PARIS, France (AFP) — President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that French air strikes in Syria were not a declaration of war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, adding that Paris had convinced Donald Trump to stay engaged in the conflict “for the long-term”.
A day after France joined the United States and Britain in launching unprecedented strikes against regime targets, Macron insisted the intervention was legitimate and urged international powers to now push for a diplomatic solution to the brutal seven-year war.
“We have not declared war on the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” the 40-year-old centrist said at the start of a marathon two-hour interview with BFM television to mark almost a year in office.
But he again argued it had been necessary to send a signal that the use of chemical weapons against civilians would not go unpunished.
Saturday’s strikes targeted three alleged chemical weapons facilities in response to what the West says was a gas attack on the town of Douma that killed dozens of people.
“What I want you to understand is that we have full international legitimacy in intervening in this case,” Macron said.
He said the US, France and Britain targeted “extremely precise sites of chemical weapons use” in an operation that went off “perfectly”.
And he further argued that the operation was legitimate despite not being sanctioned by the UN, retorting that under a 2013 UN resolution Syria was supposed to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal.
As for his allies, Macron suggested France played a pivotal role in changing Trump’s mind on the need to stay involved in the conflict.
“Ten days ago, President Trump was saying the United States of America had a duty to disengage from Syria,” Macron said.
“I assure you, we have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long-term,” he told veteran journalists Jean-Jacques Bourdin and Edwy Plenel, charged with the two-hour grilling.
And in a reference to Trump’s raging on Twitter at Russia over the possibility of strikes, Macron added: “The second thing is that we have also convinced him that he must limit his strikes to chemical weapons, at a time when there was a media furore via tweet, as I’m sure you noticed.”
Despite soaring tensions with Russia, Macron stressed the need to “talk to everyone” in pursuing a Syrian settlement, saying his plans to visit Moscow in May remain unchanged.
Like Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, Macron has faced a domestic backlash for striking Syria without consulting parliament, but he defended the move as well within his constitutional powers.
“This mandate is given democratically to the president by the people in the presidential election,” he said.
Expected to focus on domestic politics, the interview was overshadowed by the launch a day earlier of Macron’s his first major military intervention as president.
But Bourdin and Plenel made good use of their chance, prompting combative exchanges on the sweeping reforms he has been pursuing over the past year.
Macron acknowledged the anger that his reforms, including a loosening of France’s famously rigid labour laws and a shake-up of heavily-indebted rail operator SNCF, have sparked in some sectors of society.
“I hear all this anger,” he said, notably in reference to rail workers who have launched three months of rolling strikes.
He said he had promised on the day of his election to “reconcile the country”, but said this “couldn’t be done overnight”.