In an exclusive interview with Metro, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reveals that France will next month begin an early withdrawal of troops out of "Operation Serval," its anti-extremist offensive in Mali.
Metro: Last week, President François Hollande announced that France had not yet finished its mission in Mali. How much longer can Operation Serval go on for?
Fabius: The action taken in Mali consists of three ‘parts’: military, politics and development. In terms of military action, we have efficiently rolled out Phase One, which was to block terrorist groups and recapture the towns. France has no reason to remain in Mali in the long term. Africans and Malians must guarantee security, territorial integrity and Mali’s sovereign power. That is why we will slowly be passing things over to MISMA [the International Mission of Support in Mali]. But we shall continue to take action in the north, where terrorism remains an issue. I think that starting in March, if things go as planned, we will be able to reduce the number of French troops in Mali.
Are you afraid of a possible counter-offensive from Islamist groups?
Narco-terrorist groups have been stopped, thanks to the strikes. But isolated attacks are possible. We just have to be careful. We have to bear in mind that there is always a risk.
Would you be able to give us a ballpark figure of how much this intervention has cost France?
Several tens of millions of euros. This amount was accounted for in the Defense budget.
You stood by François Hollande the moment he was welcomed as the “liberator” in [Malian capital] Bamako. In your opinion, has the intervention given him a new stature?
Unquestionably, yes. When in Mali, we felt incredibly proud hearing the crowds shout “Thank you, France!”. There’s no denying the fact that the President did a good job. On a national level, the support coming from the French people and politicians has been tremendous, and rare. Internationally, it’s been equally impressive.
In Syria, “the end is near for Bashar al-Assad”: this is what you said at the end of last year. Are you still as optimistic about this?
Bashar al-Assad is the murderer of his people. Some 70,000 Syrians have died! There is no possible solution with him.
How will you get out of this deadlock?
I recently had a long phone call about this with John Kerry, my American counterpart. On one side, there is the humanitarian action, which we are working on alongside [the opposition] Syrian National Coalition. Then there is the political action – people who are still in favor of Bashar al-Assad need to understand that he is at the root of all the chaos. Then there is the issue of the military. But our priority – as well as supporting Syrian civilians – is to do our best to end this political situation and help put an end to this ordeal.
Would supplying the opposition with weapons be an option?
The Iranians and Russians are delivering weapons. Probably on the other side, as well. But these weapons do not provide the necessary protection against Bashar’s air strikes. What we must work very hard to avoid is that these weapons somehow end up in the hands of extremists, as was the case in Libya.
In Iran, negotiations regarding the use of nuclear power have been started once again. Is a diplomatic resolution with Tehran still possible?
I hope so. With Iran, we have for many years led what we call a ‘double approach’ – negotiations and sanctions – which are becoming more and more harsh. We haven’t gotten very far with the negotiations. Iranians have continued to strengthen their nuclear potential. Talks have been planned for the end of February. Along with our partners at NATO, we cannot accept that Iran equips itself with nuclear weapons. It would be too dangerous for peace.