EU must talk to war criminals to end Syrian crisis, says France's Fillon

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate seen as most likely to win next year’s French presidential election, said on Thursday that Western policy on Syria had failed and Europe had to talk to those responsible for war crimes to end the killing.

Francois Fillon, member of Les Republicains political party and 2017 presidential candidate of the French centre-right visits the chirurgical clinic Marie Lannelongue in Plessis-Robinson, southwest of Paris, France, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

After meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of European center-right parties in Brussels for talks, Fillon said Europe’s efforts to stop the Syria conflict had shown “indignation”, but this in itself never saved lives and would not stop the slaughter.

“I told European leaders that what we are forced to concede today is that Western diplomacy and in particular European diplomacy has failed,” Fillon, a former prime minister, told reporters in Brussels, dismissing the option of a U.S. military intervention.

“The other option is a strong European diplomatic initiative to bring around the table all those who can stop this conflict including those who have committed war crimes today,” he said.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, has said the bombardment by Russian-supported Syrian government forces and their allies in the assault on Aleppo “most likely constitutes war crimes”

Fillon’s comments go against present French policy that wants those responsible for war crimes to face justice. He spoke just as President Francois Hollande arrived in Brussels for a European leaders summit.

Hollande has blamed Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, of escalating the five-year conflict and called on all sides to return to the negotiating table.

But Fillon’s comments are in tune with some in the French establishment who accuse Hollande of pursuing an American-aligned agenda which weakens Europe as a whole.

Under Fillon’s premiership, Paris closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, two years after he traveled to Syria to meet Assad to promote bilateral ties. He has previously proposed restoring some diplomatic links with Assad, although he has said the Syrian leader cannot be a long-term solution.

Fillon has said Russia does not constitute a security threat and that ties should be mended including by lifting European sanctions on Moscow.

“I simply have a lot of respect for Russia. I’ve always said whether Russia’s leader is called Vladimir, Boris or Igor, he is the leader of the biggest country in the world. Europe must have a long-term strategy with Russia and not just act emotionally,” he told journalists on Thursday.

Additioanl reporting by Sophie Louet and John Irish; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth