Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of the Arab League’s foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo earlier this week, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari discussed the Syria crisis and a possible US military strike against the country.
The Iraqi foreign minister denied that any Arab nation issued supported for an US military strike on Syria during the Arab League’s meeting, calling on all parties to await the official results of investigations into the suspected Ghouta chemical attack.
Zebari noted that the continuing Syrian crisis strongly affects the security situation in Iraq and a number of other neighboring countries, Lebanon chief among them. He called on Syria’s neighbors to take precautions and work together to settle any differences that could disrupt a political settlement.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why has Iraq removed two paragraphs from the ministers’ report on Syria? What’s your view of the results of the meeting of Arab foreign ministers’?
Hoshyar Zebari: The Arab foreign ministers’ meeting did not present any new draft resolutions to the Arab League. Rather, what was put forward had already been upon in the representatives’ meeting. There are two issues that need to be clarified. The first of which is the use of chemical weapons. Everyone recognizes that this is a crime according to international law, including the Geneva Convention and other agreements. We in Iraq have suffered greatly as a result of the use of chemical weapons in Halabja and other places. At that time we said that the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein was a turning point for the entire regime and the regime’s war on its neighbors and its people. We believe that the use of chemical weapons in eastern Gouta in Syria is also a turning point in the Syrian crisis. This incident was universally condemned by Arab foreign ministers. The second issue is the nature of the deterrent measures. The draft resolution contained a paragraph or two about this issue which Iraq prevented voting on. We don’t want to directly assign responsibility to the Al-Assad regime before investigations have been concluded. And the question of a military strike is outside the purview of the United Nations.
Q: However this resolution doesn’t discuss a military strike, it only discusses deterrent measures. So why did Iraq take this stance?
This option [military strikes] was present in the atmosphere of the meeting, although no Arab state presented it in the resolution. Everyone talked about deterrent measures because silence will only serve to encourage the regime to continue its aggression towards the people. The question of deciding a military strike against Syria is a sensitive one. Even the Gulf states did not raise the issue directly. Instead they called for a decisive resolution to stop the violence being carried out against the Syrian people. If we look at the international resolution, we see that neither the UN Security Council, NATO, or the British Parliament authorized this. We don’t know what the US Congress will decide in their deliberations.
Q: It seems to many that the US is seriously preparing for a military strike designed to cripple the Assad regime’s military capabilities. Do you agree?
True, American preparations are serious, and the strike seems certain. In my estimation the American administration will not stay silent.
Q: Do you think it possible that the US will not do anything, even after moving warships into the Mediterranean?
Of course not. This is a very difficult matter. As I mentioned, an American military strike is a near certainty. This issue is connected to politics, domestic concerns, the position of President Obama, the American leadership, and their pride. The American administration has reached a point where it cannot back down and the consequences of the strike will be extremely dangerous for the entire region.
Q: What are the possible repercussions of a strike on Syria in Iraq?
Iraq will be directly affected by the continuation of the Syrian crisis and its extension into Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become a single front containing terrorist organizations including Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, and others. Their only goal is to cause as much destruction as possible. From a humanitarian perspective, there is also the issue of the influx of Syrian refugees. For instance, over a short period of time
Iraq has taken in nearly 43,000 Syrian refugees. Naturally there are concerns, especially since we do not know what the grand strategy is to ensure stability in Syria. No one in the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting had any better alternative for dealing with the crisis except enacting the Geneva II conference and securing peace through the participation of both parties.
Q: Hasn’t the Syrian regime refused to participate in Geneva II?
They did not really refuse it. The Syrian regime expressed their consent during a visit to Iraq by Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem.
Q: But Muallem came out later to announce that Syria’s participation was contingent about certain conditions, including Assad remaining in power until the end of his term in office in 2014.
No. The Syrian regime agreed without preconditions. The two parties must participate in the conference without preconditions in order to ensure credibility.
Q: How do you interpret the Russian and American positions? The former thinks it has proof that the opposition used chemical weapons and America says that it has proof that the regime used them.
These positions are the result of politicizing intelligence information.
Q: What do you mean by “politicizing intelligence information?”
Every country is using the information it has to support its own position. Many international parties have had reservations and even questioned the credibility of this information. This debate is ongoing and the UN inspectors will present their report to the UN Secretary General. However the team will not name which side used chemical weapons, only whether or not chemical weapons were used. This means that we will continue to hear debates around who was responsible for the attack. Therefore, it is up the different nations’ intelligence services to assess who used chemical weapons. It is for this reason that I believe that a military strike is coming.
Q: After the military strike, will it be possible for both sides to go to the Geneva II conference and reach a political solution?
Every party should be pressured to arrive at a political solution, but will that actually happen? We don’t know. Will there be greater repercussions or other parties that will widen the scope of the conflict beyond Syria? That is certainly a possibility.
Q: Do you think it is possible that the Syria conflict will spillover into Lebanon, for instance?
With the confrontation with Israel, Hezbollah entering the fray, and terrorist activities here and there, there is serious anxiety over this issue. We, as neighbors of Syria, certainly need to take precautions and work hard with others to settle the differences that could disrupt a political settlement.
Q: Do you mean that if a strike occurred in Syria, however limited, it must come with a guarantee to preserve the state of Syrian through Geneva II?
Of course our goal is protecting the Syrian people and their nation.
Q: What about the current security situation in Iraq?
The security situation is not stable because of continued terrorist attacks. A big part of that can be traced to the performance of security and governmental agencies in addressing the issue. It is also partially a reflection of the Syrian crisis. We have an interest in ending this crisis and finding a secure and safe way out of it, particularly as we are among the nations that are most affected by what happens in Syria. Regarding the current political situation, all matters are on hold and political issues have not been settled. We are awaiting next year’s general elections.
Q: What can you tell us about the preparations for the UN meetings with the Arab Group in New York this month?
As for Iraq, we will go to New York. We have gotten rid off all of the UN restrictions and sanctions that have shackled Iraq, particularly Chapter VII. Having returned to the Arab, Islamic, and international stage, we will go this time free from all the sanctions that we once faced. In my opinion, the most important issue on the table is definitely the Syrian crisis, also the Iranian nuclear issue and the participation of the new Iranian president who will be a star of of the meeting in New York.
Q: Has Iranian policy changed following Hassan Rouhani’s election?
There are strong indicators that there is an inclination towards change and dealing with the realities of the situation with little concern for ideology.
Q: Will the Iranian grip on Iraq loosen as well?
They do not have a grip on us, but there are relations and communication. Next week, the Iranian foreign minister will undertake his first visit to Baghdad.
Q: What will be discussed during the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Baghdad?
A number of issues will be discussed: bilateral relations, the Syrian crisis, and the nuclear issue.
Q: In the case of an American military strike on Syria, do you expect Iran to become a party in the equation?
In my opinion, all nations will remain neutral.