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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

French foreign minister says Syria's Assad has won the war

Le Drian is one of the highest-ranking western officials to concede a regime victory in Syria

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talks to the media as he arrives for the informal meeting of European Union foreign affairs ministers at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. EPA
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talks to the media as he arrives for the informal meeting of European Union foreign affairs ministers at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. EPA

France’s foreign minister says President Bashar al Assad has “won the war” in Syria, but warned that he could not achieve lasting peace without a negotiated settlement.

Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke before a UN General Assembly meeting this month, saying that France would push for an international settlement to end the conflict.

"Assad won the war, we have to state this. But he hasn't won the peace," he told France-Inter radio.

Mr Le Drian’s remarks make him one of the highest-ranking western officials to concede a Syrian government victory after seven years of conflict and with most of the country back under the control of the Syrian army.

They come amid a flurry of diplomacy as international powers scramble to avoid an all-out offensive in the northern province of Idlib, the last rebel holdout in Syria, which has been surrounded by government forces.

Damascus has promised to recapture the entirety of the province, which is home to more than 2.5 million civilians — about half of whom are displaced from other areas of the country.

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week that there could be a “humanitarian catastrophe” if the offensive goes ahead. UN agencies estimate that some 700,000 could be displaced in the early stages of the battle.

The extremist group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) controls about 60 per cent of the province, while Turkish-backed rebels control the rest. Turkey has sought to dissuade Russia and Syria from attacking the province by pressuring HTS to dissolve, but to no avail.

Mr Le Drian called Idlib an “explosive crucible” and said that French President Emmanuel Macron had thrown his support behind talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey set to take place this week, in the hope that an all-out attack could be prevented.

But during a surprise visit to Syria on Monday, his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, signalled that an attack was more likely than not.

"The remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people," Mr Zarif said, according to Fars news agency.

"All of Syrian territory must be preserved and all the sects and groups should start the round of reconstruction as one collective and the displaced should return to their families," he said.

The Syrian government has won a string of victories across the country over the past year, recently recapturing large swathes of the south from rebels, using a combination of force and surrender deals.

But although Mr Assad has all but defeated militant groups that rose up against him, the presence of Iranian forces who helped him to victory are bringing an entirely different set of challenges.

Israel has repeatedly struck Iranian targets in Syria, and announced its intention to continue to do so. The US, meanwhile, now operates a base near the borders of Iraq and Jordan, which analysts have said will be used to disrupt an Iranian supply corridor to Lebanon.

In a potential sign of things to come, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday that an air strike near the US base in Al Tanf killed at least eight pro-government fighters at the weekend.

Four Syrians, one Iranian national and three other non-Syrian fighters were killed in the strike, according to the report. The US-led coalition did not claim responsibility for the strike.