Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- Syrian-US relations have been witnessing concrete developments since US President Barack Obama occupied his post in January. Jeffrey Feltman, the nominated assistant US secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has described current relations between the two countries as “promising and have problems”, adding in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that it is emerging from the “deep stalemate” in which they were since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Feltman had deep experience of the US-Syrian-Lebanese relations since he served as the US ambassador in Beirut and became the first and most prominent US official to visit Syria after Obama entered the White House.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you describe US relations with Syria today?
[Feltman] They are promising but there are at the same time problems in them. On one hand, they are promising because there are many fields where Syria and the United States can work together so as to achieve objectives of common interests. Several steps were taken by the Syrians and Americans to create warmth in their relations after several years of a relationship that was in a deep stalemate. But some of the main issues which contributed to the freeze in relations continue to pose problems. Quite simply, we do not agree with Syria about the nature of Hezbollah and whether it is a positive or negative factor in influencing the region’s security. Syria defends Hezbollah and we believe it is a terrorist organization. This is a very serious matter and we have different views about it. But I do not want to focus on the negativities because, as I have said, there are several issues. I believe there is the possibility of real cooperation over issues that are in the interest of Syria and the United States.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were the most important developments which led to the emergence of relations from what you called the stalemate?
[Feltman] The matter can be viewed by looking at the reasons for withdrawing our ambassador from Damascus. We withdrew our ambassador in Damascus in February 2005, days after the assassination of (former Lebanese) Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. This was six months after the Security Council Resolution 1559 which demanded the Syrian forces’ withdrawal from Lebanon in addition to other things. Let us look at the situation now. There is a special tribunal for Lebanon dealing with the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri’s case but this is not an imperative for bilateral US-Syrian relations. We must all act to support the special tribunal but this is not an imperative for bilateral relations. The Syrians withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005 after the large demonstration in Beirut. Elections were held in Lebanon which Syria, the United States; regional and other international countries recognized that they were fair, legitimate, and free. The issues that led to the withdrawal of the ambassador are either being dealt with by others or had been resolved and we have moved to a new page. We believe now that it is important to have an American ambassador in Damascus so as to attempt to achieve what I called the promising potentials of the bilateral relationship.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Referring to the new ambassador, what is the time framework for announcing his name and the date for assuming his duties in Damascus?
[Feltman] I do not have a time framework. We informed the Syrians of the decision to send an ambassador and I contacted the Syrian ambassador here. Thus the Syrian Government was informed. But the President has not nominated anyone yet. Of course, this nomination will depend on the Syrians’ approval and then the Senate’s ratification. There is the Senate’s summer recess and I do not expect you to hear anything during the next two weeks. I am expecting this during the next two months.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the ambassador be a political nominee or a veteran diplomat due to the importance of this post?
[Feltman] You are right to focus on the importance of the post. Regardless of whether the nominee is from the veteran diplomats or not, he should be a person capable of playing a strong role with the Syrians and have a solid ground, not only in current policies but also have a hunch about how to press ahead together and who can see the opportunities whenever they present themselves because of the previous coolness with Syria. It is difficult to speculate where the opportunities for bilateral action will be and we therefore need a person on the ground who can see and seek them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrian role in Iraq is one of the factors determining US-Syrian relations. How do you rate this role today, especially after the visit by the US Central Command to Syria?
[Feltman] This is a good question because you are right that the decisions which Syria takes toward Iraq will undoubtedly affect the development of Syrian-US relations. I had the honor of visiting Syria twice, on 7 March and 7 May, and I was of course a member of (US Peace Envoy] Senator George Mitchell’s delegation. In these two visits and even though we do not divulge details of diplomatic talks, I will say that the Syrian statements about their objectives for Iraq are in line to a tangible degree with our objectives for Iraq. From my meetings there and my meetings with the Syrian ambassador (Imad Mustafa) here, I believe that the Syrians want to see a stable, successful, unified, and secure Iraq. This is what we want to see. We spent a long time talking to the Syrians about Iraq for two reasons. First, because we believe that there are networks of foreign fighters using Syrian territories to launch attacks on Iraq. This number has dropped but there are still networks there. One of the reasons why we spent time talking to the Syrians about this issue is that we want the shedding of blood in Iraq to stop by using all possible mechanisms. We see a common area that enables us to achieve a common objective with the Syrians in an issue that is of great importance for us, the Iraqi people, and the region. The first reason that prompts us to cooperate with Syrians about Iraq is the interest of Iraq. But the second reason is more to do with Syrian-US relations. Each one of us took steps in an attempt to warm a relationship that was in a deep stalemate. The Syrians allowed us to reopen our language center and received our delegations. We sent visitors and the President announced his intention to return the ambassador to Syria. These are steps taken in tandem. In addition to these steps, it would be splendid if we could work hand in hand in areas of common interest. Iraq should be one of these areas. If we could envisage a situation where the Americans and Syrians would be working to uncover, disrupt, and stop the network of foreign fighters threatening Iraq’s security, then this would naturally affect our bilateral relations because we would be working again together in a way that did not exist during the past four years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Syrians have started to believe these networks are a danger to them and therefore want to confront them?
[Feltman] The Syrians were the victims of Al-Qaeda organization and other extremists similar to it. There were bombings inside Syria and Syrians were killed by this kind of extremism. I believe the Syrians know that the threat is wider than Iraq. When I talk about networks of foreign fighters using Syrian territories, I am never accusing the Syrians and what I am saying is that we have common interests in preventing these attacks inside and outside Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what degree are some Lebanese politicians, especially the 14 March group, worried by the improvement in relations between Washington and Damascus? Are you assuring them about what you are doing?
[Feltman] We are trying to deal transparently with the Lebanese and we reiterated our commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence in several ways. But we do not believe that warming relations with Syria is inconsistent with supporting Lebanese sovereignty and independence; in the least, it is not necessary for the two things to be contradictory. What we are trying to do by improving our relations with Syria is not at the expense of Lebanon. I had the honor of working with the Lebanese for three and a half years and I certainly understand there are some suspicions and fears of the conspiracy by some people. But many of the observant politicians listened to us as we explained how we wanted to improve relations and they expressed their support for this. Yes, they want to make sure that we are not doing this at their expense but they believe that a positive relationship between the United States and Syria will provide a different protection at a different time from what was necessary before three or four years. Moreover, I cannot think of a single Lebanese politician who had publicly or privately said that he wanted anything other than a good relationship with Syria, a relationship built on mutual respect and recognition of each country’s sovereignty. We saw steps in this direction such as Syria’s establishment of diplomatic relations and the appointment of ambassadors. All these are positive signs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is speculation about the possibility of President Obama visiting Damascus and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s welcoming this. Is this an indication of a possible visit?
[Feltman] President Obama talked about this and underlined our commitment to the dialogue but pointed out that we see aspects of US foreign policy which create problems. I cannot comment on the President’s travel but I do not know of anything being prepared. I cannot however imagine this is in the President’s itinerary. I stress again that it is not my responsibility to comment on the President’s travel destinations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] President Obama has stated there are worrying aspects because of Syria and you referred to issues that create problems. What are the specific factors that are causing this anxiety?
[Feltman] Once again, I do not want to appear negative toward Syria. The Syrians believe there are aspects in our foreign policy which create problems for them. This is a matter that we must work at bilaterally and regionally. But take for example the “Syria accountability bill” passed by the US Congress. It was passed on the basis of Syria’s support for terrorist organization. The other reason was the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon which has now ended. But Syria’s support for terrorist organization remains. To deal with some elements in the “Syria accountability bill”, we must also tackle the reasons for passing it. Syria is going to be part of the comprehensive peace and when we talk about the President’s goal of reaching comprehensive peace, it is necessary for this to include Syria. We understand that Syria has some expectations from the comprehensive peace, as there are Israeli ones, which must be achieved. When we seek comprehensive peace on the Syrian track, we do this knowing that it is not something easy. Each side has its expectations but it is in its interest to seek it. In the end, there will be a need for some concessions when we reach the two-state solution; an Israeli state and a Palestinian one. I do not know the nature of these concessions and the shape of the final settlement has not been decided yet, but it is possible to have some ideas about the concessions. Due to their influence with Hamas and for hosting their leaders and other Palestinian groups, we are hoping that the Syrians will help prepare the atmospheres for some concessions. We too look at Syria’s dealings with Hamas and other Palestinian groups and we do not see any contradiction between seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace and an Israeli-Syrian one; rather each track should back the other. We are hoping that Syria will see that it cannot be a mechanism for weakening the Israeli-Palestinian track.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In which direction are negotiations between the various parties moving in order to reach direct negotiations in the peace process. Will this be achieved this year?
[Feltman] I am expecting it this year. I am hoping it will much earlier than before the end of the year. What Senator Mitchell is doing now with the support of the President and the secretary of state is the creation of the atmospheres so that the negotiations will be successful when they start. We do not want an event that thwarts the talks because the preparations were not right. When we hear Senator Mitchell talking to the Israelis about their previous obligations under the roadmap or to the Arabs about the need to act in the spirit of the Arab peace initiative and when he talks to the Palestinians about their previous obligations, all this is within the framework of attempting to achieve a positive environment and action that push the negotiations forward when they start.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You referred to the Israeli obligations and we are talking here about the settlements. Israeli press reports were published pointing to an agreement about the settlements being reached. Are these reports true? Has the US stand on this issue changed?
[Feltman] No agreement was reached. There were constructive negotiations and the Israelis raised ideas at the table. But our stand remains that the parties must implement the written obligations toward each other. The roadmap is clear. For the Israelis, this means a freeze on the settlements, including their natural growth. The Palestinians have obligations too. We want the Arabs to act in the spirit of the Arab initiative. But we did not reach an agreement weakening the obligations stipulated in the roadmap.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are saying you want the Arabs to act in the spirit of the peace initiative. But they presented it and no attention was paid to it for years. They presented their vision of peace. What is required of them at a time when Israel has not yet expressed its commitment to peace?
[Feltman] One thing they can do is help assert that the Arab peoples are ready for a settlement based on concessions. For example, if the Palestinians accept the exchange of territories as part of the final solution, then I expect the Arabs to accept this even though it is not included in the Arab peace initiative which demands a return to the 1967 borders. I am not saying that the exchange of territories is part of the solution and do not know how the matter will end but it is an example that the spirit of the Arab peace initiative is good yet its details should not be looked at as if it must be accepted as a whole or not. The other thing concerns the Palestinian issue. The [Palestinian] Authority [PA] should have the characteristics of the state because we want a two-state solution. This is not the time to diminish the PA. At Sharm al-Sheikh in March, we announced our intention to give $200 million to the PA’s budget to support its humanitarian programs. We want to see the Arab countries increase their support for the PA to ensure that the latter has the utmost strength for taking over sovereignty that will be granted to it after the peace. But there is a problem among the Palestinian and Israeli circles, namely, they are feeling disappointed with the peace process. We are demanding from both parties, the Arab and Israeli ones, to find ways for taking decisions that give the other party an indication of its seriousness (toward peace) and that there is a new environment and a new commitment. For example, one of the reasons why we are focusing on the settlements issue with the Israelis, not only this issue since it is part of the roadmap obligations, but because many Palestinians and Arabs have told us that a freeze on the settlements is important for sending a message to the Arab peoples that things have started to change. But the Israeli people also need a similar sign. They are frustrated and want to know that there are real partners on the other side if they agreed to make, from their point of view, some concessions. The Israeli people believe the withdrawal from Gaza did not provide better security for Israel and the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 did not make Hezbollah just a political party. They want a sign that things are going to be different this time. We are therefore asking the Arabs to look at what they can do to demonstrate their commitment to the two-state solution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We move to Iran. To what degree are you worried by the fact that all the American steps have not brought a positive response from Iran?
[Feltman] The President laid out the route, which we are hoping that Iran will follow, that leads it to playing an important international role or be a responsible part in the international community. They have not shown so far any signs that they are willing to accept their responsibilities and rights and follow this route. It is Iran’s opportunity to play a role commensurate with its history, culture, and religion but which is also in accord with international law. We are hoping that Iran will follow this route. We are not however just waiting and watching whether Iran will accept this but are also working with our international partners on other incentives, pressures, and measures which we can adopt to persuade the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leaders that they have to follow the route offered to them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But to wait until when? For example, the time factor in the nuclear program is an important one.
[Feltman] Of course, we are aware of the time that is passing at different speeds. You are right that there is a feeling that this issue requires urgent action. But we believe that there is still time for diplomacy to be successful and hoping that it will be one based on dialogue, transparency, and international respect. But it is possible that it will become more drastic diplomacy. The United States and some of our allies are leading other measures to persuade Iran that it is not in its interest to continue with this line.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding Iraq, its Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is coming to Washington next week. What message will he find from the new US administration?
[Feltman] There are several messages. The first is that during Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s visit, the Iraqi people are going to see the constant American contact with Iraq at the highest levels. They will see that this administration is committed to the partnership with Iraq as long as the Iraqi people want it. The second part of the message is to show our compliance with the agreements we had signed with Iraq. Regarding the security agreement, the combat forces were withdrawn from Iraqi cities on 30 June. But the other part is the strategic framework, which is the agreement that will be discussed the most in the coming days. It is the agreement for action on education, development, health, and other civilian aspects. The strategic agreement shows the move to the civilian side and many of the talks you will see at Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s meetings will be about pushing ahead with the initiatives in the agreement, from investment to creating jobs and the economy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This visit happens after the American forces’ release of the five detained Iranians in Baghdad and we know that this was in implementation of the security agreement between the two countries. But what is the political importance of this step?
[Feltman] The political importance of this step is the implementation of the security agreement we had signed with the Iraqis. This release was in line with the clauses in the agreement we signed with the Iraqis at the end of last year