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Interview: UK Foreign Secretary William Hague | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- While still focusing on the plan of Arab League and UN Joint Envoy Kofi Annan as the main recourse to address the Syrian crisis, the United Kingdom believes that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has to accept that it cannot regain control of the country and must accept a political transition in the country. British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Asharq Al-Awsat that the massacre in AlHoula, which left more than 100 Syrians dead with nearly half of them children, should be a tipping point for the Assad regime to adopt the Annan plan ‘before it is too late’. Asharq Al-Awsat sat down with Hague in at his office in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to discuss the options available to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and to discuss developments in the Middle East.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us start with the situation in Syria. Over the past few days, the world has been shocked by the AlHoulah massacre and we saw the direction that the UK and other allies took in response to the massacre by expelling Syrian diplomats. Is this the tipping point where you get to a point where diplomatic and political efforts are seen as too futile in protecting civilians?

[Hague] Well it should be the tipping point into the Assad regime making the right choice while it still has a chance, while there still is any time at all, because I think that it is now clear to the world that terrible crimes and atrocities are being committed. So the international pressure on Syria is only going to increase over the coming weeks. This atrocity in AlHoula has really illuminated to the world what is going on, even though they have heard about it before. It is also a tipping point, or should be a tipping point, because it should now be clear to the Assad regime that they are not going to re-establish control in Syria. They have lost control of parts of Syria and they are killing people, abusing people, torturing people in an effort to regain control that is not going to succeed. So it is time for them to adopt the Annan plan, pull back forces from populated areas, and start a political process that allows a transition in Syria. This would be the best thing for all Syrians, even including people who have supported the regime. So this should be very clear to them now, I think. And this was the argument I was making to Russia on Monday, Russia has often stood by the Syrian regime but I was saying to them ‘Look, Assad is not going to get back on top of the situation, whatever he does now’. So it is vital to increase the pressure to implement the Annan plan.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said time is running out – what do you mean? Is time running out in terms of spiraling out of control or in terms of going for a military option?

[Hague] I mean two things – I mean we do not have an indefinite amount of time for the Annan plan, that is the best hope for Syria but it is not an indefinite amount of time because if the violence goes on in this way, with reportedly 98 people killed yesterday, of course people will lose faith completely in this process. So there is only a certain amount of time that we can try it, and I think it is also running out because the patience of the world with the regime is running out and they are losing what little sympathy or understanding they had. Now that does not mean that there is a specific date, to answer your question on that and on the tipping point, it does not mean that there is a fixed date. We are persisting for the moment in trying to make the Annan plan work, as I said that is very much the best hope but we will not be able to go on forever in that situation with the regime, I think, trying to buy time, killing more people, not embarking on any serious reform, this cannot go on indefinitely.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You met with Minister Lavrov, where you both said you support the Annan plan and yet you see the political situation differently. How can you bring the Russians on board to support efforts to pressure the Syrian regime and at the same time give them guarantees for their interests there?

[Hague] We do have different views from the Russians as we acknowledged in the meeting. Of course we have different views on international interventions such as in Libya, about human rights issues in other countries, but we do have the same view about the need to implement the six point plan that Annan has put forward. So we are united around that and Russia has every interest in avoiding a long civil war in Syria and in avoiding the collapse of the Syrian state, these are things of there is a great danger, that society and the economy will collapse in Syria. So we can at least unite in supporting what Annan has proposed and if those proposals were implemented, it is Syrians who would decide about their own future. No one from outside is trying to tell Syrians how they must live or who must lead their country. We want a Syrian political process in which they decide about their own future. And so I do not think that is hostile to the interests of Russia; it is in the interests of Russia to support that and I think that argument has steadily gained ground. I think Russia supporting the Annan plan was an important step forward. Russia supporting the statement of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday which condemned the events over the weekend is a step forward. Russia saying at our press conference on Monday that they wanted to increase the pressure on the regime to implement the Annan plan – all these things show that it is worthwhile to be discussing these issues with Russia and not just getting into a confrontation with them.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] President Hollande of France said on Tuesday that military intervention has not been ruled out in Syria, and that with the right authorization it would be considered. However, the United States is clear that military intervention is not being considered now. What is your position on military intervention and on the principal of the Right to Protect?

[Hague] I have often explained that it is a different situation from Libya and that we have been in favour of many military interventions of course including in Libya last year, but one of the criteria has to be that it would be successful. In this situation we are not excluding and we do not rule out anything, after all we do not know how this will develop in the coming months or years – this could go on for a long time as things stand in Syria. So we are not ruling anything out, but it is clear that military intervention is much harder than in the case of Libya, Russia and China have opposed any such idea, so as the moment it would be impossible to pass a UN resolution supporting military intervention. In addition to that, an intervention in Syria would have to be on a much greater scale than in Libya and would have a great danger of contributing to a wider conflict. All of these things make a military intervention much more difficult. But we are not ruling anything out, just like President Hollande did not rule anything out for the future. Of course if the Annan fails, we will have to think of and have to decide what to do next. And we are already thinking with our allies about what other actions we could take at the UN Security Council or to give greater support to the opposition or to place additional sanctions on the regime. There are many other things that we could do that do not involve military intervention.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is an international arms embargo possible?

[Hague] We in the European Union already have an arms embargo; we are against all arms sales into Syria. In any of these conflicts in the Middle East, we have not supplied arms to any side, even in Libya, where we intervened ourselves with our own military, we did not supply arms to the opposition. So we do not get involved in those things. We maintain an EU arms embargo and we are opposed to other countries selling arms to the regime when there is so much oppression going on. That was an issue I raised with the Russians on Monday…

[Asharq Al-Awsat] And yet there is no movement from the Russians on that..

[Hague] Well, the Russians say that although they are supplying arms to Syria at the moment, for instance for their airforce, that they are not supplying arms that would be used for the oppression of people on the ground. Now we have no way of verifying that, but that is the Russian response.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding Iran’s involvement in this conflict and their support for the regime – how important is this involvement in bolstering up the Syrian regime?

[Hague] Iran has certainly been involved in trying to bolster the regime. It is hard to know exactly every form that it has taken but we think it is certainly taken the form of technical support and advice on how to deal with crowds and protests and how to try to suppress opposition movements. We do not know if that has also included financial support. Of course Iran itself is getting into a more serious condition economically, so its ability to help Syria in that way will be reduced. Yet certainly, Iran has tried in some ways to assist the Syrian regime, a regime that in our view is a criminal regime and it has further illustrated that Iran can be a dangerous influence in the region. In this case exacerbating conflict contributing to the actions of an oppressive government in another country. That is the sort of thing that we want Iran to move from.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Now that there have been a couple of meetings between the P5+1 group and Iran on the nuclear file, how optimistic are you that Iran can be brought closer to cooperating as a positive force in the region – or is this simply a case of focusing on the nuclear issues?

[Hague] Well these talks are about the nuclear issue. Although of course, if we could resolve the nuclear issue, the opening would be there for improved relations with Iran in many other ways. And I think it would be greatly to the benefit of the Iranian people because it would be easier to develop their economy and of course there is a natural place for Iran in the affairs of the region, Iran is a major country with a great history, it is a country that the rest of the world should be able to respect and deal with on the basis of partnership on the basis of many subjects. Now that opportunity is all there – but it is the nuclear program that is the greatest single obstacle to that. As with Syria in a different sense, Iran now has an important choice to make because we are implementing very serious sanctions on Iran that are certainly affecting their oil industry in a major way. They are not yet fully implemented, when they are fully implemented (due 1 July 2012) they will have an even greater impact. Other countries are reducing their oil sales as well and if these negotiations do not succeed, well then we will go on to seek further sanctions in other areas. So this is not a problem that will go away, and the Iranian government should not doubt our resolve on this issue. Am I optimistic? It is too early to be optimistic; the talks in Baghdad clearly did not achieve any breakthrough. We are sincere about the negotiations so we welcome the fact that there will be a further meeting in Moscow in June, but Iran will need to come with more detailed and concrete proposals about its nuclear programme, if those negotiations to succeed.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] If we are to look at Iraq, there are political crises ongoing in Iraq. Of course there is a role that Iran is playing in these crises but there is also an internal dynamic that is fueling these problems, in addition to fears of failing political system. Are you trying to get the various parties to work together, are you in touch with them, or is Iraq off the radar at the moment and no longer a major concern for you at the moment?

[Hague] We are often in touch but it is up to Iraqis. We believe in Iraqis making their own decisions and developing their democracy. We want to see, as a friend to Iraq, the various political groupings working together successfully and thus we welcomed the Arbil agreement that set that out and of course we regret the fact that has not worked in the way that it was intended to do. But we encourage all groupings in Iraq to work together, to develop the economy of Iraq and to build a successful democracy and free society. But this cannot be done from outside. Iraq has had a lot of foreign intervention and I was in favour of it in 2003 and I hope that it is leading in the long-term to a much better country than under (former Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein. But that intervention is over and now it is up to Iraqis to decide on their own future.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us turn to Egypt; there is much excitement and anticipation from the elections. How concerned about the future of its rising democracy with the tensions between various powers in the country, including between Islamists and military elements?

[Hague] I think democracy is already turning out to be quite robust in Egypt and Egyptians are making quite sure of that. I was pleased the Presidential elections took place in a good atmosphere. The report of the Carter Center said that although there were some irregularities they did not have a major impact on the result. That is an important, positive achievement. Again, this is similar to Iraq, it is for Egyptians to decide, no one is going to tell you who your president should be from outside, they shouldn’t. Are we concerned? Yes we are concerned that Egypt has very serious economic problems, with a huge population and of course high unemployment. It is really important that whoever wins the presidential election tries to and succeeds in getting the Egyptian economy growing, making sure that trade grows rapidly. For countries like ours and all over Europe, (makes sure) that Egypt is a welcoming place for business, for foreign investment. This is a way to get the country working and growing. So we hope Egypt will take that direction as great friends of Egypt and as the largest, British companies are the largest foreign investors in Egypt. These decisions are for Egyptians and we will work with whoever is elected as President of Egypt, we respect the democratic choice of the people.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Lastly, I want to ask you about this important summer for the UK, both in celebrating the Queens Diamond Jubilee and in hosting the Olympics. What is the message to the Arab world on the occasion of Britain’s Queen celebrating 60 years at the head of a democratic and stable Britain?

[Hague] It is a great opportunity for the world to see what we are like in Britain, which is a marvelous mixture of history and modernity. The monarchy sums it up really and the reason it has been so successful and survived for so long is that it is adaptable, sensitive to public opinion and ready to change in many ways. In Britain we have this very pragmatic approach, we change our political system as times go on in an evolutionary way. And I think if there is a single thing, it is the strength of our institutions, we have institutions with long continuity, whether it is the monarchy or the BBC or Parliament or the Foreign Office, so many strong institutions which are respected and built up over time and not pulled apart or pulled down by one political movement or another. My recommendation for the new democracies in the world is build those strong institutions which are not swept away every time the government changes. That gives a real solidity and stability to society. So I hope Britain this year is a very good example of that.