Zebari said that arming the Syrian opposition was a decision for each country to make on its own. He warned of what the post-Assad era might hold in store and how the neighboring countries could be further impacted by the crisis.
The interview is as follows:
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was the nature of the discussion which took place at the closed-door meeting of Arab foreign ministers last Wednesday in Cairo?
Hoshyar Zebari: The discussions were extensive, based on mutual respect, and were free of any confrontations. They were not very heated. However the topics raised were very sensitive. We discussed Iraq’s experience and how the conditions then differ completely from the situation in Syria. We also discussed the situation in Libya when we gave the Libyan seat to the opposition (the National Council). We said that this measure was a dangerous precedent and large responsibility on the shoulders of the secretary general of the Arab League and the Arab Ministerial Council. This is because when a seat is given to an opposition movement, regardless of the regime they oppose, the Arab League will have set a precedent which it could repeat in the future. It was mentioned that the Salvation Front which is opposed to the regime in Egypt could demand the same thing. We presented the Secretariat with an advisory letter regarding the legal position of the charter of the Arab League in circumstances when opposition movements demand that they take the ruling regime’s seat in the Arab League. In this letter, we defined what is a state and representation of this state. The views of the Secretariat agreed with us in our estimation that the Syrian opposition coalition does not meet the conditions necessary for assuming the Syrian seat. We stated that the seat must be taken by a government, not a coalition.
Q: There are rumors that three countries strongly supported giving the seat to the Syrian coalition, while three other countries objected or expressed reservations, and the positions of the rest is not known. To what extent are these rumors accurate?
This is accurate. Through discussions we developed working frameworks which included that fundamental decisions require a consensus and if this does not occur then the issue will be deferred to the next meeting. The summit ended with a draft resolution stating that the Syrian National Coalition can assume the Syrian seat after forming an executive body for the next meeting in Doha. Our objection was: Who can guarantee that the coalition will be able to form an executive body or government? The second important and delicate topic discussed at the meeting was the issue of armament. We said that this topic had been discussed previously and the conclusion had been that this decision is up to each country. I said that Iraq does not want further militarization of the conflict, and that arming the regime or the opposition is undesirable because it would lead to more fighting and bloodshed.
Q: Is Moaz Alkhatib, head of the Syrian opposition coalition, a moderate?
Possibly. The problem is that the coalition must absorb all spectrums of the opposition and not just the group that is working on the ground in Syria. There is a militarized opposition and there are those who tell us they have representation in the coalition.
Q: What happened on the Iraqi-Syrian border? Did Iraq assist the Assad’s regime against the Free Army as is rumored?
There are troubling signs of a possible escalation in the number of military clashes on the border outposts in the city of Al-Raqqah near Dayr Al-Zawr as well as at all border crossings. A few days ago there were violent clashes on the border post called Rabia on the Iraqi side, El Yarbiyah on the Syrian side, in the Nineveh governorate after the Free Syrian Army seized the crossing and overpowered the Syrian forces charged with protecting the outpost. As a result about 51 Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq and surrendered to the Iraqi authorities, some them coming to receive medical treatment. The battle was between regime forces and the Syrian opposition, and thus Iraq has no hand in this battle. The rumors which say that Iraqi forces helped the Syrian regime against the Free Army are not true, because Iraq does not own a single military aircraft; all of those rumors are pure fabrication.
Q: So you are certain that Iraq did not fight alongside the regime’s army against the Free Army on the border?
Completely and entirely certain. What happened is as follows: After the injured Syrian soldiers had crossed into Iraqi territory, we tried to return them to Syrian territory using normal vehicles. A small Iraqi military force escorted them in an attempt to bring them back to Syria through another crossing. While on the way to do this and still in Iraqi territory, the small military unit was targeted along with the Syrian soldiers in a frightening ambush.
Q: Was it the Free Army?
No, from what I can tell they were from terrorist organizations linked with al-Qaeda. All were killed, 50 Syrian soldiers and 12 Iraqi soldiers. It occurred as a result of leaked security information about the location of the small escort unit. Today I learned that four or five Iraqi soldiers were injured and treated near the Syrian border, and what I mean to say by this is that the frequency of these events is increasing. This has alerted us to the reality that the Syrian crisis cannot continue to be confined within its borders, and that it will spill over into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We are staring down the barrel of a gun with this crisis in Syria. The positions we are taking are in pursuit of Iraq’s national interests, and not for the sake of any others. In bilateral meetings with Arab foreign ministers we emphasized that we are worried about what the post-Assad era will hold because no parties will have any control over the territory. As Lakhdar Brahimi and others have said, the concern is that Syria will turn into a failed state, which is a dangerous prospect given its strategic location. No one wants Syria to become a failed state—that much is certain. But what is the best way to resolve the crisis and by what means? Everyone is searching for solutions, but things are out of control.
Q: What is everyone waiting for?
For the battle on the ground to be resolved. We believe the fighting will drag on and claim more innocent lives.
Q: What were your impressions of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to the region? Why did it not include Iraq?
Mr. Kerry spoke to me on the phone about half an hour before leaving Washington. He asked about our opinion in regards to the situation in Syria, our domestic situation, and the joint committees established between Iraq and the US. He confirmed that he would visit Iraq and that he had already visited us when he had been a senator. I think that Washington’s stance has not changed dramatically since the Rome Conference for Syria in regards to its willingness to provide non-lethal military support.
Q: What is meant by non-lethal military support?
Wireless devices, armored equipment, ambulances…
Q: What are your thoughts regarding the Americans’ position toward Syria?
This topic was raised at a ministerial meeting and we stated that there was movement. As I mentioned earlier, Washington could move on Syria during the second half of this year, and I think that American action will be very gradual and unlikely to experience any radical shifts as some believe. The most accurate way of summarizing Washington’s position is that it has begun moving with a new approach.
Q: What is expected after John Kerry’s visit to the region?
The administration wants to make some serious strides regarding the peace process. They want to revive talks by having an Arab ministerial delegation visit Washington during April. Regarding Obama’s visit to Israel, it focused on US-Israeli relations, in my opinion. There is an assumption among Arabs that if pressure is not put on the United Nations and the international community regarding the Palestinian issue then nothing will happen during this year or the next. The American administration is preoccupied with Iran and has provided some incentives according to our sources put forward during the Baghdad meeting. It may help them reach an understanding. We have already pressed both sides, the Western and the Iranian, to make them come to an agreement on incentive measures to bring about dialogue and mutual understanding, such as “tit for tat”, or joint movement.
Q: How do you translate “tit for tat” into practice?
Possibly by lifting the ban on some oil products and other Iranian materials in exchange for halting uranium enrichment, leading to a gradual lifting of the ban in accordance with Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it seems that some things have started to move in this direction.
Q: You mean to the advantage of Iran?
To the advantage of the negotiations between the parties. A technical meeting will be held in Istanbul shortly and another meeting in Kazakhstan during June. Some Western countries want to engage with Iran or leave it be until after the Iranian presidential elections; this is the basic approach towards Iran.
Q: So more pressure will be placed on Iran in the near future?
The sanctions represent constant pressure. There are no signs of military action, but there is tremendous economic pressure on the Iranian side, and the Syrian crisis is draining on all parties.
Q: What about the issue of restructuring the Arab League?
The Baghdad summit stressed the importance of developing Arab cooperation efforts, the Secretariat, and the formal appointment of a deputy secretary-general, in addition to emphasizing the need for some internal administrative reforms. A committee of experts completed its report and submitted it to the member states. There were some comments that the restructuring should be done in accordance with the Charter and Accord issued at the Tunis summit, and none of the states objected to that. We confirmed that budget increases to the Arab League would coincide with restructuring and the states’ approval.