WASHINGTON — France’s defense minister on Friday defended his government’s new security strategy and its mission in Mali, and called for a political solution to Syria’s bloody civil war.
In a wide-ranging speech during a visit here, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, through translators, described as “necessary” the plans to shrink the French military by 24,000 civilian and military positions, and to slow deliveries of combat platforms.
Those steps, laid out in a defense and national security white paper released in late April, are needed to enact “strict control [over] public spending,” Le Drian told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The moves in the white paper come as the European Union continues to stumble through a continent-spanning economic crisis that has, among other things, led to big defense cuts.
The new strategy emphasizes three priorities: defending the French “homeland,” maintaining a nuclear deterrent and ensuring France can intervene militarily around the globe, Le Drian said.
He also plugged the strategy’s call for greater emphasis on cyber capabilities and special operations forces, as well as urging ample investments in intelligence and power-projection forces.
The latter, he said, is needed so France can repeat its recent mission in Mali, where it sent combat forces to fight al-Qaida-affiliated elements in the northern part of that country,
Paris chose to intervene in Mali because “global security was at stake,” he said, adding French officials believe that if they had not stepped in, “more terrorists would have been deployed to Europe.”
French forces now are beginning a new phase of the Mali mission, he said, calling it “one of political and military transition.”
Le Drian described the Mali operation as a model of future joint missions among Western and NATO nations because “capacity pooling” is now required due to decreased defense spending.
“The Mali crisis reveals what a strategic partnership can do,” he said. “This is an example of burden-sharing that is necessary among allies.”
Washington and Paris will be forced to work together in similar missions against Islamist extremists, he said, because “we share the sad privilege of being the leading targets of jihadi movements.”
Hitting a muscular note, Le Drian said France will maintain a force in Africa in case it has to return to Mali, but also to intervene “in neighboring countries … to intervene in any terrorist activity.”
On Syria, Le Drian endorsed a U.S.-floated idea for an international conference aimed at brokering a political solution that would end fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel elements that has killed nearly 70,000 people.
“We must relentlessly renew efforts with [an international] security conference,” Le Drian said, adding French officials “are. happy the idea of a second conference has been put forward.”
As controversy rages in Washington about whether alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria crossed U.S. President Barack Obama’s own “red lines,” Le Drian struck a more cautious tone.
While French and British leaders have “no official evidence” such weapons were used, the two European powers want a United Nations investigation into the matter.
“This is one of the reasons for my visit here,” he said. “A major cooperative effort is needed on both sides of the Atlantic.”