Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East – H.E. Ambassador Rene Troccaz, Embassy of the French Republic in Cyprus, 27th March 2018

by on April 05, 2018

Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East
H.E. Ambassador Rene Troccaz
Embassy of the French Republic in Cyprus

I will try to summarize, as much as I can, our position as France on the item this evening, which is the French views of the developments and evolution in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Of course, that includes also Cyprus. It’s not the main point of the topic, but it’s also part of it.  I will try to focus on three parts. First, where we are as France in this area regarding our own history. Second, what our priorities are. And third, I will mention various cases, mainly Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and broader approach which includes Turkey, Cyprus and the energy question.

So first, history. France is one of the countries which historically have been present in this area for centuries. Even though we are not geographically part of it, but politically we are a player of this area. And this with other major countries, historically: the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, more recently, historically speaking, the United States, and of course the major countries of the area.

The other point regarding history is that we are facing different situations, country by country, but we are also facing a global, common problem. The speaker of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is asked every day by the international press questions related to this part of the world, which represent more than 50% of questions he receives.

Third element regarding history. We have different histories, different specific relations, historically, with various actors of the area. As you know, in the recent history France was present in the Middle East in Lebanon and Syria, we have historical relations with Egypt, and specific ties with Israel. On some places, because of history, we are more neutral, meaning by that we don’t share the same past, and in other places, for example the countries I’ve mentioned, we have specific links due to history.

Fourth element regarding history, is to make a clear differentiation between what is the news, what is the actuality, what is immediate, and what is the long run. And here I think that it’s important not to avoid the TV news of this evening, but to consider the long run: the past, the future – where we want to go. And our analysis is also led by this idea that we are building for the long run.

And fifth point regarding history, which is the conclusion which leads to the present, is the repercussions of what happens in this area internally in France. More and more in the global village we live in, what happens in the world has immediate consequences in every country. Regarding France, what happens here in this area, I mean the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, is of major importance. We have important communities coming from this area, we have people very sensitive to what happens in the Middle East and to all the difficulties, the crises, the challenges faced in this area. So, it is not only an external affair; it is also an internal question.

Second part of my presentation will be on our priorities. First priority is stability. We want and we try to contribute as much as we can to stability of this area, which is more and more closely linked to Europe. Again, it’s both external and internal. Just see how many major challenges we are facing either coming from this area, or related to it, or with some kind of a relation to it. Migration, refugees, terrorism, human relations, cultural expansion, education for us – so a lot of perspectives. I don’t want my approach to be understood as dark or negative. It is a very turbulent area with a lot of crises, but also an area with a lot of possibilities. One also has to consider eastern Mediterranean as an area of difficulties, but also of chances and potentialities.

Second element regarding the priorities is that we also have to advocate within the European Union (EU). France is one of the most convinced countries within the EU to give emphasis to the cooperation between the EU as a whole with what we call the southern flank of it. You have Eastern Neighborhood, which is Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Caucasus, and the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. France is one of the countries within the EU which advocates a lot in order to give importance, emphasis, financing to this area.

Third element regarding our priorities, and here I want to dissipate something which is said, heard many times which is not true, and believe me, our priorities in this region are first political, and then economic. Of course, we have economic interests, as every country in the world, but our purpose here on the top of the list is political, security concerns which lead our approach. So to say that in this area we are with our partners of the EU in a group of countries sharing the same approach, the same values, the same financial capacities, but of course, due to this history I was reminding you, we have also a specific role to play and a margin of action with our partners, our interlocutors and all the countries of the region. This is why our ministers, our authorities, our diplomats are travelling around this area constantly speaking to everybody.

So, I will come now to the different challenges, in some cases crises, or problems we have to face and tell you what our position or approach is. I’ll start with Israel and Palestine as a block. Israel for us, I said that in my introduction, is a country with which we have friendly relations and we have a specific history. So Israel is clearly a historical friend of France. What we wish, and there is nothing new about that, is peace which lasts and is built in this area. We have more or less the same position regarding that. We want Israel and Palestine to leave peacefully, and in full security, jointly in this land, in this area. This is why we recently did not approve the American position regarding the transferring of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is for us legally speaking a unilateral decision of the United States, which is contrary to all the resolutions of the UN and we consider it as something which does not favor the cause of peace and of the settlement. We are convinced that it does not help the cause, the purpose of security, including, of course, Israel security itself and the Israeli citizens. So our involvement is to build strong peace in the area and having two states living peacefully in full security, having Jerusalem for capital, divided of course, for two states. We support any initiative which is balanced, reasonable, which favors the peace, and this is why our authorities invite the Israeli authorities to show some gesture or some initiative in order to help the Palestinians to get out of today’s situation which is more or less a deadlock. But what we believe is that apart from the role of the international community, including Europe. Which, by the way, I have to remind that, because when it comes to Europe, many times it is said that it has no external policy, it’s not a major power. Europe is not a major power per se, but Europe is a major player, and we all have to keep in mind the fact when it comes to financing, the most important donor to this area of the world is Europe, so it has a say and can speak with every legitimacy. What we believe is that the peace process in Israel and Palestine will be a result of talks between the two sides, between the two governments, between the two societies, the two people. This, of course, is for Israel and Palestine; it’s also the case of Cyprus. You cannot have an imported peace solution anywhere in the world. So it’s not France, it’s not the US, it’s not the international community which will import and impose any peace process to this area. It’s a matter which firstly concerns, and we are going to support both of them, Israelis and Palestinians.

I come to Syria and here I want to make things very clear. We have one enemy in Syria, and this enemy is Daesh. This is our priority. You saw that recently we had tragic terrorist attacks in France last week which are related to that. One target, one priority, and this is clearly Daesh and terrorism. So, what we need and we have to do in Syria is to first finish with the war, and second, we have to win the peace. First, by defining a common goal which is to reduce, to suppress, to eradicate terrorism, and then to rebuild stability of Syria. Of course, we have these so-called red lines regarding the use of chemical weapons, and also we insist a lot on allowing the humanitarian access to the zones and areas of conflicts. Here, again, I want to add that as in every crisis in the war we have to avoid the neo-conservatism which imports a solution from other countries to the area. We cannot impose any solution. We want to help, we want to fight, we want to be part of the solution, we want to be positive, but we want to avoid any imported solutions to Syria, as we want to avoid that everywhere in the world. Is president Bashar al-Assad a friend of France? The answer is clearly “no”. Mr Assad, we think, is an enemy of his own people, but the reality is very simple. The reality is that the President Bashar al-Assad is now in power in Damascus, in Syria, so we cannot ignore this fact, we have to consider the reality in order to favor the political transition. We want a political transition in Syria. We want steadily, gradually to get out of war against Daesh in order to have a political transition. We don’t want for the future a status quo, we want changes, but we want a gradual approach leading to a political solution. This is why we need to have collectively diplomatic initiative, and we spoke of that, represented our views – my authorities did that recently in new York at the General Assembly of the United Nations last September, and since then all our statements were constantly going in the same direction. This is a major question, a very sensitive one. We are speaking with all the leaders of the world – Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey – to all the major parties concerned in this major crisis in the Middle East, Syria. So, what we have to do in order to rebuild Syria is a political transition, a lasting stability for this country, we want plurality of all religions, minorities, from the Christians to the Alawites, to the Sunnis – to all the minorities, and of course  a political plurality. This is what we want to support and we try to promote that politically.

In the short term I want to insist here on the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. This is why we insisted so much on implementing the resolution 2401 of the Security Council of the United Nations (UN). We need first, as the international community, to elevate the situation of the civil population. This is part of our global approach which favors a political solution under the auspices of the UN, because we don’t want this crisis, which is already so tragic, to expand in all the areas of the Middle East. We really believe that it is in the interest of all the countries in the area. And something else – we want to maintain the internationally recognized borders of every country in this area, and not to start changing these borders.

My President recently spoke to Turkish President regarding Syria. He reiterated the need of cease fire as it has been decided, but not implemented by the sec council of the UN. We don’t want any more indiscriminate bombing, and we want an access for humanitarian aid. This is basically what he said to Mr. Erdogan and this, of course, concerns the last point of major tensions – here I’m referring to Ghouta area, but also Afrin where, as you know, the Turkish army led an operation. That’s a major point of concern for us. We think and we said to our interlocutors as part of the Astana process, and here I’m addressing to my Iranian colleague, also Russia and Turkey, that we consider these countries have a responsibility due to their influence which can help in order to make these recommendations reality on the ground.

On Lebanon, you know our position, which is consequent of this so important relation historically we have with Lebanon. Unity and total independence and sovereignty of Lebanon is the major goal. Even thought during its history this country has been in different phases, some of them were very tense, we think that it’s religiously and politically plural model has to be preserved and maintained. We are committed, as France, to help as much as we can to preserve the stability of Lebanon and this is why we want to involve international community in order to support financially Lebanon with investments. Conference will be held in Paris on the 6th of April with international donors and we also need to help the security forces of Lebanon in order to fight terrorism. As you know, we called all the Lebanese political forces to avoid any implication in regional crises, mainly in Syria. And the way around that we want is not to import any regional crises to Lebanon. The idea is to preserve integrity of Lebanon politically and in terms of sovereignty. And I will also close concerning Lebanon saying that we really insist on the importance of the contribution of the United Nations to the stability of south Lebanon to the border with Israel.

Of course, we could have spoken of any other items in this area. As always, speaking about this area, which starts from the Eastern Mediterranean and goes to the broader Middle East, we have to define what the limit of the broader Middle East is. Does it include the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Turkey, Egypt? I’m not going to speak on all these questions, but I’m going to say some words about these three major crises or places of challenges.

Let me say few words about Turkey. Not about Turkey as it is often presented here in Cyprus for obvious reasons, we fully respect and understand that, but more to focus on Turkey as a major player in the area. Of course, Cyprus is a concern for Turkey, but Turkey also has a lot of concerns in the area and beyond the area. This is why I told you that Turkey, for instance, is a country which is developing an African policy. President Erdogan recently had a tour of several African countries: he went to Algiers, he went to Mauritania, he went to Mali, and it’s clear – with businessmen, with diplomats, with ministers, with a lot people. It shows that Turkey has ambitions which are global or of an important range. For us, Turkey, something which is not going to change, is that it is our neighbor. It’s your neighbor here immediately in Cyprus, it is an important player in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it’s the neighbor of the European Union. We are facing with Turkey some common challenges, namely security and fight of terrorism. I have to remind that for us, for France – and I was mentioning this recent terrorist attack which occurred some days ago in southern France – it’s not only the question of stability of this area. And to this regard Turkey has a role to play, it’s not only something external and theoretical. A major part of the internal security of France is related to the area. If you consider all the terrorist attacks which happened during the last four years in France, most of them are linked to this area. And in this regard we cannot ignore Turkey, which is a player and also a way where some people crossed to come to Europe. So that’s very important to keep in mind when considering the French position towards this area.

I was about to conclude my presentation with some words on Cyprus. But what I think is that I should leave that for questions. I’m not here to deliver a speech on Cyprus. That would be immodest because you are all specialists, some of you are Cypriots, so I prefer to leave that for the questions. Thank you very much for your attention.