Geneva, Asharq Al-Awsat—The UK has been at the forefront of the international backers of the Syrian opposition and a key member of the core group of the Friends of Syria. But as the fighting has dragged on the swift downfall of Bashar Al-Assad has grown less and less likely, British diplomats—along with their American and European colleagues—began to push hard for the Syrian opposition to travel to Geneva for talks with representatives of Assad’s government in search of a negotiated political solution.
As the second round of negotiations between the two sides continued this week,Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Jon Wilks, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office representative at the Geneva talks, about the British position on the fighting in Syria and the thus far inconclusive negotiations between Assad’s government and the representatives of the rebel groups battling to bring it down.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What can we expect from the second round of talks in Geneva, when the biggest success of the first round was to persuade the parties to return?
Jon Wilks: The first round was a preliminary round in general, and in the second round we will discuss the fundamental issues of the negotiations: First, the formation of a transitional governing body, and second the fight against terrorism and containing violence in the country. Or we might start with the issues of terrorism and violence and then move on to the formation of the governing body.
The important issue is to acknowledge that there are different types of violence in the country. There is the violence by the regime, from daily arbitrary bombardment of innocent civilians by barrel bombs, rockets and scud missiles, and other heavy weapons. Of course, this is totally rejected internationally. Then there is terrorism and violence by extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] and the Al-Nusra Front, among others. We must deal with all these issues because innocent Syrians are suffering from this crisis, and we hope to find solutions to these issues.
There is also the discussion about the [transitional] governing body, and we must discuss the political institutions and the time scale for the transitional phase and how to preserve the security and military institutions during the transitional phase to avoid chaos and to confront extremists and terrorists in the country. Therefore, there is a link between the two issues, and as the opposition says, there is no real possibility of ridding Syria of violence without a political solution and an agreement to form a governing body to confront these phenomena.
Q: You link the ending of violence with the formation of a transitional government in Syria, but there are those who say there is a need for violence to stop first, especially that carried out by the various armed groups. Can the opposition in Geneva take decisions in this regard when it has no control over these groups? As for the government, it is not prepared to admit responsibility for any of the violence.
It is true that the government has the ability to stop the violence. As for the opposition, it is true that there is a difference between the groups on the ground and the external political front of the opposition. Despite that, there are representatives of the armed groups here in Geneva. The opposition delegation in Geneva has built a network of groups in the country so they can contact them immediately about the main issues here in Geneva, and we encourage the opposition in this regard. They are building these networks inside the country to contact them about the main issues in the negotiations, step by step, in preparation to implement any agreement. It is true that we would welcome any partial cease-fire agreement in any area, especially to allow in humanitarian aid if possible. What is important is to focus on the main issues, because without political compromise we know violence will continue from other parties.
Q: How can a political solution be discussed while differences exist over such a fundamental issue as the nature of a transitional leadership for Syria?
First, we need to listen to ideas from both sides. It is true that there are great differences between them; the opposition has presented many fruitful ideas and we need the same thing from the government, even if they have different ideas. We need to listen to both sides and then go into the details. This is the main difference between the first round and this one. I think it is very important to focus on the interests of the Syrian people and the civilians and most Syrians who are suffering now, as they need brave decisions from the parties and a serious approach to the tragic situation in the country.
Q: There are fears that the second round [of talks] will not bring tangible results for this issue. How can we even be sure we will reach a third round?
We have to acknowledge that we face great challenges and obstacles to progress regarding the main issues in the negotiations. Despite that, we have worked hard in the last few weeks to launch this process, and for the first time we have reached the stage when the parties have started addressing the major issues. We all know the sensitivity of this issue; Geneva is a process of not merely one or two rounds, and we must try to achieve progress step by step. As regards the time scale, the UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said there has been no [final] decision about the number of rounds [there will be] or the time between rounds. Everything depends on the circumstances and the level of progress achieved by both sides. However, we expect this round to last until the end of the week.
There is a tripartite meeting between the Russians, Americans and Brahimi on Friday, and there is an impression that we will see results from this meeting and from the negotiations in the coming days. There may even be another session on Friday afternoon or Saturday after the tripartite meeting. The [Syrian] government must discuss the details and clarify their position on the transitional phase, and the opposition must contact the different groups inside and outside the country, as well as armed and civilian groups within and outside of the Coalition, to build understandings between them.
During the past week, which separated the first and second rounds, the Coalition did this and the process must continue, because many of the demands of opposition groups are similar and thus we need joint stances. This is part of the building of the credibility and influence of the opposition and their relationship with the people.
Q: Regarding the meeting on Friday between Brahimi and the Americans and Russians, could it be extended to include the two Syrian delegations?
So far, I think the idea is for a tripartite meeting, and these meetings are very important for proposing a framework for the parties, and there is participation from other countries, such as the permanent members of the UN Security Council and all the countries who attended Montreux on January 22. This is because we know we need to discuss the details with the Syrian parties, but the international political framework needs . . . agreement on the broad lines or the main features of the solution. We also know that the Geneva I statement was accepted by all states except Iran, and I hope that Iran will change this position sooner or later.
The important issue now regarding the general climate is that the parties are prepared to stay in Geneva for future rounds and have entered into the main issues, and there are ideas proposed by the opposition and we will encourage the government to offer proposals, too. Therefore, for the first time we are dealing with the main issue, but I would like to say clearly that this is a difficult issue. Let us wait for the results of the initial discussions and the tripartite meeting at the end of the week.
Q: When you talk about the principles of Geneva I, a question arises about the future of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his close circle. What do you think a solution to this will look like?
The British interpretation of the principles of Geneva I is known. We need an agreement between the two sides on the names of the members of the transitional government and we do not see a chance for Assad and his close circle to stay in power. We do not want to enter into too much detail because these issues are left to the Syrian parties and need flexibility from both sides. However, what is important is to preserve the institutions of the state, and therefore we do not want a political solution based on starting from scratch. The country is divided now, the government controls some areas and the opposition controls others. There are also Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in some areas. We want to preserve the institutions around the country if that is possible, and there is a spirit of urgency in these negotiations because with every month that passes, the state collapses [further] and the situation deteriorates.
This is why we need solutions within the next few weeks or months, and this is a legitimate demand by the opposition. We do not want an open-ended process, especially because of the deterioration in the humanitarian situation. According to UN statistics, 9 million Syrians need humanitarian help, 3 million of whom are in areas that are difficult to reach. Therefore, there is activity at the Security Council to pass a new resolution to improve the performance of humanitarian organizations on the ground.
We do not want a political crisis. All states acknowledge that the situation is deteriorating and is unacceptable, including Russia and China. Therefore, we want to encourage cooperation on a resolution which clarifies the international stance, and at the end of the day, the Security Council is responsible for finding solutions for humanitarian issues, not just the political and military issues. We will work on formulating a resolution in the coming days, but if it was possible to achieve progress through Geneva II and direct negotiations on the ground, then of course we will welcome any progress.
Q: This means that if you achieve progress in Geneva, the draft proposal for a Security Council resolution can be postponed, especially because Russia–on more than one occasion–has expressed its rejection of any resolution and hinted it will use its veto.
The important issue is to achieve progress on the ground. If it was possible to achieve more progress through Geneva or direct negotiations on the ground, then that is welcome. It is also possible, then, to review the draft resolution, but it is impossible if no progress is made and the suffering of the Syrian people increases to stand idly by amid this humanitarian situation in the country.
Q: Was the move for a Security Council resolution caused by the problems in Homs?
Frankly, we are concerned about the operation in Homs. The situation is not totally clear and we must discuss the details, but there are reports about the disappearance of some men who left [the besieged old quarter]. It is true that we welcome the delivery of some of the humanitarian aid, but this is a legitimate right for all civilians in any war under international law. We do not support the idea of imposing conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid and do not accept any position which says the progress made in Homs is enough. It is not enough.
Q: What about fears that a draft resolution in the Security Council about Syria would cause division among the permanent members?
We do not aim to cause new divisions; we want to improve the situation on the ground. If it is possible to achieve progress through the current mechanisms, then that is welcome. But the British position is clear: there can be no waiting without clarification of the international stance and the responsibility is in the hands of the Security Council. We do not aim to [create] a political crisis and, God willing, we will achieve progress in the next few days, either through the Security Council or through other avenues on the ground.