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Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat- According to Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, Syria’s ambassador to Baghdad, who recently defected, spent very little time in Baghdad, going there once every two months. Zebari considers the defection of Nawaf al-Faris and others before him, tantamount to “jumping a sinking ship.”

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat the Iraqi foreign minister gives his thoughts on the continuing uprising in Syria, the defections plaguing the Al-Assad regime and the international efforts being exerted to resolve the Syrian crisis

The following is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the story behind the defection of Syria’s Ambassador to Baghdad?

[Zebari] Honestly, the defection of the Syrian ambassador was a surprise for us. However, after the investigations we conducted with all sides, and the discovery of the movements of the Ambassador during the recent days, we discovered that he announced his defection while he was outside Iraq, i.e. he left Iraq. Most probably he is in Turkey or Qatar (it was announced later on that the ambassador is in Qatar). Therefore, this ambassador certainly is not in Iraq. All we know about him is that he has been an accredited ambassador to Iraq since 2008. Since the eruption of the protest movement in Syria, his presence in Baghdad was scarce, he spent most of his time in Syria, and he used to come to the embassy once every two months, or about that.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is the defection of the first Syrian diplomat of this level. A few days ago, Brig-Gen Manaf Tlass defected, and before him Generals and officers of various ranks and of various services defected. How do interpret these defections?

[Zebari] The fact is that the crisis in Syria is getting worse with regard to the use of violence, the expansion of the circle of protests, and the fact that more people are jumping ship.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean that it is getting closer to sinking?

[Zebari] This is the impression. These military and civilian leaders and some businessmen have started realizing that the situation is not proceeding correctly. Currently, all the efforts are exerted in the direction of finding an honourable or reasonable solution and a disciplined political transfer process in Syria so that there will be no consequences for the other countries in the region, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Truly, this is our concern. We have worries and apprehensions about the style of the change process, and the extent of discipline of the political transfer process. Otherwise, our stance is well known since the Baghdad summit, and through the Iraqi initiative, which is very close to what Kofi Annan proposes: halting the violence, refraining from interference by the neighboring countries in any shape or form, not arming either side, the president delegating his powers to whoever he considers suitable, and conducting a dialog between the opposition and acceptable sides in government that would lead to a transitional government. All this would prepare the climate to draft a constitution and hold a referendum on it, which will be followed by general elections. This is what Iraq considers to be right, and this is what we proposed in Geneva (within the framework of the working group).

The situation – as we see it – is difficult and critical. However, it has reached the stage of dealing with it: talks, initiatives, conferences, and so on.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] After the recent Geneva meeting, which you participated in, a dispute erupted directly after the meeting over the interpretation of the articles of the “Geneva” paper? According to your understanding of the formulation of the paper and the discussions that preceded ratifying it, will Al-Assad have a role in the political transfer process or not?

[Zebari] A collection of agreements took place in Geneva, and we participated in all consultations and sessions. We have had an opinion and a role in everything that was issued in Geneva. The dispute was over the legitimacy of resorting to the UN Security Council and Chapter 7. A number of sides intervened and stressed that it would be futile to pursue an understanding with Al-Assad, and hence it would be necessary to return to the UN Security Council and get a binding resolution under Chapter 7. However, the Russian side reacted by saying: We are the UN Security Council, and not you (the Russians were addressing Qatar, Turkey, and other non-members of the UN Security Council). In Russia’s opinion, these countries have no right to tell the Security Council what it has or has not to do, as this is the exclusive right of the council members. According to the Russian minister, Annan proposed the six-point plan, and hence it ought to be presented in order to see whether or not it will be implemented. If it is not implemented, it would be possible to return to the Security Council to consider the next steps. For this reason, it was rejected in Geneva to give a commitment to accept resorting to the UN Security Council under Chapter 7.

The other point that witnessed argument is related to the dialog process (between the regime and the opposition). This is because it is imperative to have a dialog before starting the process of political transfer, the formation of a transitional executive council, and a transitional government. The dialog ought to be between the opposition and the government. However, the government negotiators ought to be from those whose hands are not tarnished by blood, and those who have no security or legal problems. The attendance ought to be by mutual agreement, i.e. any side can object to the attendance of this-or-that person from the other side.

The other contentious subject was related to the issue of sanctions or military and economic ban imposed on Syria. Russian Minister (Lavrov) said: When you imposed sanctions on Syria, you did not consult us, neither you as Arab countries, nor Europe or the United States. Why then do you come today to force us to accept the sanctions? The answer is no.

As for the arming, the Russians said: There are countries that arm the opposition, and other that finance it. We have arms contracts with the regime that we have to implement provided that these arms are not used against civilians. The solution that was established by consensus is not to militarize the conflict, provided that this general formula applies to both sides (the regime and the opposition).

As for the field measures (stipulated in Annan’s plan) and the withdrawal from the cities (the military vehicles and the troops), the Russians asked: What will happen about the opposition that controls many regions and cities, and who will guarantee their withdrawal? The formula established says that it is necessary to withdraw regardless of what the other side does.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] during Kofi Annan visit to Baghdad, What did he present to you, and what did Iraq propose?

[Zebari] When we met in Geneva, I said to Annan: You go to and fro among capitals, but you do not come to Baghdad; bear in mind that Iraq can help you more than any other country. Before you were commissioned to mediate, the Baghdad summit supported your commissioning and what you would do in Syria. Therefore, it is necessary for you to come to us, at least to hear what we say, because we are a party concerned (with what is taking place in Syria). The fact is that Annan came to listen. He arrived in Baghdad coming from Tehran. In his talks he dis cussed a number of points, the first of which is that it is necessary that Iran participates in the efforts, and we are in favor of this opinion. The truth is that Iran is a side.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the west reject Iran for this reason, namely that it is a side?

[Zebari] I know this. However, if you want to find a solution for the problem, you have to gather all the sides to cooperate in solving it.

The other point raised by Annan is related to the way of dealing with the political process. Annan wondered: Is it possible to benefit from the Iraqi experience? The answer is that our experience in 2004 might be beneficial, because at that time we were living in a state of security and political chaos. At that time Annan – who was then UN secretary general – sent us Lakhder Brahimi to Baghdad accompanied by (Lebanese former Minister) Ghassan Salamah. They worked with all sides to form a transitional government by consensus (not by election) that was chaired by Dr Iyad Allawi under international sponsorship, and its mission was stipulated as preparing for the elections. Can we not utilize this experience to overcome the current dilemma in Syria, and form an interim transitional government?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the problem primarily lies in the fact that the regime in Syria does not seem to want anything other than a security solution?

[Zebari] This is true, but this (option) is wrong.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then how can you work for a political solution if the regime is pursuing a security solution?

[Zebari] It is true that violence has increased, killing has increased, and the implementation of Annan’s plan has not started yet. However, the question is: Who has a better solution (for the crisis in Syria)?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement after his meeting with Annan, which said that he “proposed ideas.” What were these ideas?

[Zebari] We have a plan, and we have offered Annan help. We said to him: If you want us to talk to the Syrians directly, and to visit Damascus and meet President Al-Assad, we are ready and prepared. This is due to the fact that we are not a hostile country, and they know our stances, and are certain that we are independent in our proposals, and hence our words will have better impact. For this reason, we have asked for an Arab and international cover.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is Iran’s overall role of Iran in this process?

[Zebari] Iran certainly has interests in Syria, and its alliance with Damascus is nothing new.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is pushing Al-Assad to adopt a hard-line stance part of the impact of the Iranian role?

[Zebari] Even when you talk to any Iranian, he will tell you that he is on the side of the Syrian people, and of all that the Syrian people decide. However, Iran has interests with the regime, and in Lebanon with Hezbollah, and it benefits from an outlet on the Mediterranean. Iran considers that its regional, strategic, and geopolitical interests will be threatened in the case of the collapse of the regime, or if a political change takes place in the direction of the Salafi-Muslim Brotherhood tide. Certainly if this is to happen, the situation will become more complicated for them from a strategic viewpoint. Therefore, Iran pursues the preservation of this regime for as long as possible.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a possibility that Iran might proceed toward a “compromise solution?”

[Zebari] Any country, whatever its size or strength might be, thinks first of its interests. This includes Russia, which has started to talk to the Syrian opposition. No side puts “all its eggs in Al-Assad’s basket.” This country considers that its interests are with the Syrian people. This can apply to Iran. We in Iraq are in this position.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does Russia want in order to sever its alliance with the Al-Assad’s regime?

[Zebari] As far as Russia is concerned, the issue primarily is one of principle, i.e. Russia’s role in the international system, and who has the decision-making authority, is it a country, a group of countries, or the collective security system (the UN Security Council)? The Russians feel that they were deceived in Libya, and that the resolutions (on Libya) were interpreted differently. The Russians say: We will never allow a repetition of that.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The western draft resolution (presented to the UN Security Council) refers to Chapter 7, but without resorting to military force?

[Zebari] This is true, but whenever there is a reference to Chapter 7, Russia’s reaction is a veto.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the “development” in the Russian stance, which is alleged to have taken place?

[Zebari] There is change. In my assessment, there is some kind of Russian-US understanding over the dealing with the Syrian crisis. We have noticed a change in the Russian stance in the direction of finding a way out. Russia is no longer meeting any proposal with systematic rejection. The consensus that took place in Geneva, to which I referred earlier, shows that the Russians are prepared (for a settlement), and feel that their status in the Arab world, and in the eyes of the Arab public opinion is not positive, while they have interests in the Arab world that ought to be taken into consideration.