Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Dr. Saad Eddine El Othmani stressed that political and diplomatic solutions to the Syrian crisis have yet to be exhausted. He also pointed out that arming the Syrian opposition could lead to a civil war in the country. El Othmani spoke about the situation in Syria, Morocco’s foreign relations, particularly with Algeria and Mauritania, and the future of the Maghreb region.
Dr. Saad Eddine El Othmani is a senior member of the Justice and Development party and the current Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The text of the interview follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support arming the Syrian opposition, particularly since Washington recently alluded to the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition to defend itself against the al-Assad regime forces?
[El Othmani] We are against any military action in the general meaning, whether direct military intervention or the provision of weapons to the Syrian opposition. Why? Because we are looking at Syria’s tragedy today from the humanitarian angle more than any other angle. Providing weapons could lead to a civil war in Syria. We want to take it out of the tunnel, not increase the tragedy of the Syrian people. Accordingly the intervention that should be undertaken should either be political, diplomatic or humanitarian intervention. We have stressed this at various phases to all those who talked with us or who we talked with on these issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those who say that the political and diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis has reached a dead-end, particularly following the Russian and Chinese double veto against the Arab League initiative? In this case, what should we base a political and diplomatic solution on?
[El Othmani] This is what we are consulting on. Political and diplomatic pressure [on the al-Assad regime] must be increased. I think that the political and diplomatic solutions have not been exhausted yet, contrary to what you say. Humanitarian intervention is also necessary. This does not mean necessarily that we should stand with our hands tied and merely watch what is happening [in Syria]. Now there are many proposals. There is a proposal for intervention by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the stricken areas. There are international pressures to bring about acceptance of that proposal. There are consultations on accepting it, even with the Russian side. This means that if we discuss the matter from the humanitarian angle even the Russian side can accept many of the proposals for intervention to settle the crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You met with members of the Syrian National Council [SNC] and Syrian opposition in Rabat. What message did you convey to the Syrian opposition?
[El Othmani] We conveyed a single message to them, namely that we support all diplomatic, political, and humanitarian efforts to stop the Syrian bloodshed. We informed them that it is necessary to seek to bridge their viewpoints and to have an accredited representative the international community can talk with. They told us they were preoccupied with the developments in Syria which humanitarianly is moving from bad to worse. We listened to their viewpoints on various issues, whether the political solution proposed by the Arab League; the Russian role and how to deal with it; or the refugees who have fled to Syria’s neighbouring countries and how to deal with this phenomenon and other phenomena that require debate to explore and find practical solutions to intervene in this crisis which everybody hopes will end in the near future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have strongly criticized the bloody nature of the situation in Syria today. When will Rabat cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus?
[El Othmani] This issue is up for debate and we discuss it continuously. We have also discussed it with the Syrian opposition. But we believe that the time has not come yet to adopt such a measure.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You visited Riyadh last Tuesday and held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. What was the outcome of your talks with him?
[El Othmani] The relations between Morocco and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are historical and distinguished relations of fraternity and fruitful, long-time cooperation. The relationship between the leaders of the two countries, His Majesty King Muhammad VI and the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz are distinguished fraternal relations. Consequently, the visit was aimed at evaluating the whole range of political, economic, cultural, and human dossiers in bilateral relations and advancing them forward. There is a new cabinet in Morocco and a new Foreign Minister, thus it is necessary and very natural that he should visit a state that has a distinguished position in Morocco’s external relations. Indeed we found all welcome from His Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal and all attention to this visit and to making it productive. We did actually agree on many practical steps in 2012 including a meeting by the Consular and Social Committee between the two countries and a meeting by senior officials in the two Foreign Ministries to tackle various issues. There are also many agreements ready to be signed and others that need some refining in certain technical and administrative aspects. We attach importance to completing consultations over these aspects to prepare the agreements for signature. We agreed that at a third phase there should be a meeting in Riyadh by the joint committee in the presence of the two Foreign Ministers to sign these agreements. Thus there is more importance attached to accelerating support to cooperation on this level even though the relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia do not need agreements. Thanks to God, we find solutions to all issues raised because of the existing political understanding. Naturally my visit to Riyadh was also an opportunity to consult on issues of mutual interest led by the strategic partnership between Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]. I thanked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its role in proposing this strategic partnership and the attention it pays to Morocco within the new perspective of the GCC which will soon be named “the Gulf Union”. We discussed the status of preparations for this strategic partnership, the committees formed, and our role in accelerating this process. This is as far as the first dossier goes. As for the second dossier, we discussed the Maghreb Federation and its development. I was pleased to give His Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal Morocco’s view in this domain and the steps undertaken in the last stage which are good news to everybody who has relationships and links of fraternity with the region. The third dossier we discussed was the Syrian dossier. I found that the viewpoints of the Moroccan and Saudi Kingdoms were very close. There were many political issues we discussed and found identity in viewpoints on them, on the one hand, and we heard each other, on the other hand, and agreed to continue political consultations in the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your Algerian counterpart Murad Madalsi said recently in Rabat that the closed border between Morocco and Algeria must be reopened. He pointed out to the existing rapport between the two countries which aims at moving towards this decision, following consultations. Can we therefore say that the first step has been taken in the 1,000 mile journey to re-open the borders?
[El Othmani] God willing it will not be 1,000 miles but much shorter than this. What my colleague and friend Murad Madalsi said is sufficient to answer your question.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] From your talks with Algerian officials, do you believe that the Algerian viewpoint that Morocco benefits far more than Algeria does from re-opening the borders, still exists, or have such concerns been dispelled thanks to the recent developments in Moroccan-Algerian relations?
[El Othmani] The important thing is that there are preparations and that the rapport between Morocco and Algeria paves the way for such a step. We want these preparations to be sound. There will be many agreements because there were mutual visits throughout 2011 by the Minister of Agriculture, Solar Energy, and Youth. Presently mutual visits will be launched in the sectors of the media, scientific research, higher education, and other sectors. There is joint cooperation. I think that if this cooperation is expanded and many of the intricate details related to various sectors are discussed, this will help us quickly reach the objective Brother Madlasi spoke about, namely re-opening the borders between Morocco and Algeria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] An agreement has been reached on convening the Maghreb Summit during the course of this year. What do you expect? Will the summit be held before or after the re-opening of the Algeria – Morocco border?
[El Othmani] This question is difficult to answer. Firstly, the decision on opening the borders will eventually be up to our brothers in Algeria. But the decision to convene the Maghreb Summit has been agreed upon even though no specific date has been set yet. This is due to several reasons including the fact that Algeria will organize legislative elections soon and some more time will be required to form a new Algerian Government. Thus we take the interests of everybody into consideration. The important thing, as I said, is that the decision on holding the summit in Tunis has been taken. There is a common will among all sides to ensure success for the steps that have been started. But we must not act hastily because haste sometimes leads to the failure of initiatives of this type. These initiatives require time and preparations. The important thing is that they will be carried out in 2012.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You recently visited Mauritania. Can we say that the clouds that marred relations between Morocco and Mauritania of late have cleared?
[El Othmani] The fact is that there were no clouds in the meaning you refer to. Mauritanian-Moroccan relations cannot retreat from the excellent level we have known throughout the past decades. But I am happy to visit sister Mauritania where we have found all welcome from the President and Mauritanian officials, especially our dear brother the Mauritanian Foreign Minister. This visit comes within the framework of a Maghreb tightening of relations that we started with the new Government. It focuses on attempting to visit all Maghreb countries to firstly serve bilateral relations and secondly put new agreements on tracks and activate cooperation on the economic, social, and cultural levels as well as political consultations among these countries. Thus there is a clear will for this on the part of the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco. We thank God that we always find positive responsiveness from the other parties, in this regard. The same thing applies to our brothers in Mauritania. The relationship between Morocco and Mauritania was very strong to begin with from the historical and social aspects and on the level of human ties. But we want to elevate political and economic relations to the level reached in the other historical and human domains. This will be boosted gradually. Naturally, we are now in a delicate phase during which preparations are underway to reactivate the Maghreb Union once more. There is also the Syrian crisis and the security issues in the region. All these issues require sustained and regular political consultations. Consequently we shall pay attention to exchanged visits among our countries to ensure political consultation on a regular basis, so that we would have approaches on these problems that are not far from each other and that share strong points of agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent will the atmosphere of détente in Moroccan-Algerian relations affect the Manhasset negotiations in New York next March on the Sahara conflict? What are your predictions for these negotiations?
[El Othmani] The coming negotiations will be held in a very normal atmosphere. The topics that will be raised are traditional topics that have always been raised in various past rounds. These include the report on evaluating the measures agreed upon, especially the advances made on boosting trust. The confidence-building measures maintained today are of two types. The first has to do with family visits among the families in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and the families in the desert inside Morocco. There is also the holding of seminars of cultural nature. The first was held in Portugal and a second one will be organized there at Morocco’s behest. These cultural seminars are aimed at encouraging cultural interaction among the Sahrawis who are in the Tindouf Camps and those who are in home territory. Thus there is no doubt that there will be an evaluation of these trust-building measures and of what the MINURSO forces are doing on the ground. Concerning the political side, the Moroccan Initiative for Self-Rule is still on the table and we are always demanding that it should be endorsed as a ground for discussions that develops according to joint will. I believe this is the agreement in all UN Security Council resolutions based on the reports of the UN Secretary General calling for a negotiated political settlement between the two sides. A political solution can only spring from a specific proposal. The Moroccan proposal is the only one that has credibility and seriousness, as stated by the UN Secretary General himself and in the Security Council reports. As for the third axis which Morocco always advocates, it relates to the humanitarian side at the Tindouf Camps. We consistently call for respect to international criteria in dealing with refugees such as census statistics, getting acquainted with them and ensuring that they are free to choose to remain in the camps or leave them. These are important issues that must be settled soon. We ask the relevant international organizations to intervene on this level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Spanish Minister of Agriculture and Fishing Miguel Arias Canete said that Spain was determined to renew the marine fishing agreement between the EU and Morocco. He stressed that it would take into consideration the economic and social interests of the Sahrawi People which will be integrated in the agreement in a balanced way. What is your comment on this?
[El Othmani] I have no comments on the statements by the Spanish official. Firstly, we have not started thinking yet about the new proposed agreement. We had closed this subject after the European Parliament voted to reject the marine fishing protocol some time ago. Now that the European Parliament has agreed to the farming agreement we shall wait until the new European proposal is officially conveyed to us in order to study it before deciding how to act on negotiations on the marine fishing agreement. Morocco is naturally open to negotiations on such projects but it must firstly protect its interests and territorial inviolability about which there can be no compromise. We shall see what the new agreement says and then adopt our stand. Naturally, there have been exchanged visits between Moroccan and Spanish officials of late. These visits reflect the awareness and joint will to develop relations between the two countries. Within this context, the Spanish officials have consistently told us that as far as the Sahara issue is concerned, the Security Council remains the proper format for discussing this matter. They have told us that as long as the UN Secretary General is following this matter to work out a negotiated political settlement, Spain will support the results he reaches. Outside of this there is nothing new on the subject. As for the rights of the Sahrawis, this firstly has to do with Moroccan national sovereignty. But the Moroccan state also takes this into consideration. All national policies in Morocco and reports demonstrate this concern for the Sahrawi individual and for the southern provinces to the extent that there is a special agency for the development of the southern provinces which receives major support from the State. Concern for human beings is at the crux of the Moroccan state’s policy, meaning concern for the individual culturally, socially, and to serve his rights and interests.