France takes responsibility in the name of its values and principles.
How will you manage the relationship with Russia after the strikes?
Russia refuses to admit that the Syrian regime could have committed such an abomination because of their deep fear that if Bashar al-Assad falls, chaos would ensue. Therefore, I want to convince them that it the current situation is the worst scenario because it encourages jihadist groups to rise up. I've always told President Putin that I do not, by any means, question the special longstanding relationship Russia has had with Syria. And it would be in Russia’s interest to reach a political solution as soon as possible.
Do you know whether the (French) public supports an intervention?
When I decided to send our troops to Mali, the French people were not yet aware of the extent of terrorism in the Sahel region. Now, they are proud that our army liberated our friends in this country. In every circumstance, I owe them the truth about France’s engagements, about their legitimacy, without concealing the threats to our own security. But which is the greater danger: to punish a country that has used chemical weapons, or to let it do as it pleases, knowing they can do it again? Chemical weapons are a danger for humanity.
Do you rule out strikes before the French Parliament debates the issue?
I rule out making a decision before I have all the elements that would justify it. I asked for an extraordinary session of Parliament to be called on Wednesday to debate on Syria. And if I decide to intervene, the government will inform it of the means and objectives, in accordance with the Constitution.
Do you rule out an intervention before the UN investigators have left Syria?