Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—Arab countries currently transitioning to democracy need to adopt long-term economic policies if they are to bypass this transitional stage, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said on Monday.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of an IMF-sponsored conference in Amman, Jordan, entitled ‘Building the Future’, Lagarde said: “You cannot be in transition forever, you have to eventually build into the future and what will be a long standing future, which is why the foundations of the economy are so important.”
Lagarde also called on Arab governments to enact major structural economic reforms and to open the way for greater private sector involvement in their economies. Responding to a question on how to stimulate growth, Lagarde said governments needed to continue to “focus on the foundations of the economy, that is the macro-economic framework, because when you have solid public finance you inspire confidence, you are predictable, people are prepared to invest, prepared to create jobs…and the more private sector there is…confident to invest, the more likely jobs will be created.”
Lagarde also stressed the need for Arab Spring countries—or what her organization calls “Arab Countries in Transition,” namely Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Yemen—to strengthen the middle class, as well as boost small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), saying: “Our sense is that the middle should be strengthened, the middle of society being the middle class; the middle in economy means the SMEs, and the middle also means the medium-size states, the state that does not do everything” on its own and includes other stakeholders.
Lagarde had previously said Arab countries needed to be aiming for growth rates nearing 6 percent in order to benefit from any tangible development, again reiterating this at the conference on Monday.
In response to a question from Asharq Al-Awsat on current growth predictions, she said: “Ideally, the Arab Countries in Transition would have to double the current rate, so moving from 3 to 6 [percent]. Now, it doesn’t happen overnight and it will be gradual but I very much hope that it goes in that direction and that it reaches that 6 per cent number that would help to create the necessary jobs in the region.”
The current growth rates of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia stand at 1, 2.5 and negative 0.3 percent, respectively.
Arab Spring countries that have managed to depose longtime rulers—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen—have struggled economically since 2011. Tunisia and Egypt, previously major tourist destinations, have seen growth dwindle since their uprisings, with unemployment, inflation and debt all at dangerous levels. In a recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egypt’s trade, industry and investment Minister, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, said his country’s total debt had now reached above 100 percent of GDP.
London and Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Friends of Yemen group urged Sana’a on Tuesday to set out a clear timetable for a referendum on a new constitution and subsequent elections as the military continued a major offensive against Al-Qaeda militants in the south of the country.
In a meeting jointly chaired by Saudi Arabia, Britain and Yemen in London, the Friends of Yemen announced the establishment of a new senior-level Steering Committee to coordinate their support for Yemen, in addition to the creation of three working groups focused on key economic, political and security reforms.
“The Friends of Yemen reiterate that the only way to a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Yemen is through the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative,” a statement from the group of 39 nations and organizations affirmed. The Friends of Yemen also acknowledged the need for economic and political reform, particularly tackling corruption and investing in infrastructure, calling on Sana’a to quickly establish a timetable for vital economic reforms.
The group welcomed UN Security Council resolution 2140, which established a sanctions committee with a view to applying measures against individuals or entities believed to be engaged in or providing support for acts that threaten Yemen’s peace, security or stability.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, British Ambassador to Yemen Jane Marriott stressed that the Friends of Yemen conference is important because it highlights the interests of Yemen at a time when the international community is facing numerous crises.
Yemen continues to face a number of security challenges, most prominently from the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group. Sana’a launched a major military offensive against Al-Qaeda militants in the south of the country after the intermittent conflict between government forces and the terrorist group heated up earlier this month.
The first major raid in that new security offensive resulted in the deaths of of 55 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters during a raid in Shabwa province, with reports that AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri was among those killed. The raid came in response to video depicting the group’s emir, Nasir Al-Wuahyshi, openly meeting with hundreds of AQAP fighters in Yemen and pledging renewed attacks on the US.
The major offensive by Yemen’s armed forces, coodinating with members of the Popular Committees, tribal leaders and police forces, is part of Operation Together for a Yemen without Terrorism.
The state-run SABA news agency reported that three Al-Qaeda militants were killed and 10 others wounded in Abyan province in a government raid on Wednesday, quoting a Yemeni military official. The report said five “leading” Al-Qaeda militants had been killed in Shabwa province on Tuesday.
But a Yemeni security source speaking on the condition of anonymity informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the death toll could be significantly higher, reporting that at least 27 people were killed in the fighting, including 15 soldiers.
The major offensive came as Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi claimed on Tuesday that 70 percent of AQAP fighters are non-Yemeni nationals. “These foreigners don’t care if the country is destroyed,” SABA quoted the president as saying.
Speaking at the opening of the Friends of Yemen conference on Tuesday, British foreign secretary William Hague stressed that the group must back Sana’a’s attempts to eradicate AQAP, saying: “We have to be clear that the international community will not tolerate acts of violence or other actions intended to derail Yemen’s transition, and AQAP must have nowhere to hide.”
“We [the Friends of Yemen] must all continue to support stability and to counter terrorism, including through reform of the security sector,” Hague said, adding that “AQAP is still a threat both within Yemen and internationally,” he added.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—US President Barack Obama is visiting Saudi Arabia on Friday following a tour of European capitals earlier this week, in order to reassure the Washington’s Arab allies of its commitment to the region.
Obama is set to meet with Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, with Saudi Arabia confirming that the two leaders will discuss ways of enhancing bilateral relations and international issues of common interest.
US National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said “the two leaders will discuss our ongoing cooperation to advance a range of common interests related to Gulf and regional security, including Iran, Syria, negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security.”
“The President values the King’s insights, and looks forward to meeting with him in person to discuss a very robust agenda,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“It will be an opportunity to reinforce one of our closest relationships in the region and build on the strong US-Saudi military, security and economic ties that have been a hallmark of our bilateral relationship,” she added.
The visit comes at a sensitive time for the Middle East. This is the first time Obama has visited Saudi Arabia since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and comes amid regional divisions over the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization earlier this month amid diplomatic tensions between the Kingdom and Qatar over the Islamist group.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for the Middle East at the Brookings Institute, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Obama’s visit to Riyadh is important. It should be the beginning of continuous and more intensive dialogue. It is important to have clear day-to-day channels for dialogue, with confidence on both sides that those channels are authorative and decisive.”
Saudi Arabia has appeared concerned about Washington’s role in the region following its troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater domestic energy independence, and rapprochement with Iran.
The US National Security Council spokesperson told Asharq Al-Awsat the two countries share core strategic interests despite any differences, saying: “Good friends sometimes have differences, but they are able to work through those differences. That is the case between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
“Iran remains a critical part of our agenda with our Gulf partners. Even as we pursue a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, our commitment to the security of our Gulf partners remains steadfast,” Meehan said.
Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers signed an interim agreement in Geneva in November last year in which Iran agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a relaxation of economic sanctions. The countries are now working towards a comprehensive deal, with a six-month deadline fast approaching.
According to Meehan, during his trip Obama will address the Iranian issue with Saudi officials, and that he will “make clear to Iran’s leaders that its government’s sponsorship of illicit actions is unacceptable to the international community,” in the hopes of addressing one of Saudi Arabia’s key concerns about the thaw in US–Iran relations.
President Obama and the Saudi King will also discuss the Palestinian–Israeli negotiations and the ongoing Syrian conflict. “We share with Saudi Arabia a desire to resolve the conflict in Syria in a way that addresses all dimensions of the crisis. Our coordination of assistance to the Syrian opposition has been increasingly effective,” Meehan said.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Iran and the P5+1 group of nations agreed on a framework for future nuclear talks on Thursday, the Iranian consulate in London reopened its doors after more than two years of sustained diplomatic tensions between Britain and the Islamic Republic.
Despite the framework agreement, little progress was made during the talks regarding what concessions Tehran must offer for sanctions relief. But the British Foreign Office announced on Thursday that the Iranian consulate—but not the Embassy—has reopened its doors and will resume dealing with issues relating to visas and commercial affairs.
The British Foreign Office said: “The UK has agreed with Iran that from today [Thursday] bilateral relations will be conducted through non-resident chargés d’affaires and officials. This is the next stage of the step-by-step process of taking forward our bilateral relationship with Iran.”
The reopening marks the end of the “protecting power” arrangement that saw Sweden working on Britain’s behalf in Iraq, and Oman working on Iran’s behalf in the UK.
The British Foreign Office confirmed that “we will no longer have protecting powers acting as intermediaries. Diplomatic contact will now be more direct between our two countries.”
“As we do not have a permanent presence on the ground, we will still require occasional support from EU missions in Tehran, including Sweden, particularly on urgent consular matters,” the Foreign Office added.
Iran and the P5+1 group of nations are set to meet next on March 17 for the next round of nuclear negotiations. A joint statement issued yesterday and read out by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton confirmed that “we have .#160;.#160;. identified all of the issues we need to address for a comprehensive and final agreement,” adding that “it won’t be easy, but we’ve gotten off to a good start.”
As for whether the UK intends to press ahead with more diplomatic openness with Tehran, including reopening the British embassy in Tehran, the British Foreign Office said: “We have not taken any decision on reopening the British Embassy in Tehran. This will depend on the progress we made in our step-by-step approach.”
Geneva, Asharq Al-Awsat—International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will continue talks with Syrian government and opposition representatives in Geneva on Friday after a trilateral meeting with US and Russian officials on Thursday failed to achieve any tangible results.
Brahimi told reporters that he had held a two-hour meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Thursday. He said: “They have kindly reaffirmed their support for what we are trying to do and promised that they will help both here and in their capitals and elsewhere to unblock the situation for us, because until now we are not making much progress in this process.”
Brahimi declined to say that the Geneva II negotiations had failed, acknowledging the difficulties facing the talks and calling for international support to assist the ongoing negotiations. “Failure is always staring us in the face,” the UN–Arab League joint envoy to Syria said, adding that no new confidence-building measures had been discussed during the second round of Geneva II peace talks, which began on Monday. The first round of talks, which began on January 22, had produced a ceasefire agreement for Homs.
Asked whether the opposition and government delegations had moved closer on any issues, Brahimi told the press conference: “I think they are a little bit more familiar with the presence of the other side. I don’t think any friendships have developed yet.”
As far as the United Nations is concerned we will certainly not leave one stone unturned if there is a possibility to move forward. If there isn’t, we will say so,” he said.
“We’re still looking for the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Brahimi added.
Rima Fleihan, a Syrian opposition delegation member at Geneva, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is not clear what will happen next, but consultations are ongoing and we are ready to negotiate.”
There has also been tension between Russian and Western delegations at the talks over competing UN Security Council resolutions on aid for Syria. Russia has presented a draft UN resolution on combatting “terrorism” in Syria, a move that has been strongly criticized by the opposition. “Terrorism is certainly no less acute a problem [than the humanitarian crisis],” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.
Diplomatic sources in Geneva told Asharq Al-Awsat that the French delegation had sought to calm the situation with the Russians and open the door for informal diplomatic consultations over lunch, but Russian representatives had rejected the move.
Geneva, Asharq Al-Awsat—United Nations mediator at the Geneva II talks Lakhdar Brahimi said that the second round of discussions between the Syrian government and opposition have made little progress this week since the restart of negotiations on Monday.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva following a joint meeting between representatives of the government of President Bashar Al-Assad and an opposition Syrian National Coalition delegation, Brahimi said: “The beginning of this week is laborious as it was in the first week. We are not making much progress,” adding: “Of course, for it to really take off we need cooperation from both sides here and a lot of support from the outside.”
Responding to a question as to why he could not impose an agenda on the two sides, Brahimi said that he could not “put a gun to their heads” to force the Syrian government and opposition to reach an agreement. “I have a gun but I don’t want to use it,” he added.
The UN envoy to Syria also confirmed that he is set to meet with US and Russian diplomats on Friday, with delegates from both sides also possibly holding bilateral meetings with US and Russian officials. UN officials confirmed that the trilateral meeting in Geneva on Friday will be attended by Brahimi, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov and US Under-Secretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Monday that Moscow had proposed the trilateral meeting in an attempt to force through a political breakthrough.
US State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We have always supported the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, and if more meetings are needed to help push the negotiations forward, then we are prepared to discuss that.”
The second round of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition started in Geneva on Monday, although the first joint-meeting was only held on Tuesday, with both parties pointing the finger at the other over the lack of progress.
The Syrian government’s delegation announced that no agenda had been agreed for the second round of peace talks, criticizing the opposition’s refusal to discuss “terrorism.”
“Another lost day because the representatives of the [Syrian National] Coalition insisted that terrorism in Syria does not exist and did not want to discuss it,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said on Tuesday. “This should be the priority for any Syrian . . . After that we are ready to discuss anything,” he said.
A senior member of the Syrian opposition delegation, Monzer Akbik, told reporters on Tuesday that the Coalition had outlined its “vision for the political solution in Syria,” adding that Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers had also arrived in Geneva to take part in the talks. He confirmed that the FSA officers were set to establish a “military advisory room” to help coordinate security issues related to the talks.
“I think this is going to enhance the performance of our team [at the negotiations] and will enhance the linkage with the FSA on the ground,” Akbik added.
An operation to evacuate civilians from rebel-held areas of Homs was suspended on Tuesday due to “logistical problems,” the Homs provincial governor told Agence France-Presse.
“Today, operations didn’t take place for logistical and technical reasons,” Homs governor Talal Barazi said, adding that “the evacuation of civilians and delivery of food aid will continue tomorrow morning.”
Speaking during the press conference on Tuesday, Brahimi portrayed the UN-brokered deal in Homs as a qualified success. He said: “The Homs case was a success, but it took six months to get hundreds of people out and some aid in.”
Brahimi praised the Syrian Arab Red Cross for its role in the deal, lauding the Red Cross members for the risks they were taking in overseeing the truce.
“We owe it to the Syrian people to move faster than we are moving. Homs can be called a success, but the deal was six months in the making,” he said.
The Syrian opposition has criticized the Assad delegation’s reluctance to talk about a “transitional governing mechanism.” The opposition fears that the government delegation’s focus of a “transitional government” could be part of a ploy to reshuffle the government, but with Assad remaining as president.
The Coalition delegation member Anas Al-Abdeh told Asharq Al-Awsat that the establishment of a “transitional governing mechanism” was the main objective of the negotiations. “This is in order to establish a neutral base from which a ceasefire can be achieved and violence can be stopped,” he said.
Abdeh said: “We insist on the transitional governing body because it is the start of a political solution. It is not possible to achieve a ceasefire without a neutral environment that could be created by a transitional governing body.
“What happened in Homs is evidence that the government is unable to adhere to any pledge of a ceasefire,” Abdeh told Asharq Al-Awsat.
More than three hundred male evacuees from Homs have been held by the Syrian government for “screening” after leaving the city following the ceasefire. Barazi confirmed that 111 men had been questioned and released, while 190 others were still being held.
Commenting on talks between the Coalition and the National Coordination Committee (NCC) in Cairo, Abdeh confirmed that three NCC representative were expected to join the next round of talks in Geneva. He also confirmed that a total of seven FSA officers had joined the opposition delegation.
“The Syrian National Coalition will accept the largest possible number of representatives from all fighting factions of the revolution,” he said, adding that they will participate in all negotiations related to security and military issues, including ceasefire talks.
A second Coalition delegation member, Rima Fleihan, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian opposition had presented Brahimi with a document outlining the Syrian regime’s humanitarian violations based on “independent international reports from organizations such as the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.”
Fleihan told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This file comprised six pages with 1,000 pages of attachments documenting the regime’s violence and brutality, as well as its war crimes and human rights violations.”
In related news, Western diplomatic sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that work was ongoing on a UN draft resolution calling for both parties of the conflict to allow humanitarian aid to reach Syrian civilians.
Countries sponsoring the draft resolution—France, Britain, Luxemburg, Australia and Jordan—are awaiting a statement from UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos at the Security Council on Thursday.
However, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad dismissed the draft resolution plan, saying: “We are confident that this will not go through.”
Geneva, Asharq Al-Awsat—Hopes raised in the last two days for an agreement to allow humanitarian aid into the old town in the besieged Syrian city of Homs during the Geneva II conference were quashed on Sunday when the Syrian government refused to allow humanitarian aid convoys into the city.
The atmosphere at the conference became tense on Sunday following the failure to make a breakthrough in the two dossiers related to humanitarian issues—lifting the siege from Homs and releasing the detainees held by the Syrian government.
Following efforts by the US, the UN and Russia on a plan to deliver humanitarian aid to Homs, where an estimated 500 Syrian families are reported to be trapped by the fighting between rebels and government forces, the Syrian government delegation announced that “we must talk about the whole of Syria, not only Homs,” according to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad.
Miqdad said his government was prepared to allow women and children to leave the city, which has been besieged for eight months, but did not say it would allow food and humanitarian aid to enter. The government’s delegation demanded a list of the names of all men inside the city before allowing anyone out, in order to “ensure they are civilians.”
The opposition rejected the government’s proposal and said it did not see the government’s offer to allow women and children out of Homs as a breakthrough. A member of the opposition’s delegation, Louay Al-Safi, said the proposal was an act of “procrastination by the Syrian government.”
Robert Mardini, spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said evacuating civilians from the old town of Homs was a good idea, “but independent agencies such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent must be allowed in.”
Mardini added: “We are prepared to provide aid to Homs and other besieged Syrian areas if we receive agreement and security guarantees from all parties.” The opposition provided a document signed by all armed factions in Homs to allow humanitarian aid into the city, but the government refused to give such guarantees.
Meanwhile, UN and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said at a news conference on Sunday that “the government says women and children in the besieged area can leave immediately and the remaining [population] can leave, but we need their names first.”
Responding to a question on fears that the provision of the names of men in Homs would lead to their detention and possible death at the hands of the Syrian government, Brahimi said: “I think I was clear. The government said women and children can start leaving old Homs now, and the government is requesting a list of the names of civilians to ensure they are civilians, not insurgents.”
On lifting the siege, Brahimi said: “The UN team is discussing with the [Syrian] government allowing humanitarian aid into Homs and it is expected that the governor will discuss this with his advisers and with Damascus, and we hope something will happen today.”
Brahimi held separate meetings with each delegation to discuss the issue of detainees. The opposition provided a list of 20,000 names of detainees it says are being held in Syrian government prisons, demanding the release of women and children first. The Syrian government’s delegation refused to address the list.
Brahimi said a “long discussion” about the detainees was ongoing and added that “regardless of the discussions, we call on the government to release women, children and old age detainees.”
Faisal Miqdad, speaking at a news conference on Sunday, said a “friendly government”—referring to Russia—delivered the list previously, and after inspecting it, “we found that more than 60 to 70 percent of the names were of people who had not been detained and 20 percent were detainees, and as for the remainder, we do not know anything about them.”
Miqdad rejected the opposition’s demand to release children saying “we have no children detainees.”
The government asked the opposition to provide names of detainees held by the armed groups and the opposition agreed to try to bring these lists from groups which were under their authority or with which they had relations.
Despite failing to reach agreement between the two sides on humanitarian issues, political efforts continued.
Miqdad said “we will discuss the issue of reforms in Syria in the next few days.” In reply to a question on whether they will discuss the future of President Bashar Al-Assad, Miqdad said “the Syrian people will decide,” adding that “we are open to all issues which may lead to elections being held in Syria.”
On the development of the political process, Brahimi said “this is a political negotiation process and everything we discuss is political. On the first day no one gave any comment about this issue, I think both parties will present proposals on Monday for moving forward,” and that both sides will have to provide their visions for the forthcoming political process and the “mechanism of the transitional government” in Syria.
The opposition was expected to present a political roadmap including the removal of Assad from power, while the government’s team was expected to present a mechanism which allows elections to take place in which Assad could stand as a candidate.
Miqdad said: “President Assad is the President of the Syrian Arab Republic until the Syrian people say otherwise.” He added that the delegation had full powers at the negotiations.
Louay Al-Safi of the opposition delegation accused the Syrian government delegation of using “delaying tactics,” and said that a transition of power in Syria was inevitable.
The negotiations are expected to continue until Friday evening, at which time the first round ends and each party returns home, before returning for a second round a week later. Although Brahimi refused to put a timetable to the negotiations, the parties are preparing for the process to last a few months.
Western diplomatic sources in Geneva told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the process is complicated and long, and no one knows how the next phase will pan out, although what is important is to continue the dialogue, even if it is slow.”
Brahimi said “some people accuse me of being very slow, but being slow is better for progress. If you run, you may gain an hour, but may lose a week . . . we are moving slowly but we are making progress.” In reply to a question on whether he has made any progress, Brahimi said he made a “quarter of a step,” after saying the amount of progress was “half a step” on Saturday night.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The decision of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to announce an interim government in territories it controls in Syria has raised concerns among both Syrian opposition groups and the countries backing them, including the United States. Ambassador Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria and the main point-person for Syrian policy at the US State Department, says it would be better for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution in the present time, and to deal with the “questions” relating to the Kurds constitutionally once a transitional governing body is formed in Syria. While emphasizing that the US has always stated its support “for the unity of Syria,” he also said the concerns of the Kurds were understandable based on their own historical experiences in the country.
Ford was speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat from his office at the State Department in Washington, DC, maintaining the position of supporting a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Ford is considered one of the most distinguished American Ambassadors of his generation. He speaks fluent Arabic and has a knowledge of the Arab world stemming from over three decades of working there. After being appointed US Ambassador to Damascus in January 2011, he found himself in the middle of a revolt that led to him being withdrawn from the country in October of the same year. There had been expectations that he would leave his position over the summer and be nominated as US Ambassador to Egypt, but this has not yet been confirmed. He insists that for now, he is focused on dealing with the Syrian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Kurds of Syria, and specifically the PYD, have announced a transitional government, which the Syrian National Coalition are calling a hostile move. What is your assessment of this development?
Robert Ford: We have long stated our support for the unity of Syria. The Kurds suffered a very great deal during the time of the Assad regime, and even before that. They did not have equal rights as citizens of Syria, some didn’t even have the right of citizenship and couldn’t get passports, for example, and there was discrimination against Kurds, for example, in land-holding rights. And so, it is easy to understand why Kurds want change, and I hope that the people in Syria’s Kurdish areas will remember that the original problem came from the Assad regime and the Assad regime never fixed that problem. Then the Kurds have had a second enemy to deal with, and they are the Islamic groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front. In both cases, those groups have attacked Kurdish civilians in ways that really would not bring the Kurdish population to join the revolution. So I understand politically that what the Kurds did is a reaction to their experience, but I have to say that from our point of view, the Kurdish questions in Syria are constitutional questions. They have to be negotiated and agreed by all Syrians; they cannot be fixed by unilateral measures. So I think that it is more important right now for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution, and the success of moderates in the revolution and then to address the constitutional issues during the transitional governing body period laid out in the Geneva communiqué.
Q: Does the timing of the announcement from the Kurds, at a time when the Syrian opposition is working to unify its position, cause a further hindrance?
Like other parts of the Syrian political class, the Kurds are not unified—the Kurds are divided too. You have the PYD on the one hand, which is behind the unilateral measures that you talked about. The Kurdish National Congress—a political competitor of the PYD—joined the Syrian National Coalition last month, and in fact the General Assembly of the Coalition approved bringing in the Kurdish National Congress with new members into the General Assembly, as well as a Kurdish vice president. That was voted on last Saturday, and is a move which shows the unity of Syria and shows that Syrians across the country want a moderate revolution and a moderate new government without Bashar Al-Assad. The PYD, let us be honest, was for a long time an ally of the regime; sometimes it arrested opposition people and then gave them to the Mukhabarat [military intelligence] agencies. We know that the PYD cooperated with the regime, even when the PYD seized the border post at Yaaroubiyeh, Syrian government aircraft were helping them. So I don’t think the PYD is really the opposition.
Q: Moving to the situation on the ground inside Syria, in your assessment, how much territory does the Syrian regime continue to hold control over?
I have never seen a definitive number of how much of the Syrian geography is controlled by the regime and how much is controlled by the opposition. What I can tell you is that lines of control have only shifted a little bit week to week. The regime has made some advances outside of Aleppo, but the regime also lost a very big supply depot in Homs and they have also lost ground in Dera’a. And so this war continues without either side being able to deliver a decisive blow. It is a bloody war of attrition, and that is why we and the United Nations and other countries are urging that there be a negotiation to try to find a political settlement and stop the bloodshed.
Q: Much hope was pinned on the process of Geneva II delivering that political settlement. Do you think the meeting can happen before the end of this year?
I am a diplomat, and my job is always to think that things are possible with enough goodwill. So I think if there is enough goodwill we can do it before the end of the year, but it is difficult, of course. A couple of things I would say about these difficulties: Number one, on the ground there is terrible suffering, there are besieged cities and areas and the regime is blocking assistance, and this creates a very bad climate. It does not increase trust or show goodwill. This is a sacred principle—humanitarian assistance and not interfering with it—and the regime is breaking this principle. The opposition is breaking it too in a couple of small villages, but the biggest problem is the regime. So I hope we can see progress on that. There is also the issue of prisoners that [Coalition President] Ahmed Al-Jarba and others have raised. Steps are needed to build confidence there on both sides, because the opposition is also holding prisoners. Progress there would also show goodwill. I think if there is goodwill, we can start the political negotiation this year, but I think we also have to be realistic. This is a regime that uses sarin gas and scud missiles, and it is not going to be easy to convince them to set up a new transitional governing body. It is going to take some good very political maneuvers by the opposition to convince people in Syria that there is an alternative to Bashar Al-Assad and an alternative to extremism, and that the opposition can present an alternative like this at the table.
Q: There has been much focus on the need for it to be just two negotiating parties in terms of who actually sits on the table, one representing the regime and the other representing the opposition. However, the opposition is splintered and there are expectations for groups other than the Syrian National Coalition to attend the talks. The famous meeting you had with former Syrian Vice President Qadri Jamil last month raised questions about meetings with “alternative” opposition voices that can be seen as viable players on the table. Is this a possibility?
First, the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition 11 months ago as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That was before it had a formal relationship with the Kurds, with representatives of the provincial and local councils, and before it had an official relationship with representatives of the armed groups. It has all of those things now, and we think it is even more representative of the Syrian people now. We do not think that there need to be multiple delegations from the opposition. For us, a good negotiation is one where both sides can deliver results. I want to emphasize the importance of “can deliver results,” and an opposition delegations that is made up of the activists and opposition figures who led the revolution and the fighters who are fighting the regime—that is the delegation that can produce results at the table. Both sides, the government and the opposition, will have to make concessions, and if you don’t have strong roots you can’t make concessions. I understand that some people want to have a third or even a fourth delegation, but I would ask whether in all sincerity they can contribute in the negotiations or whether they can contribute by providing ideas and proposals that are brought into the negotiations by one delegation or the other or by the United Nations mediator. You can participate in the negotiations from outside the negotiating room by giving proposals to the delegations and mediator, and therefore contributing even if you are not part of the delegations.
Q: In saying you believe the activists and the fighters be part of the negotiations, are you referring to the Syrian Free Army and Local Organizing Committees?
I am not going to tell Syrians who they have to have in their negotiations; that is not American business, this is Syrian business. We think a delegation needs to have have both political and military elements, because the fight is now both a political and military fight. It is thus logical to have political and military elements in the delegation.
Q: Do you still have contact with Qadri Jamil?
I myself have not talked to him since October 26 [the date of the meeting in Geneva].
Q: Many fear that the Syrian conflict will expand across the region, especially as we see developments escalating in Lebanon. Has this become a regional crisis now, or is it still contained within Syria?
The Syrian crisis is putting a terrible strain on the country’s neighbors, and especially on Lebanon, which is a small country to begin with. I have seen estimates that say that up to one quarter of the population in Lebanon are now Syrian refugees. So you can imagine the strain this puts on a small country, in addition to Jordan and Iraq and Turkey and even Egypt now. So we, the United States, are trying to help. We have provided USD 1.4 billion in assistance, about half going into neighboring countries and half going into Syria. There needs to be more help from the international community and we recognize our responsibilities. And I believe Kuwait will next year try to organize a meeting to gather money and resources for the refugee and humanitarian catastrophe.
Q: And as time passes, it only gets worse. . . .
Yes, to be frank with you, I am very concerned about this winter in areas where there has been not much food, people will already be very weak. In the winter, when there is cold, there is no electricity, no hot water, it is going to be very difficult. People are more prone to sickness when they are weak. It is criminal for the Syrian regime to block aid to these people.
Q: Yet some people feel that the regime, in cooperating on the chemical weapons issue, regained some legitimacy and is more confident now. Do you agree?
I have two responses. Using sarin gas does not give anyone legitimacy, it removes their legitimacy. And number two, any regime that kills over 120,000 of its own people has no legitimacy. We expect that after Bashar Al-Assad goes, the new transition governing body will be responsible for implementing the remaining steps for the chemical weapons destruction program. It doesn’t have to be Al-Assad, he can be gone and the next government can complete it.
Q: The Syrian president speaks of standing in the 2014 elections. Do you think that is possible?
I have no information about what he is going to do in 2014, but I would ask him is it really worth more fighting, or hundreds of thousands more dead, for him to stay in that presidency, or is it not better to allow a transition to go forward for his own country, for the people who depend on him? I would ask him to think deeply about that question: Is he himself so important?
Q: If we can turn to Iran, are the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 and Iran a precursor for a deal on Syria?
There is absolutely no relationship between the two.
Q: So you would dispute those who believe that if Iran signs a deal, it guarantees it a seat at the table in Syrian negotiations?
Iran’s role in Syria is very pernicious. Iran is the only foreign country that has sent its own armed forces to go fight in Syria. You would have seen the reports about an Iranian general killed there, and the reports about Iranian soldier being taken prisoner. Their role, especially in helping bring thousands of Hezbollah fighters and thousands of Shi’ite Iraqi fighters and making the sectarian conflict, no. I don’t see how with the current Iranian policies they can play a final role.
Q: And my final question is about you personally. Will you be staying in your position for the foreseeable future, or will we possibly see you in Cairo in the near future?
Right now, I am continuing to work on Syria. There is plenty of work to do.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The ‘Friends of Syria’ group of states called on the Syrian government and its opponents to attend a forthcoming peace conference aimed at ending the country’s civil war at a meeting in London on Tuesday.
Foreign ministers from the 11 core members of the ‘Friends of Syria’ group issued a communique which included setting out a framework for an agreement at the Geneva II peace conference set to take place in November. This conference aims to reach a political agreement between Bashar Al-Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition to end the bloodshed in Syria.
However, though the group urged both sides to take part, it was not able to confirm that the opposition’s most prominent umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, will attend the Geneva conference.
Ahmed Jarba, chairman of the Coalition, attended the meeting in London and was accompanied by a delegation from the Syrian opposition. He said that the Coalition refused to participate in “Assad’s production,” and put forward the organization’s own preconditions for attending Geneva II.
Jarba refused to submit to international pressure to agree to the Coalition’s participation stating that it would “undermine our credibility if we surrendered to it.”
He revealed that the Coalition’s general assembly meeting on November 1 in Istanbul will determine whether the opposition will participate in the Geneva II conference, the date of which is yet to be confirmed.
The 11 states represented in London—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, United States, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the UK—confirmed that they will all attend the conference.
The communique issued by the group called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria with full executive powers and authority, led by individuals approved by both sides of the conflict.
“We agree that when the [transitional government] is established, Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria,” it added.
The Syrian opposition have called for Assad to step down prior to talks and the formation of a new government.
Assad, however, has recently said that he sees no reason why he should not seek another presidential term in 2014, when his current tenure as president of Syria is set to expire.
At a press conference after the meeting, US secretary of state John Kerry said it was for the Syrian government and its opponents to decide on the shape of a future Syrian government, but that it was unlikely to include Assad.
Responding to an Asharq Al-Awsat question as to what prevented Assad from ruling through a proxy, Kerry said it was up to Syrians to work that out.
He said: “With respect to Assad himself and his continuance, the question you asked, that’s for the parties to negotiate. That’s not for us to predetermine. The key is that you have full executive authority that is transferred. That means you’re not playing games and someone isn’t pulling the strings from behind the scenes and the people who are there are legitimately moving for all Syrians to protect all Syrians and send a message about a fair, free, transparent, accountable, accessible election for everybody to be able to choose the future of Syria. That’s the standard. And within that standard, the parties will have to decide.”
With respect to Iran’s position on Syria, Kerry stated that the issue of Syria was not a “topic of our conversation,” in talks between himself and his Iranian counterpart, Mohamad Javad Zarif, held in New York in September.
Responding directly to a question regarding Iran’s position, raised by Asharq Al-Awsat, Kerry said: “We have not seen a significant change in that period of time with respect to Syria…it would certainly be welcome and it would be a very important sign with respect to good faith in terms of resolving the regional issues.”
“The Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.”
Those sentences are the clearest articulation yet by American President Barack Obama of his administration’s core policy in Syria. In a speech on Syria last night, slated to be an address to the American people but with the world listening, Obama explained his true priorities in the Middle East. The reality is that as long as the American military, American core interests and Israel are safe, the United States has no interest in getting involved in the Syrian crisis. The message would have been well received in Damascus.
These are Obama’s true ‘red lines’ that have guided Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his government in dealing with the Obama administration, and making sure ‘regime change’ does not get onto the White House’s agenda. When Israel struck Syria, Assad’s military—which has proved itself capable of incredible destruction—did not let out a whimper despite decades of rhetoric from the government of ‘resistance.’ Survival has been one of the hallmarks of this regime as it uses brute force within its own boundaries and sleek politicking abroad.
Obama’s calculation is that “neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise.” It appears that the United States also has no interest in such an escalation, nor necessarily in Al-Assad’s demise. When Kerry was asked in Monday’s press conference in London what action the Syrian government could take, the old policy of ‘Assad must go’ was not noted as a top priority.
Instead, Al-Assad was given a lifeline if he “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.” The next 24 hours witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity centered on Moscow, not Washington, or even New York.
Meanwhile, the world watches the suffering of the Syrian people, caught in a grinding war between merciless groups intent on destruction, with the position of supporters of peace and voices of reason growing ever weaker. While every politician speaks of this suffering, in reality, over 120,000 deaths and more than 6 million displaced Syrians are not seen as enough of a threat to force effective action—military or diplomatic.
Moreover, the message from Obama to the countries of the Middle East is that “our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.” While the United States is of course interested in safeguarding its other allies in the region, like Jordan and Turkey, they do not have the ‘unshakable’ support that can be counted on as the flames of instability and militancy spread in the region.
However, as Obama’s address was given on the eve of the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it is important to keep in mind the possible consequences of ignoring a festering problem in another part of the world because it seems either irrelevant or too difficult. The rise of militancy in both Syria and Iraq—with a border that has become a new safe haven for Al-Qaeda—is one more reason for a more coherent American strategy for Syria.
It has been clear that Obama does not want to be dragged into a war in Syria, and he has made it clear that military options are very limited. Military strikes, ‘pinpricks’ or otherwise, are never a positive development. Yet the implications of a ramping-up of rhetoric followed by an inexplicable display of hesitation that allowed Russia to take the lead on the most pressing international crisis will be long felt in the Middle East and beyond.
This article originally appeared in The Majalla.