New York, Asharq Al-Awsat—The United Nations renewed efforts to bring the Syrian government and opposition together for peace talks for the first time in Geneva. After the Security Council unanimously passed UNSC Resolution 2118 last week, the Geneva process has become the focal point for political endeavors to end the fighting after over two-and-a-half years of killing and displacement. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the United Nations Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, explained the significance of the Geneva process and the need to move on from preconditions like pre-determining the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or trying to tilt the military balance in Syria before the talks. Feltman also made it clear that he believes the international community “should be engaged with Iran” on Syria, as a solution is “hard to imagine” without the Iranians.
Having served in the United States Foreign Service for over 30 years, with his last position being Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Feltman is no stranger to the Middle East. Since taking on the position of Under-Secretary General of the UN in July 2012, Feltman’s portfolio has broadened to include Africa and Central Asia, yet the Middle East appears to be taking up much of his agenda, with visits to Iran, Lebanon and Iraq in the last few weeks, in addition to wide discussions with the key regional players.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let us start by discussing Syria and the resolution that the UN Security Council passed last week. How significant was it in terms of bringing the possibility of a political settlement closer?
Jeffrey Feltman: It is significant in several ways. First, there is the issue itself, which is chemical weapons, an abhorrent class of weapons that the Syrian government had never confirmed that it had. Those weapons now have to be destroyed; that is significant in of itself. It takes that class of weapons out of the Syrian arsenal. The second significant matter is that it has broken the paralysis in the Security Council, the paralysis that has haunted us for two-and-a-half years as Syrians are being butchered. I think that is really significant, because now we can say, ‘Yes, the Security Council can come together on Syria,’ and within that resolution, you would have seen the paragraph calling for the convening of the Geneva Conference as soon as possible. So we have a bit of momentum behind the political process. We have to translate this into an actual conference, an actual move by the Syrians and their regional and international backers to focus on political, rather than military approaches, but we are in significantly better shape than we were two weeks ago in dealing with the Syrian crisis. I don’t want to under-estimate the challenges that we face, but for all of those that said the Security Council can’t act, that the UN is irrelevant when it comes to the Syrian crisis, last week’s resolution proved that theory wrong.
Q: The resolution makes reference to Chapter VII, but was not passed under its remit. If the Syrian government was not to comply, the Security Council could go back to that old wrangling. Some would argue that the resolution gave breathing room to the Syrian government not to comply with some of its other obligations, including the need to stop killing civilians.
The resolution doesn’t give us the tool on how to stop the flow to, or use of, weapons inside Syria—you are right. It is dealing with one category of weapons that are particularly bad. But look at what we have: We have a Russian–American agreement that these weapons should not be used in Syria; they should not be available in Syria; they should not be available to anyone fighting in Syria or who could take them from Syria. That is significant. And we have a Russian–American agreement that dates from May 7, on the fact that we need to bring the Syrians together around the table with the purpose of implementing that communiqué that was signed in Geneva last year. We did not have any of this a few months ago. We did not have acknowledgement from the Syrians that they had chemical weapons a few weeks ago. So if you look at this as a step-by-step process, we have moved from a completely divided Security Council to one where there is unanimity.
Q: This unanimity over Syria’s chemical weapons has allowed an opening for the political track. Yet the Geneva Conference, if it happens, is just the start of a process. Can you see that process succeeding with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power?
There are two things that people seem to argue about a lot when it comes to conditions for the Geneva Conference: One is what is the military balance on the ground, who controls what plot of land, and the other is what is the role of President Al-Assad. In my view, when I look at the Geneva communiqué from last year and I think about a way forward, I think both of those points are almost irrelevant, they are not the essence of what’s supposed to be done in Geneva.
The Geneva communiqué lays out a political approach to solving the crisis in Syria, a political approach that is implemented by mutual consent. That means it does not matter who controls what village, if people gather around the table in good faith to try to implement the Geneva communiqué. This action plan talks about putting the full executive powers into a transitional governing body that would be formed by mutual consent, which means that the role of President Assad also shouldn’t be a deal breaker in terms of sitting around the conference table figuring out a way forward. The elements that we need for Geneva to have a better chance of success is for people to look at that communiqué from last year and come to Geneva prepared to negotiate its implementation. In some cases, that means the Syrian parties themselves—whether the opposition or the government—coming seriously intending to work by mutual consent to implement the Geneva communiqué. In some cases, it means the regional and international partners must make sure that they too are committed to this, so that when the Syrians sit at that table they see that there is no other option, there is no other exit except to work on implementation.
Q: As you said, the transitional governing body has to include representatives from the current Syrian government and the opposition. How concerned are you about the internal divisions within the opposition, and whether those who attend Geneva II actually control factions on the ground?
I am concerned from both sides. I am concerned that the government believes that you simply add a few new faces to the existing cabinet and call it the transitional governing body, and then you are done. That is clearly not going to change the situation on the ground, and that is clearly not going to give the people who want to see change a feeling that there is a new Syria and a new Syrian understanding of how governance would operate. And I am concerned that the opposition, because of how diverse it is, won’t be able to come with a unified delegation that is seen as representative and authoritative. So part of our homework is to work with the government and opposition forces so they all see what they are really supposed to do in Geneva.
Now, you are right, the likely representation of the opposition will not include all of the groups that are fighting on the ground—I can’t imagine that the Al-Nusra Front will be at Geneva nor can I imagine that any of us would want to see them there. But if you have a process by which people in Syria are seeing that there is real hope for a political settlement, I would imagine that those who are still fighting on the ground are going to start feeling isolated. Right now, there seems to be no alternative to the fighting, and we are seeing Syria being destroyed before our very eyes. However, once you start a political process, then any popular support for the fighting is going to start to erode. Now that is a theory, it remains to be proven, but it is far better that we move in this direction than to simply continue to watch Syria be destroyed before our eyes. One of the things that we have said is that for the opposition delegation in particular, on that first day of the conference, when the cameras are panning the room, the Syrians who are at home watching in desperation and hope that something is going to finally improve should see that the delegation looks like Syria.
Q: Some worry that this ‘looking like Syria’ is being devised on a sectarian basis, that having an Alawite, a Kurd, a Christian, a Sunni, etc., is representation, yet many Syrians refuse that principle for fear of it being a tool of division. What’s your view?
The basis of the Geneva action plan is that you will first of all have the Syrians themselves deciding how to put this transitional body together, but the basic presumption is that the transitional governing body would include people from the current governing structures and the opposition. It does not say that explicitly, but the philosophy behind it is that you have people from both sides sitting around the table deciding what a transitional governing body that could oversee Syria through the transitional period would look like.
Q: President Assad has said repeatedly that he believes the Syrian people will decide who governs them in elections in 2014. Do you see elections in 2014 as a viable way for a transition in Syria?
Right now, we are operating in the UN under the direction of the Security Council, that included in UNSC 2118 a paragraph on Geneva, and what we are hearing from key members states is that the way to move forward is based on last year’s Geneva communiqué. That is what we are working on. Our basic philosophy is that the Syrians are gathering in Geneva not to talk about “what,” they are talking about “how” and “who.” I don’t see how you can have national elections that would be seen as credible in the conditions that currently exist inside Syria.
Q: Speaking of Geneva, there are many questions about whether Iran will be invited or not. Do you think it would be useful to have Iran at the table in Geneva?
It is hard for me to imagine having a solution in Syria that works if Iran isn’t somehow engaged and involved in this, in one form or another. But as I said, we are focused on how you would implement the Geneva action plan from last year, so we would want to make sure that whoever accepts the secretary-general’s invitation to participate understand that they are there to show support for a political solution based on the Geneva communiqué. So whether they are the regional, international, or Syrian parties, they need to make sure that they are there to implement Geneva. So should we be engaged with Iran or not? Yes, I think we should be engaged with Iran.
Q: During your August visit to Iran, did you sense that the Iranian leadership was willing to be involved in a political solution in Syria?
The reason why the secretary-general sent me to Iran in the first place was to discuss Syria, so that was the primary objective in my visit to Iran. This was to discuss with officials there the need to move as quickly as possible toward a political settlement for Syria and a move away from the military logic that has caused so much damage to Syria. So I would say that three quarters of my time, at least, when I was in Iran was discussions about Syria.
Q: And were those discussions productive? Are the Iranians willing to be part of that political process?
The talks were good; they were constructive and deep. We had enough time to really go into detail about our thinking. And, of course, the secretary-general saw President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif here in New York to give his own views about the need to move to a political solution and exchange ideas with the Iranian leadership. The Iranians have stated publicly what they have said privately, which is a deep concern about a terrorist threat inside Syria that they see as posing a danger not only to Syria but potentially a danger to the region and beyond. I was there to really emphasize the secretary-general’s conviction that as long as we look at military approaches, the suffering is going to continue. We do not see the opposition being able to overthrow President Al-Assad’s government by force, nor do we see President Assad’s government able to defeat the opposition by force. We have to have a political solution. That was my message to the Iranians.
Q: History was made recently in the unexpected phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, in addition to all the diplomacy with Iran over the last few weeks. The implications are not only for the nuclear file, but for the region also. Do you think this can be a time of de-escalation after all the recent troubles in the region?
I hope so. If you look over the last couple of years, you see this incredible increase in Sunni–Shi’ite tensions, for example, that poses real dangers for countries that have more than one community—I think of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and others. The Sunni–Shi’ite tensions have the potential to pose real dangers in the region, and I don’t see how you de-escalate such tensions as long as the fighting in Syria continues. The fighting may not have started out this way, but it has taken on a deeply sectarian color. So I believe that engagement with all of the regional actors to try to alert them to just how risky this Syria conflict is beyond Syria, plus responding to President Rouhani’s clear interest in engagement, can help reduce tensions and move towards de-escalation. It won’t be automatic—it won’t be easy at all. But yes, there is a potential now to use diplomacy.
Q: Lebanese president Michel Suleiman received much support here at the UN. Is he now seen as the main player to maintain the fragile stability in Lebanon, in the absence of forming the new government. And at the same time, how can Lebanon cope with Hezbollah playing such an overt role in the Syrian conflict?
President Suleiman deserves a lot of credit for the relative stability that Lebanon enjoys. Lebanon has certainly had problems; we have seen what has happened in Tripoli, we have seen bombs in the Dahiya, the southern suburbs of Beirut. The risks of some kind of sectarian explosion in Lebanon are always there. However, the fact that Lebanon hasn’t fallen over the cliff is a significant accomplishment by the Lebanese people themselves. I think Michel Suleiman has done a superb job in trying to keep Lebanon as immune as possible from the political and security spillovers from Syria. The secretary-general certainly recognizes the dangers that Lebanon faces and the incredible burden that has been imposed on Lebanon by now something like 800,000 to 900,000 refugees, and that is why the secretary-general wanted to start a process with President Suleiman that could attract support for the Lebanese armed forces. This is a process that was launched that will take a number of forms in terms of committees and needs, also working with the World Bank and others. We have a real asset when it comes to Lebanon; we have continued Security Council unity on Lebanon. One hopes that we not only preserve that unity regarding the need to protect and support Lebanon, combined with UNSC resolution 2118 to allow us to use the Security Council more effectively when it comes to the Syria problem directly.
Q: Does this include dealing with Hezollah’s involvement there?
One of the reasons why the International Support Group is so committed to try and help the Lebanese Armed Forces is because they have proven able to prevent some of the fighting from Syria crossing into the country. Hezbollah’s involvement inside Syria is not something that helps Lebanon.
Q: There are also issues about the lack of security along the Syria–Iraq border, with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] growing in strength there. You were in Iraq a few weeks ago: how much success did you have in urging the government not to allow these fighters to cross the borders?
I was in Iraq in August, which has turned out to be the bloodiest month in five years in Iraq. Every Iraqi leader spoke with great concern about the increase in violence. There is, without question, spillover from Syria, as you note. However there is also paralysis inside Iraq that is also contributing to the conditions that leads to this violence, and there are also upcoming elections in Iraq. So these three factors—Syria spillover, political paralysis and upcoming elections—make it a particular challenge for the Iraqis to deal with the security threat right now, because there are people interested in using the violence for political means. But the security threat in Iraq is so severe that we certainly are encouraging the Iraqis, whatever their political differences are, to pull together to address what is a very real threat.
Q: There almost seems to be an agreement from just about everyone—Arabs, Russians, Americans and Iranians—that terrorism might be a uniting factor to work against what are seen as Al-Qaeda elements in Syria. That appears to be a greater driving force than, sadly, efforts to stop the killing of innocent civilians. Would you agree with this interpretation?
There is a growing recognition of how the longer this fighting goes on, not only more people are killed and displaced, but the more likely it is that you have a very long-term terrorist problem emanating from Syria. So I think there has been a focus on this terrorist threat, which again takes us back to Geneva, because if you get a transitional governing body together that includes people from the government and opposition, you can have a united approach on how to pull Syria back together and isolate those groups that really can’t be part of any new Syrian republic.
Q: The Palestinians and Israelis have resumed direct negotiations, with the aim of reaching an agreement within nine months. Do you think the nine-month time frame is realistic—and if this fails, what is the alternative?
I don’t know what Plan B is. The Americans are so committed to Plan A, and the Israelis and Palestinians have also said they are committed to Plan A, that no-one is talking about a Plan B. What has impressed me about the talks is the respect that the Israelis and Palestinians have for the rules of the game. I have seen previous iterations of talks where the Israelis and Palestinians will immediately run out the room from talks—run to the media and give their side of the story and denounce the other side’s positions. That is not what is happening now. Yes, you have the Israelis and Palestinians who state their own positions, sometimes forcefully, to the press, but they are not talking about the other positions. They are not talking about what is happening in the negotiating room. That was one of the understandings they had with the Americans, but the fact that they are living up to the understanding suggests to me that both sides are taking this quite seriously. I don’t know what is happening behind closed doors, so I can’t really comment on whether nine months is realistic or not, because I do not know how far they have gotten or where they have to go. But I can say that surely after 20 years of talks, you don’t need lengthy negotiations, what you need is decisions.