Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—During his Middle East tour last week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague focused on one major issue, namely the on-going Syrian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Hague at the residence of Peter Millett, the British Ambassador in Jordan, before his participation in the ministerial meeting on Syria. In this interview, Hague talked about the “Geneva 2” conference’s chances of success, the difficultly of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and Iran’s nuclear project.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Foreign Secretary, if I can start by speaking about Geneva 2. You have made it very clear that it’s important to have a transitional government based on mutual consent by the opposition and the Syrian regime; however, we see huge differences between them. What can bridge these differences?
William Hague: The only thing that can bridge these huge differences is a real determination to end this terrible killing, and the steady collapse of Syria. It’s in the interest of all Syrians, as well as the wider region, that this is brought to an end. Of course, finding a way forward—at any time—is going to involve some compromises; it is going to involve people who have no trust in each other sitting down with each other. That has to happen one day, anyway. That has to happen eventually, if Syria is going to function as a country again. So the sooner the better, really, because this conflict, as it goes on, is becoming more and more extreme; both in the growth of extremist groups, and some of the things that are done. It’s becoming more sectarian, so letting it go on longer will only make things worse for everybody. I think we should be clear that there is no purely military victory—for either side—with Syria still functioning as a state. There is a reasonable creation of a transitional government, on the basis of what we agreed at the first Geneva conference.
Q: While it is true that there is no such-fire military victory for either side that ensures Syria will remain the country that it is today, there are those that argue that the opposition requires arms in order to be strong on the ground, and force the regime to accept that there cannot be a military solution. On the other hand, an increase in arms will also serve to escalate the conflict and perhaps convince the opposition to shun negotiations. How do you resolve these different views?
This is a classic dilemma in foreign policy, and it is an ethical dilemma. So far, in all the revolutions that have taken place in the Middle East over the last couple of years, neither the UK nor other European countries have sent arms to anybody. Even in Libya, where our own forces were involved, we did not send any arms to anybody else. So we recognize that would be a big step to take, and we haven’t made that decision yet. We can see the argument for it, though, and we can see that, in the absence of any alternative, it might become necessary, and also that things are moving fast now. Things are getting worse now, and that’s why we want[ed] to amend the EU arms embargo, not so that immediately we can take any decision to send arms, but so that the possibility is there if we think it’s the only way to save life and demonstrate to the regime that they need a political solution. So we haven’t taken that decision and we will of course think carefully before doing so. If we did, we would want to act with other countries and in carefully controlled circumstances. In the absence of that at the moment, we are greatly increasing the other practical help that we give to the opposition, in terms of vehicles, body armor, water purification equipment, and equipment that saves lives. So we’re doing our best to—most of all—save lives.
Q: Do you think that this decision is something that should be considered after Geneva, or independently of Geneva? Is it a case of putting all our focus on the political solution?
Showing that we are considering it supports the political solution. I think these two things go together. Everybody needs to know that we have this option, alongside the diplomatic work. But if Geneva takes place soon—and you heard me say this morning that I would prefer for it to take place soon; certainly within the next few weeks—then I think we have to see what progress is made there before we make any decision about arms. And of course, arms is one dimension of it; there are many other ways—I’ve mentioned some of those we’re doing at the moment—to help the National Coalition, and to try to stop so many people being killed.
Q: There is of course now an increased focus on extremists. On the one had, there is Jabhat Al-Nusra—which the US has designated as a terrorist group. Then there is also Hezbollah, which some are calling to be labelled as a terrorist group. Do you see merit in isolating these two groups and declaring them terrorist groups, in order to eliminate their roles?
There is certainly merit in being clear that we—and the [Syrian] National Coalition, in what they signed in Istanbul a month ago—reject extremist groups. We are now seeing in Syria the increased participation of extremist groups and, of course, in the case of Hezbollah and Iran, the increased participation of foreign fighters on an organized basis. The Assad regime is increasingly becoming a puppet regime of foreign players and powers, rather than the original Syrian army supporting it. That’s very unhealthy for regional stability. We are arguing, in any case, that the military wing of Hezbollah be designated [a terrorist organization] by the EU; it already is by the UK. In the case of other groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, this is being considered by the UN Security Council, and we will work with our partners on what is the best thing to do.
Q: There was a spotlight on Iraq, and the support it was giving the regime, with planes and fighters coming across the border. That focus has lessened, but we see that the tensions in Iraq are increasing, and there are those that say the two conflicts are feeding into each other, especially with regards the sectarian angle. Are you speaking to Iraqis about this particular issue? Are you worried that this is becoming an increasingly international conflict? How does the international community try to stop at least that dimension of the conflict?
We are worried about that. The situation in Syria is not helping with the internal situation in Iraq, and is potentially very destabilizing in Lebanon. It is also a growing problem in Jordan. Now, there can only be one answer to these problems, which is to deal with the source. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Geneva process. We have to address the Syrian crisis, which threatens greater regional instability. We are working with other countries to give assistance. The UK is one of the biggest donors; more than USD 250 million to the humanitarian needs of refugees. But we’re also giving other help. We are just now sending equipment to the Jordanian armed forces that will help them transport refugees to camps across the border; we are supporting the Lebanese armed forces directly and financially, for instance with border observation posts. So we are helping neighboring countries as much as we can. And of course we want to see Iraqi leaders succeed in moving away from sectarianism in their politics and see their democratic country fully functioning as a democracy.
Q: There’s a lot of focus being put on the peace process, and Secretary of State Kerry’s involvement. Indeed, you are going on to meet with the Palestinians and Israelis. But given everything that’s happening in the region, can you see a push for Palestinian and Israeli peace at a time when everything else is falling out of place, especially as the Palestinians are nowhere close to reconciliation?
Again, I think we have to try, and try very hard, because time is running out for the two-state solution. The facts on the ground are changing with settlement expansion, and so there’s a real urgency with this; I think the future is very bleak if no progress is made with getting negotiations going again. We have here, a US Secretary of State who has, rightly, and without great encouragement, made this a very high priority. We have an American president giving him support for that. This moment will not easily come round again. Therefore, it could be one of the last moments—I won’t say the last; in the diplomatic world you never say it’s the last opportunity to do anything. We will always try—but we’re getting near the last opportunity to achieve a two-state solution, and so it’s urgent for that reason. And actually, the increased instability in the region is an additional argument to push ahead with the peace process. Some of this instability could be with us for a long time, and therefore it’s in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians to lock in some stability between themselves, in what is inevitably a turbulent region.
Q: Turning to Iran, with P5+1 we saw different talks happening at different times, but no real traction. Of course, the Iranians are now gearing up for presidential elections,what do you think the outcome of these elections will have on any future negotiations?
These elections are not far away; they’re now only three weeks away. In the weeks and months that follow those elections, the eyes of the world will particularly be on Iran to see whether then, after a presidential election, they are ready for serious negotiations. At some times, [such as] the talks in Almaty, there has been a better atmosphere than in the past, but the talks have been a disappointment in substance. The Iranians, in our view—and in the view of all the other countries taking part—have not been realistic in their approach to negotiations. It will be a big question after these elections. Is that going to change in any way? And I think it’s over the rest of this year that the world will make up its mind as to whether Iran is serious or not about negotiations. So, there is some time to do that, but not a lot. This is another urgent issue, like all the issues we’ve talked about.