Baghdad, Asharq Al–Awsat—The ongoing crisis in Syria has exposed divisions and differences of opinion between the states of the Arab world that leaders have been working to resolve. One such disagreement has been that between Iraq and Qatar, two states which have found themselves at odds over the decision to build up the Syrian opposition as an alternative to the government led by Bashar Al-Assad.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari discusses the details of the dispute over the decision at last week’s Arab League conference in Qatar to grant Syria’s seat at the organization to the opposition. He revealed why thinks this move has undermined chances for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
He also discussed the efforts of the Iraqi and Qatari governments to patch up their differences, and where he thinks the relationship between the two is at present. Finally, he spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat about the recent visit to Iraq by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the worsening fallout from the fighting in Syria.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Iraq–Qatar relations have been strained by the fatwa issued by Sheikh Qaradawi when he called for the blood of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to be shed, and in passing mentioned the name of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Has this controversy passed, now that both sides have participated in the summit?
Hoshyar Zebari: Before the summit, we can say that the relations between Iraq and Qatar were not ideal and that they lacked warmth; however, our relations with the Qatari national leadership and the individuals therein are good.
There were three issues standing between the Qataris and us before the summit. The first was that of Sheikh Qaradawi, who went on Al-Jazeera and declared killing Assad legal in the eyes of Islam, and likewise [that it is legal in Islam to kill] all who support Assad, including Maliki. This provoked much anger and resentment, because these fatwas are dangerous. During the March 6 meeting in Cairo, serious talks were held with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim and the Qatari foreign minister on this topic. We spoke about the summit in Qatar and about clearing the air between the two sides, especially because we wanted a smooth exchange of the [Arab League] presidency at the summit. We said, “We hope that you will address this issue. We know that it does not directly represent your opinion.”
However, when this Al-Jazeera program was broadcast from Qatar, it affected the relationship. It complicated things, and questions were raised in Iraq following the broadcast of the Qaradawi program, including whether or not we should go to the Arab summit in Doha, and whether our relationship with Qatar continue or if we would sever our ties. At the end of the discussions, we affirmed that Iraq must attend and participate in the summit at the highest level because of the secretariat and the moral and ethical responsibility involved. Moreover, the summit is an independent institution and should be not be influenced by bilateral relations.
The second issue was some rumors that were circulating. The new Iraq has become a marketplace for rumors. People were saying that two Qataris had invited Tareq Al-Hashemi, the former vice president of Iraq who was convicted [of muder] by the courts, to represent Iraq at the summit. We made several calls to the Qataris and to the secretariat of the Arab League and it became clear that Hashemi was present in Doha.
However, Qatar had not sent him an invitation of any sort, so the rumors turned out to be distortion spread by malicious groups that aim to undermine Iraqi relations with other Arab countries. During our stay in Doha, we addressed this issue and thus our presence at the summit was appreciated by the Qataris. We told them to remember how we dealt with them and buried the hatchet before it affected the relationship. Everything ended with mutual respect and affection.
Q: So these misunderstandings were resolved through dialogue?
Yes, and the emir [of Qatar] expressed just that when he praised Iraqi participation. Everything went satisfactorily.
Q: What was the third issue affecting Iraqi—Qatari relations?
The issue of Syrian representation at the Arab summit and giving Syria’s seat to the opposition. We had reservations about doing so, as did Algeria, but we could not stop it. We said that it was inconsistent with the charter of the Arab League and ran counter to the system of joint Arab action on which the Arab League is based. We told them that if they wished to change the system and amend the charter, we would have no objections.
Q: Do not you feel that Iraq’s stance against granting the opposition Syria’s Arab League seat will affect future relations?
No, not at all. We met with Syrian opposition figures, including Moaz Al–Khatib, Ghassan Hitto, Burhan Ghalioun, George Sabra and Shahir Atassi, and we told them that ‘Iraq’s stance has nothing to do with you, it has to do with the legality of the decision in accordance with the charter of the Arab League. It in no way is meant to belittle or take away from your cause. You are revolutionaries, patriots.’ There is no connection between them and our opposition to the move. They understood our position.
Q: Questions still remain regarding Iraq’s position towards Syria. This uncertainty coincides with John Kerry’s visit to Baghdad, and it has been reported that he demanded that weapon shipments to the Syrian government through Iraq’s airspace be stopped.
The media always links issues to other issues and we do not deny the sequence of events, but there are other factors at play.
Q: Can you tell us about these factors?
What I want to say is that the major powers and the members of the Security Council are not all comfortable with the summit’s decision to give Syria’s seat to the opposition because that could effectively be the death knell for all attempts to bring about a political solution. This is what we’ve been told, and this is not only the Russians’ position. It is the position of the United Nations and of the permanent members of the Security Council that this is not the solution.
During the evening on the day of the summit, a resolution was drafted regarding how the opposition coalition and the interim government would be included. Someone asked how to go about recognizing an interim government while another government is a member of the United Nations and a member of other international organizations. This will create legal and political problems for many countries. A resolution should be issued that states that in light of the fact that a transitional government is yet to be formed, the Syrian National Coalition will occupy the Syrian seat at the summit until elections are held.
Q: How do you view the Turkish foreign minister’s announcement that his country will endeavor to have the Syrian opposition take over Syria’s seat at the United Nations?
It will be controversial. The Syrian opposition coalition does not lack international legitimacy. There were 140 nations at the conference to support the Syrian people in France and they all backed the opposition. The core issue is providing them with material support so that they can change the balance of power on the ground, and this has yet to materialize. The steps that have already been taken—recognition, granting seats—will all lead to an increase in killing and violence.
Q: So there is no solution?
There is no solution on the horizon, and giving the opposition a seat in the Arab League has eliminated the [UN envoy to Syria] Lakhdar Brahimi option.
Q: Do you expect any attempts to revive the political option?
The summit’s decisions included a commitment to a political solution.
Q: Others feel that recognition and granting a seat to the opposition do not necessarily mean the elimination of a political solution as an option, but rather they see them as a way to even out the balance of power and thus lead to a solution.
When we raise the flag of the revolution, the political track will be permanently closed.
Q: So it will be decided militarily then?
It will be decided on the ground, on the battlefield.
Q: What do you have to say regarding US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Iraq?
He met with Mr. Maliki and the speaker of the House of Representatives, and he spoke with Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani on the telephone. He said that the US remains committed to the Strategic Framework Agreement and the commitments contained in it. During his visit to Iraq, Mr. Kerry focused on gaining understanding of the domestic political crisis. He stressed that this is a true crisis and that leaders and the Iraqi government must move quickly to address the root causes, lest the whole country be threatened with collapse. Everyone made their complaints known to Mr. Kerry.
We also believe that the continuation of the crisis in Syria threatens the stability of Iraq, and the sooner it ends, the better. Another aspect of Mr. Kerry’s visit was that he revealed that he had information that Iraq had been turning a blind eye to the transit of weapons and other ordnance from Iran to Syria through Iraqi airspace.
Q: A Syrian officer who defected also confirmed that planes from Moscow are crossing through Iraqi airspace.
He is a liar, and it is a lie to say that they are approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This would never happen, and there is no approval or crossing to speak of.
Q: What were Kerry’s requests of Baghdad?
He talked about how the transit of arms could impact America’s commitments to Iraq. He pointed out that Washington has confirmed intelligence that these flights have intensified recently and we requested evidence of this.
Q: What is the American position?
Iraq has undertaken two separate inspections of aircraft and Washington feels that this is not enough. At the same time, they seem to think that these flights go against the Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VII, which means that the member states are obligated to adhere to it. I have sent them a message to the states of the Security Council more than once, telling them that this is not within our capabilities. Even if we have the political will, we do not possess the air defense systems or aircraft to stop it [taking place]. So go ahead and find a way to control it.
Q: Where is the crisis in Iraq headed?
The true crisis runs very deep, and is perhaps the gravest of crises. Unfortunately, there are still those who believe that there is no crisis. This belief is the biggest danger of all. I mean the crisis with the political alliances and participation in the political process. The new Iraq was based on consensus and participation, and there are parties that feel that they do not need to adhere to these [principles] anymore. The Kurdish side so far is still in the consultation phase, and is yet to announce its position regarding continuing to participate or withdrawing. Things will become clearer in the near future.
Q: What road will the Kurds choose?
That will come clear after consultations.
Q: Massoud Barzani has launched some initiatives recently to find an agreement. Where does the crisis stand today in light of this?
He made attempts before the crisis and put forth another initiative in an attempt to contain the crisis; deal with the demonstrations, protests, and withdrawals; and move forward as country. However, the truth is that the other parties involved did not respond positively to his efforts and thus we lack an honest broker.
Q: During the Arab League summit’s first session, the Chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) proposed making preparations to hold a dialogue between all political forces in Iraq against the backdrop of the Mecca Document. Do you have any comment on this?
The Arab League has made preparations to begin the process of establishing communication between all parts of the Iraqi leadership. As for the proposal from the OIC, it has been proposed previously more than once. The Mecca Document is an important agreement in the history of Iraq because it was agreed on by all parties so as to prevent the country from slipping into sectarian war. Arab League conferences about the Iraqi National Accord and national reconciliation have all helped to calm the situation and to ensure the formation of governments that later went on to govern Iraq. Therefore, we do not deny that the crisis in Iraq is real.
We also do not want to overlook the repercussions caused by the Syrian crisis. We talked about this matter continuously, how we are accused of siding with the regime in Syria whenever we take a stance that we feel will advance our national interests. We also recall what happened yesterday in Lebanon and what is currently happening there. The government resigned and the crisis has begun.
Q: Do you expect something like this to happen in the other countries neighboring Syria?
If the fallout ends with the resignations of the government and ministers, then we would have no objection. However, this political fallout will spill out into the street and there are fears of civil sectarian wars. It is also apparent to us that the whole region is looking forward to the end of the Syrian crisis. We can see new alliances being forged, diplomatic overtures, such as the recent developments in the relationship between the Turks and Israelis, and attempts to start a direct American—Iranian dialogue.