The Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, Nicolas de Riviere, stressed that the war in Ukraine if it occurred, would be a “disaster” for the European people.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he expressed his “pessimism” regarding the current situation in Syria, describing the political and constitutional process as a “joke,” despite the “rationality” of the step-by-step approach adopted by the UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen in an effort to implement Security Council resolution 2254.
He described President Bashar Assad as “stubborn,” adding that his Russian and Iranian “godfathers” were wrong to believe that they can achieve a complete military victory.
The French diplomat, who played a key role in reaching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, in 2015 with Iran, stressed that the nuclear deal was a “good compromise” because it deals with the top threat, which is the nuclear program. But warned that “time is running out now” to return to the deal. He acknowledged there is a “need” to address the other problems with Iran, including regional stability, support for terrorism, and its ballistic program.
De Riviere warned against “returning to square one” in the Yemeni conflict, stressing the security of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in light of the continuous attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias.
Here are excerpts from the interview with de Riviere:
* No matter what happens in or with Ukraine, it seems that the gap between Russia and the United States and its allies, including the Europeans, is widening instead of closing. France has a big stake in this issue because of the Normandy Format with regards to the implementation of Minsk agreements. What’s going on?
– Well, this is a big concern for France, for Europe, for all of us. The situation is very tense. There is a high level of threat on, in, and around Ukraine posed by Russia. The next days will be probably critical. We really need to avoid a huge crisis. And we are confident that diplomacy can make a difference. And we will support the Secretary-General as well. So this is very much where we are. I believe we are at a critical juncture.
* Apparently, the European countries are worried about the situation of gas and gasoline and all the petroleum products. Do you think the Arab world can play a role in easing those concerns?
– The Europeans mainly are preoccupied with peace. Should there be a war, I think it would just be a disaster. I think we will try to make sure that the European people will get energy from different sources. And we are working on that.
* Can Saudi Arabia play a role in energy security in Europe?
– Everybody can play a role (…) we really hope to be in a position to avoid such a debate because the main stakeholders in Eastern Europe have made the wise choice to sit and talk instead of shooting at each other.
Disappointment in Syria in 2013
* From the situation that we were witnessing today, do you think that Russia was emboldened because the West was kind of weak in a country like Syria?
– We need to stand firm on our principles to defend democracy, freedom of choice, human rights (…) all that is in the UN Charter (…) there is a good degree of unity on this one. Syria is a different case. There was this very disappointing choice made in 2013 not to react after the chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus. And I think it should not happen again.
* I’m mentioning Syria because the Defense Minister of Russia decided to visit Syria during this crisis in Ukraine, and they decided to hold huge military exercises in the Mediterranean, and they sent some strategic fighter jets to Syria. Is this a sign that the situation is going to get worse instead of getting better?
– Well, it’s a different file. We don’t see much progress in Syria, whether on the political track, the chemical track, or even on humanitarian access. We’ll continue to push. We really expect Russia to do more, to put more pressure on the Syrian regime to cooperate because, in the end, we cannot just continue to provide humanitarian relief forever.
What we need is a political solution, some degree of power-sharing, implementation of resolution 2254, to make sure that we can move to the next step, meaning reconstructing Syria, and repairing the damages caused by 11 years of war. We are ready, but they don’t seem to be ready. I think that as long as the Syrian regime does not cooperate and does not move one inch, and as long as the Russians and Iranian godfathers do not help us to move them, I think we will not make much progress.
* So, are we at an impasse?
– Well, I think yes. We support the Special Envoy Geir Pedersen (who) has a reasonable approach: the step-by-step approach (…) if Assad and his godfathers believe in 100 percent military victory and the total surrender of the other side is their desired outcome, I think they’re wrong. We need to find some kind of political package and power-sharing, to make sure that there is a reasonable degree of reconciliation among moderate Syrians, that we can move to the next phase. But we are not there. This constitution and political process in Geneva is just becoming a joke.
* You sound pessimistic…
– Yeah? Are you optimistic? (Laughter)
* Well, I am asking you because the picture is pretty bleak…
– Yeah the picture is not very good, because everything has been destroyed. There is a readiness (with) many stakeholders to move to the next phase, but the regime is totally stubborn. It’s frustrating. Why would Europe start to engage with absolutely zero guarantees that we will have to do it again two or three years later, over and again? It’s ridiculous.
* You mentioned Iran’s role in Syria, but Iran is not only not helping, maybe Iran is playing a bad role in Syria and in other places, including Lebanon, Yemen, and (in) attacking also Saudi Arabia and the UAE by the Houthis. What do you think about the situation?
– It was true in 2015, and I think it remains true: nobody within the P5 and Germany expects a nuclear deal to fix the other issues we have with Iran, including the regional stability, support to terrorism, the ballistic program, etc. I think these are separate issues.
The priority, for now, is to make sure that we have the JCPOA back in place with everybody in support. This is by far the top priority. Once we manage to do that, I think everybody will be interested in trying to address the other issues with Iran: regional stability, missiles, and others.
We tried after 2015 already. It is difficult, but I think there is a need to find diplomatic modalities from us to do that. So frankly, if you ask me, I don’t expect Iran to change a lot in Syria in the short term, and even if there is a resumption of JCPOA. After that, we may engage Iran in a more productive manner on regional issues in the Middle East, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and other hotspots. I think we may have a new conversation provided we cross this bridge.
* You took part in the architecture of the JCPOA. Now, why would you go back to it…
– JCPOA was a good compromise in 2015. It remains a good compromise because it addresses threat number one, which is a nuclear threat. Now, the time is running out. We may reach a point where the constraints established by JCPOA may be outdated. So it’s really time to finalize this negotiation.
The other issues have always been treated separately. I think this was the big difference we had with the Trump administration that wanted to put everything in the same bag. We told them time and again: it’s a non-starter. I think if you want to address all the issues in the same package, you will fail, it is a recipe for failure. The right approach is to have different tracks to prioritize the nukes, then you need to address the other issues in parallel or one after the other.
The regional stability should be feasible. The ballistic missiles issues are probably more difficult. Even on regional stability to prioritize some issues which are probably easier than others, and then to have another set of conversations on weapon transfer to the non-state actors (…) this is a large menu.
UAE and Saudi Arabia’s security
* We’ve seen recently more attacks from the Houthis towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates apparently with missiles fully or partly made or provided by Iran. After the deal, are we going to see a region boiling more than ever?
– Now, it seems that we are back to square one with fighting on all sides, bombing from one side, and then retaliation, which is bad. I really understand that Emirati people are scared because the shelling that took place last month was really a huge threat. I understand the reaction, it’s clear. Now, we need to have everybody stop the fighting and start negotiating with the UN envoy, Hans Grundberg, fixing the issues, ceasefire, talks, humanitarian access to the Safer tanker. All these issues should be addressed. Should there be an agreement in Vienna on the nukes, I hope it would improve the atmosphere in the whole region and be conducive to progress on other files.
* President Emmanuel Macron visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently, and apparently this issue was on the table.. So is France in a situation to help prevent those attacks from happening? What is France trying to do?
– The UAE is a close partner to France. Saudi Arabia as well. So we’ll make sure that these countries remain safe because they deserve to be safe. So we will continue to be with them in a very rational and diplomatic way.
* What do you think the role that France with Saudi Arabia and the UAE can play regarding the situation in Lebanon?
– We have been engaging a lot to improve the situation in Lebanon, which is very bad politically, economically, socially, and in terms of security. France will continue to engage in support of Lebanon of course, even if it’s very frustrating.
We believe that a lot has to be done by the Lebanese authorities themselves. They need to put their own house in order and the political system, the economic and financial system, of course. I think not much has been done, so we are a little frustrated with that. They need also to improve the relations with their neighborhood and this is why President Macron tried to encourage some kind of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon when he visited the Kingdom.
* So the first step will come from inside…
– We have been very present, we are ready to provide a lot of support … And we will continue to do so. The question is just that at some stage if nothing changes inside Lebanon itself, it’s very difficult. You can pour money again and again, and if it does not go to the people, and if you have absolutely no financial reform, transparency, also improvement in the governance of the country, it’s not worth making the effort. So I think we’ll continue to push, but it takes two to tango, and for the time being, we have the impression that we are dancing alone.
Libya: We want elections
* What are the prospects of peace and moving the political process in Libya?
– Since the end of 2020, we enjoyed a different situation with a kind of sustainable ceasefire among the major stakeholders. We are moving things in the right direction. Some issues remain, such as the economic governance, the prisons within Libya, the foreign actors like the Turkish proxies and the Russian proxies, which is bad. There are others probably.
We need to address all these issues at once. The thing is that now we are probably at a critical juncture. There is a political roadmap. We need to see elections and we need a new date for elections. And we need the UN to put its own house in order as well. You know, there have been some difficulties with the UN mission in terms of leadership and governance. We want elections in the shortest possible timeframe. Because we are very much afraid that if nothing happens now, more things can unravel and could be back to square one.
What strikes me is while we were preparing for the election, it was postponed. A huge number of Libyan people registered to vote. That means the population of Libya is very much interested in its own country, they want to choose the leaders. They went massively to register on electoral lists. I think like in Lebanon, the leaders should be at their level.
* The mercenaries and foreign powers in Libya include Russians. So Russia is in Syria, Libya, and now in Mali with Wagner, where France is pulling out. What is going to happen?
– It is a different model. If a country decides to cooperate with mercenaries, with private companies, that is its choice. But those are not there to promote peace and stability. It seems the Malians don’t like it… We need to be very cautious because it is a very different partnership from being hosting a UN operation or European Union operation or partnership with a country. When France is acting in Mali, it is very expensive for France. When Wagner will operate in Mali, it will be very expensive for Mali!
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