Plagued by domestic instability, sectarian strife, and enormous economic problems stemming from decades of war and economic sanctions, the country has also been forced to contend with the fallout from both the confrontation between the US and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, as well as the devastating civil war in neighboring Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, about the “perfect storm” of crises that his country finds itself enmeshed in.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You recently met with a number of foreign ministers and officials from NATO and the European Union. In your opinion, is there a clear Western vision towards the Syria crisis and the future of the country?
Hoshyar Zebari: Unfortunately, through my meetings in Europe, the Security Council, and other Arab states, it never appeared to me that there was a clear vision of how to deal with the Syrian crisis or to stop the daily destruction and bloodshed. The main reason is the lack of a will to address the issue. Of course, this is tied to the political and economic situations in many of those nations.
Q: What do you mean?
I mean that in the US, there is an economic crisis and an administration that is keen to avoid anything that might lead to becoming involved in a foreign military or humanitarian intervention. As for the Europeans, they are incapable of making any moves without the Americans. Nations in the region concerned with the situation in Syria are unable to take the lead. There is a group, but it lacks a captain to lead the transition or political reconciliation. Furthermore, the Syrian crisis is getting more and more complicated by the day, and no one—neither the opposition nor the regime—has control over the situation. This is the danger that we have warned against since the first days of conflict.
Now, everyone is clinging to the Geneva-2 conference, seeing it as the fruit of international consensus between America and Russia. However, our recent communication has shown us that there is little likelihood of holding the conference this month or the next. There are some in Europe who have suggested holding the meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. We feel that this would greatly undermine the importance of the meeting.
Q: Is that a serious suggestion?
The idea has been presented. If the meeting is held in this manner, it will be one of the brief meetings on the periphery of the General Assembly that amounts to nothing more than announcing well-known positions.
Q: Is the problem with Geneva-2 that there is a disagreement regarding the agenda and the future of Bashar al-Assad, as well as the fact that the opposition refuses to attend until forces are rebalanced?
True. There is a debate regarding who will represent whom, foreign parties [that will attend], the agenda and the authority of the representatives. We advised a Syrian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Walid Muallam during a visit last month, just as we advised the opposition, to not place any preconditions. The Syrian government announced that it would participate in Geneva-2 from Baghdad.
Throughout our meetings with the Syrian delegation, we asked them: ‘What could you accept to be brought to the negotiations table?’ They responded: ‘We are prepared for anything, with the exception of Assad stepping down, which we utterly refuse. That is a red line. We also refuse any debate regarding his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of the security forces.’ We asked them what they suggest, to which they responded: ‘We are prepared to form a shared council with the opposition to write a constitution and work on elections. We are willing to set up a technical council.’ We told them that they should soften their position if they truly wanted participation in the conference to reach a political solution, especially considering that this might be the last opportunity. At that time, the battle of Al-Qusayr was just beginning and the delegation was certain of victory. We asked them, “If you win the battles in Al-Qusayr and Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, and the countryside, what will you do after that?” We told the opposition, ‘What if you regained balance and retook a city or two, what next? What goals will the opposition have achieved if the regime stays in power?’
I want to say that the current war in Syria has become a war of attrition, a regional war in every meaning of the word, and possibly wider than that. It is being waged through agents. The problem in the Syrian crisis is that there is no coordination in supporting the various parties. There is a difference in that Russia’s position is clear: support of every kind and arming with every kind of weapon. Iran and Hezbollah have similar positions. Meanwhile, the side supporting the opposition is not prepared to enter direct confrontation. So the war is being waged through agents, through secret, limited operations in Syria or supplying intelligence and financial support. However, today there is no chance of changing the regime.
I want to point out that today in Iraq, we are facing an extremely difficult position. Our mission through this European trip was to explain that and make Europeans understand that they are misinterpreting our position regarding the Syrian crisis.
Q: How is that?
We are saying that we are standing between two fires: Iran, a powerful neighbor, ally and friend, and America, which is also our ally. Our problem is how to maintain our position and neutrality without being dragged to one side or the other.
Q: Are you isolationists?
No, we are not from that school of thought. We want to have an independent opinion and to be neutral without isolating ourselves, because the situation in Syria affects us. There is some erroneous information out there regarding the Iraqi position that we want to clarify. First of all, we are not supplying any weapons to Syria. We are not providing any funds and are not depositing in the Syrian central bank; neither have we sold crude oil at preferential prices to Syria. When the Syrian delegation came to Baghdad, they asked us to do just that. We told them that there are international obligations we had to respect, as we were under the provisions of Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter] at that time.
The second mistake about Iraq is that we are helping to send volunteers to Syria to fight or defend Shi’a centers. I’m not denying that this is an issue, but I will say that this is not happening with the encouragement, support or approval of the government.
Q: Are you saying that these are the actions of individuals?
Exactly. Some of the militias, elements associated with Hezbollah, and other extremist Shi’a organizations could participate militarily. However, we do not support or condone that. We have issued a number of statements on the matter. [US] Vice President Joe Biden discussed this issue with Prime Minister Maliki, and the position I just mentioned was explained to him.
Q: But there are other suspicions, including the idea that Iraq is helping—or turning a blind eye towards—arms trafficking from Iran to Syria through its borders.
Last September, we began random inspections of Iranian and Syrian aircraft. The materials that were discovered were not lethal, as they were mostly equipment, medicine and food. Honestly, these planes could be carrying other things, but we don’t have the deterrents, air defense systems or military aircraft necessary to prevent arms trafficking.
I told people in the West, ‘If you want to block the Iranian–Syrian air bridge over Iraq, go ahead.’
Q: But you are not being asked block Iranian or Syrian flights from Iraqi airspace, only to ensure that they are not carrying weapons or military equipment.
We told the Iranians, ‘We don’t want you to use your relationship with us to move any arms to others.’ We announced this position to Tehran. Moreover, we told NATO two days ago, and before that the members of Security Council and a small group of Syrians the following: ‘We refuse and condemn arms trafficking through our airspace and will officially inform Iran of that, but we cannot stop it. . . . If you believe these flights contradict the Security Council decisions prohibiting arms from leaving Iran under the provisions of Chapter 7, I ask you, in the name of the government, to help us stop these flights in Iraqi airspace.’
Q: The West knows that Iraq asked Iran to stop shipping arms through its airspace and conducts inspections, but they believe that there is a certain flexibility in applying these monitoring procedures.
The issue with the West is that they think there is a military air bridge between Tehran and Damascus that runs through Iraq. This is not happening with my approval. I don’t have the capabilities to prevent it. If they want to stop it, then they should.
Q: Has the request been repeated in your meetings with NATO in Brussels?
The issue is important and we addressed it. The truth is that we have nothing to hide in Iraq.
Q: President Assad recently released some statements that implied that his regime has overcome the most dangerous and critical period. This could mean that he has given up on a political solution, making Geneva-2 seem much less serious.
The Syrian regime has regained the military initiative. This started before Al-Qusayr. The turning point was in the countryside of Dera’a; now Homs and Aleppo are surrounded. The regime found no international reaction to the military escalation, including chemical weapons and other practices.
In Jordan, for example, Washington installed Patriot missiles and brought F-16 jets. But it was clear to the Syrian regime that the foreign intervention they had feared would not happen and that these measures were posturing. In my estimation, the day Russia and America agreed on Geneva-2 there was an understanding that Assad could stay in his position until 2014, or until the end of his presidency.
Q: This was an implicit understanding, was it not?
Yes, this was an implicit understanding. The discussion between the two was about the period after Assad’s presidency.
Q: What we know is that America did not get a promise from Russia that Assad would not run again in 2014.
This matter is still open. It is constructive ambiguity. We believe that the situation in Syria will only be solved by Syrians, and that foreign intervention will not happen. I can’t tell the future, but I don’t think it will happen—unless something horrible happens, like a huge massacre or wide-scale use of chemical weapons. Even in that situation, the response many people are waiting for is not certain.
Q: Next month, Hassan Rouhani will assume the presidency of Iran. Will this have meaningful changes in Iranian foreign policy, especially in regards to the Arab Spring and Syria?
My honest opinion is that the election of Hassan Rouhani by this majority of votes in the first round was a clear message to the Security Council, Europe and the US stating that Iran is more serious about addressing the sanctions and the nuclear issue. This massive popular momentum, fueled by reformist leadership, the Green Revolution, the youth and women, has pushed the Iranian leadership to act wisely and rationally. The real test is forming a negotiating team on the nuclear issue and structuring the new government that will be formed after the month of Ramadan. These elements will provide strong indicators regarding change in Iran: is it in the direction of moderation and breaking Iranian isolation and dealing with its problems or not?
Q: It is well known that the nuclear issue is in the hands of the supreme leader, as is foreign policy. Will he leave Rouhani any margin to work with?
Everything is in the supreme leader’s hands, but he could respond to the general mood and popular opinion.
Q: But he did not respond to popular opinion in the last elections.
Last time, he stood his ground—but he could respond differently. Personally, I am inclined to expect positive things from Rouhani taking power.
Q: Will Iranian interests and those of the Syrian regime remain the same, or will there be a moment when their interests diverge?
The interests of the two countries will not diverge. We should remember that America and France tried to separate Syria from Iran, but this never happened. They asked us what we thought, and we told them that this could not happen. Their efforts truly failed.
It is clear that Iran is defending its interests in the eastern Mediterranean, [and it is also defending] Hezbollah, which is its line of opposition to Israel. The most dangerous thing threatening to exacerbate the conflict in Syria is the call for Sunni–Shi’a sectarian conflict.
Q: What are the implications of the developments in Egypt? What is the solution to the present situation?
Power should be handed over to elected civilian authorities as soon as possible. The African Union suspended Egypt’s membership. Europe and the US were very uneasy about what happened in Egypt. There is a short time frame in which power should be transferred to an elected government; otherwise the Islamists will not surrender, which would be very dangerous. We could see very painful events. Look at what is happening in the Sinai and what happened in front of the Republican Guard barracks in Cairo and other places. We should remember what happened in Algeria in 1991 where, after the elections were cancelled, many Islamist organizations turned to violence. I believe the Egyptians can succeed in passing this test, but the sooner they do the less dangerous the situation will be.
Q: Francesco Motta, an official with the UN mission to Iraq, recently warned of the outbreak of what appeared to be civil war in Iraq. He repeated the fears of Martin Kobler, who warned in late June that the lack of dialogue would lead to disaster and that the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’a would upset everything. Then there are the numbers of those killed—2,500 in three months. All of these are troubling signs. My question is, what is happening today in Iraq and why? Are you victims of the situation in Syria?
If we wanted to honestly evaluate the situation in Iraq, we must admit there are internal security failures that are unjustifiable. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the safety and security of its people. There has been a lapse in government performance. There is terrorism. There are effects of the Syrian crisis. But we have military and security capabilities.
Q: Where are these capabilities and what are they doing?
There has been poor security performance.
Q: And it has been like this for ten years?
No. There have been some periods worse than others. But there are centers of terrorism, Al-Qaeda, elements of the former regime, and interference in Iraq. But I do not believe that these considerations justify the rising numbers of killed and wounded at all.
With that said, I do not think that Iraq will descend into sectarian war as easily as many seem to think, for a number of reasons. First of all, there is an internal deterrent. In 2006 and 2007, we fell into sectarian civil war and opened the gates of hell, but we came back. This memory is ingrained in the mind of all Iraqis. Despite sectarianism in Iraq, fighting among Iraqis won’t happen easily given the connections between families and clans. For example, we might find one tribe made up of half Sunnis and half Shi’a.
We should note that the Iraqi government is totally opposed to these kinds of conflicts. The government has been successful in defusing crises. Look at what happened last spring, with the mobilization of forces between the government and the peshmerga. Many were waiting for fighting to erupt, but it never happened, as both sides were able to come back from the brink of conflict.
We can’t deny that we are facing social, security and political crises. However, everyone wants to control the crisis. Everyone wants to avoid escalation and address what can be addressed before the elections next year.
Q: In Iraq, there is the issue of the presidency and the issue of the leadership of Kurdistan. What is the solution?
We do have a vacuum in the presidency in Baghdad, because of President Talabani’s illness. There is also a constitutional vacuum. But because of the status of President Talabani and his personality, nobody will address the issue for moral reasons.
Q: But this is a matter of national importance.
Logically, there should have been a move find an alternative, as the president has been sick for more than six months. But because of his personality and his influence, no one has approached the issue.
Q: So the issue of President Talabani’s succession will not be addressed until the end of his term in February?
This is the best direction, because no one will run while he is still alive. In our opinion, this is the best solution.