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Interview: British envoy to the Syrian opposition John Wilkes | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Following its decision to close its embassy in Syria, the British government appointed a special envoy to the Syrian opposition, to keep in contact with the various opposition groups both inside Syria and abroad. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with British Envoy to the Syrian Opposition John Wilkes about the situation in the country, the state of the Syrian opposition and preparations for the post-Assad period.

John Wilkes is an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, previously serving as British Ambassador to Yemen during the transitional period which saw long-time Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signing the Gulf Initiative and stepping down from power. Wilkes also previously served as Britain’s Deputy Ambassador to Iraq.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the British focus of providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, can you tell us precisely what kind of aid is Britain providing?

[Wilkes] The British government announced last week that it was providing an additional £5 million in non-lethal aid, and we are now reaching an agreement with the Home Office regarding the specific projects. This includes medical aid, namely providing the opposition with medical supplies, as well as communication devices. We are also training opposition cadres to document human rights violations and crimes committed by the regime in Syria. In addition to this, there is the training of cadres in managing local affairs in Syria following [regime] change…we must train activists to manage the affairs of Syria’s cities and villages for the post-change period.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this £5 million represent the first aid given to the Syrian opposition at home?

[Wilkes] There were projects costing £1.5 million, and these projects have been implemented now. We have relations with activists inside Syria, and we are training them in neighbouring states, providing aid and training via networks of activists abroad.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is aid sent to the Syrian opposition? How do you allocate whether medical aid or communication devices go to the Free Syrian Army [FSA], the refugees in Turkey or elsewhere?

[Wilkes] British Home Secretary [William Hague] made it very clear that we are providing non-lethal aid to the political opposition, not the armed opposition. For legal reasons, we do not want to get involved in the conflict inside Syria.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about medical aid? Is this only being allocated to Syrian civilians?

[Wilkes] Of course, because we want to help the [Syrian] opposition in protecting civilians, for there are innocent civilians in Syria’s cities and villages who are suffering as a result of the violent attacks being carried out by the regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is such aid delivered?

[Wilkes] Via the Syrian – Turkish border and other borders. We are also training cadres from inside Syria in neighbouring countries, following which they return [to Syria].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been news reports about Britain providing the Syrian opposition with intelligence. Is this true?

[Wilkes] As usual, we do not comment on intelligence affairs however I can say that the British aid focuses on non-lethal aid, including communication devices, training and medical supplies, more than anything else.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Times newspaper reported that some Syrian regime officers were getting bribed in order to defect. Is there any truth to these claims?

[Wilkes] No, we have not directly provided any funds to any groups inside Syria or abroad. This is because we want to know who this British aid is going to. This is a message to all [Syrian] opposition groups – we want to know how the opposition groups are utilizing the aid from Britain, and we ask them for reports on how this aid is being used in order to ensure accountability. This is something that is required by Britain’s parliament and public opinion.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent do you coordinate with other allied countries, such as France, the US and Turkey, in terms of providing aid to the Syrian opposition?

[Wilkes] We coordinate with the majority of countries that are friends of the Syrian people, particularly the US, France, EU states and Turkey, not to mention Arab states. This is because many countries today are providing additional support, and huge amounts of money, therefore we require greater coordination in order to build the capabilities of the Syrian opposition. We also want the opposition to coordinate between the different groups regarding priorities and classification of requests and the needs of the different regions of Syria.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In terms of priorities, many of the Syrian opposition have called for the establishment of buffer zones in Syria to protect civilians and strengthen their position on the ground. What is the possibility of such safe zones being established?

[Wilkes] Establishing safe zones requires military intervention, such as a no-fly zone as well as a means of protecting these zones. Of course, Britain and the western states as a whole do not want to get involved in a war in Syria. We want change and a regime that is more respectful to the diversity of Syrian society; however we also want to avoid chaos in Syria. We do not want to pour oil on the fire in Syria; therefore the door is always open for a political solution with regards to all problems due to the actions of the regime and the violent attacks it is committing against the Syrian people. However we want to build the capability of the opposition to govern the country’s affairs, even before the fall of the regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As for supporting the opposition to govern the country, there are some areas of Syria that are not under the control of the al-Assad regime. Do you fear that the opposition will be unable to govern these areas?

[Wilkes] It is true that there must be coordination between opposition groups at home and abroad, as well as between armed groups, political groups and civilian activists. This is because we want to avoid the historic fate of the army and armed groups being completely separate from the politicians. We need a political framework that governs the affairs of the country, and for the armed groups to respect the politicians. This is why we are sitting down with political representatives to the armed groups to encourage the establishment of a political leadership for the opposition groups at home, whether armed or political or civilian, in order to establish a local administration in some areas. The regime may be in control of the large cities; however its presence in many rural areas is very limited.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you achieve this via local coordination committees?

[Wilkes] We are now expanding communication with local coordination committees in Syria, as well as civilian activists.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are many questions regarding the Syrian National Council [SNC]. Following broad external support for the SNC, and it being viewed as one of the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, foreign parties are now seeking to expand their cooperation with other opposition groups. What is your assessment of the SNC?

[Wilkes] The SNC is an important part of the Syrian opposition, but there are other opposition elements and we communicate with all members of the opposition. We want the SNC and the other political groups to work and cooperate with each other to develop the plan for the transitional period that was developed at the Cairo Conference for the Syrian Opposition last July. There were two documents [put forward at this conference], namely the National Pact, which puts forward the future vision for Syria which is based on establishing a civil state in Syria. In addition to this, there is a strategic plan for the transitional period. We are now encouraging the different groups to participate with the international community in the so-called follow-up committee to promote this plan within Syria and abroad, coordinating and consulting with the major donor states. We are all now preparing for the period following the collapse of the regime, and all the security, political and economic requirements of the country. We require a strong Syrian voice to develop this strategy for the transitional period. There are consultations currently taking place within the Syrian opposition regarding the appointment of representatives to the follow-up committee and opening an office in Cairo under the umbrella of the Arab League to develop this plan for the transitional period and to coordinate with all groups at home, as well as the international community.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you talk about a “political framework” to govern the affairs of the country, does this include a transitional government?

[Wilkes] At this stage, we are only talking about forming a technical committee for consultations over the transitional period, not to mention the economic and security requirements during this period in order to avoid chaos. Of course there are consultations between the Syrian people and the opposition and the formation of what can be called an Elders Council and later a transitional government, but we must first begin by focusing on the practical matters.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have talked a lot about coordination amongst and between the Syrian opposition, but this is very difficult to see on the ground, and there are clear divisions between the opposition groups. To what extent does this hinder the technical coordination or planning for the transitional period?

[Wilkes] Yes, there are well-known divisions, however despite this there is an agreement between all major political groups, firstly, regarding the need for change, and then avoiding chaos during the transitional period. We want to encourage cohesion between the different groups by focusing on practical matters, away from personal conflict or minor or traditional differences between groups. There are youth activists who have the experience and vision to establish a modern state in Syria, and we would like to make room for them under the umbrella of the political leadership of different [opposition] groups in order to make progress in building understanding between different regions of Syria, and different political groups. God willing, if we focus on the practical and technical issues we can overcome some of the well-known tensions and problems that we have seen in the past.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are also prominent political figures on the scene, particularly in terms of defectors like former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Are you in contact with him?

[Wilkes] I have yet to sit down with the former Syrian Prime Minister until now, but God willing the defectors will play a constructive role in the political negotiations to resolve the Syrian crisis. For in the end, even if this conflict in Syria continues for an unspecified period of time, we must find a political solution, and this requires negotiations with some members of the regime, and some members of the opposition.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There were expectations that Manaf Tlass would play a political role following his defection, however many in the opposition have objected to this. Are you in contact with Tlass? Will you seek to convince the opposition to allow Tlass to play a role?

[Wilkes] We are not in contact with him and these matters are up to the Syrian people. We need a strong and clear Syrian voice regarding the future of the country and who will play a role during this transitional phase. I think that it is clear, in order to avoid chaos in Syria, that we need the participation of the majority of the different political groups. In any case, the [Syrian] opposition has said that any Syrian who has been part of the regime but whose hands are not stained with blood can play a role if they adopt the vision of the Syrian opposition to establish a modern, civil state that respects the diversity of Syrian society.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any information about Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and his possible defection?

[Wilkes] I have heard the news and read the reports but until now we do not have any confirmed information regarding the fate of Farouk al-Sharaa.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are fears of sectarianism affecting the political process and the coordination between different Syrian groups. How much is this a factor?

[Wilkes] Sectarianism is intensifying, and we are increasingly concerned about the sectarianism in Syria. However despite this, I believe that the majority of Syrians reject the sectarian system in place in the country and we must build on the figures and groups that have adopted the vision of the civil state that respects all components of Syria’s social fabric. I believe that the National Pact has made it very clear that the vision of the majority of groups in the Syrian opposition is based on the participation of all components of Syrian society. Without this vision, I do not think that the transitional period in Syria will succeed, and Syria would enter an extremely different period. Therefore, we want to provide assistance and aid to the groups that respect the natural diversity of Syrian society.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However documents and statements are one thing and implementation is something else. To what extent do you sense a conviction regarding these principles amongst the Syrian opposition?

[Wilkes] Implementation is the second step; however agreement on a vision, principles and strategy is the first step. The opposition has made progress in this area, and there is a need to complete the mission, and that is part of the work of the follow-up committee. I believe that in the period following the ouster of the regime, the transitional Syrian government will need assistance from the donor countries and we will ask it for a convincing strategy. Therefore, we can work now to develop a strategy that convinces, firstly the Syrians and secondly the international community. This, God willing, will help to contain the fallout following the ouster of the regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When do you think this might happen?

[Wilkes] As soon as possible, God willing.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However until now, there is a need to reach a political solution, do you think there is any room for successful dialogue between the regime and the opposition?

[Wilkes] This dialogue is necessary. There is communication between some elements inside the regime and some members of the opposition, and this is good, however we need commitment on the part of the majority of [opposition] political groups and regime officials to save the country from the current deterioration and this requires courageous decisions. In Britain’s view, Bashar al-Assad has had many opportunities to open the door for this dialogue, however unfortunately he did not take any of these opportunities and instead adopted violent methods. There is no security solution for the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. Therefore, the door must be open for a political solution. However, due to the behaviour of the regime until now, it is clear that the Syrian people are in need of protection, and we must exert more pressure on the regime to change its behaviour.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is Britain in contact with any Syrian officials?

[Wilkes] We do not have an embassy in Damascus…we talk to people who have ties to the regime; they are not opposition activists but rather businessmen and figures from inside Syria. There is a large group of Syrians who are neither part of the opposition, nor part of the regime.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can there be dialogue with the regime whilst Bashar al-Assad remains in power? Does al-Assad have to step down for dialogue to succeed?

[Wilkes] The majority of opposition groups completely reject al-Assad remaining in power, and I believe that at the current time, the political solution depends on the departure of al-Assad. However we all want to avoid the complete destruction of the state, therefore if there was a formula to launch a political process and transitional period on the basis of negotiations between members of the regime and opposition, this would be the best solutions under the current circumstances.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the greatest challenges that you personally face as Britain’s envoy to the Syrian opposition?

[Wilkes] As I said, we all want to avoid chaos in Syria; that is why we want the opposition to develop a security plan to avoid chaos in the country following the collapse of the regime. We also need to work quickly to get the economy moving in Syria because the economic conditions have completely deteriorated. We must develop these plans now in order to preserve security and economic movement following the collapse of the regime. I believe that the operations of the follow-up committee are very important, in addition to the political consultations regarding the features of the transitional stage. The international community is ready to consult with the Syrian opposition to develop a convincing plan. We want to involve the follow-up committee in these talks now. There is an opportunity for the first meeting of this committee to take place next week.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect all opposition factions to send a representative to next week’s meeting?

[Wilkes] At this time we encourage the SNC and the other groups to get ready for the first meeting because the situation in the country is deteriorating and we want to send a clear message to the Syrian people that there is serious work taking place to save the country.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the FSA send a representative?

[Wilkes] We encourage the appointment of two political representatives for consultation representing the [opposition] groups at home and abroad…and they will have a role because they are present on the ground.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are some concerns regarding the FSA. Why is that?

[Wilkes] As the Home Secretary said, we are ready, and I personally sit down with political representatives, I do not sit down with fighters. We want to encourage the development of the strategy of the armed groups, for without political goals for the opposition…we will miss the opportunity to build a better Syria.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports of foreigners and extremists present in the ranks of the Syrian fighters, including even British citizens. How concerned are you regarding these developments?

[Wilkes] We are carefully and closely monitoring this issue. We are all afraid of the chaos being utilized by extremists and radicals, however there are encouraging signs from the armed groups within the FSA and the political groups in the country that they are rejecting the presence of Al Qaeda, or the so-called Jabhet al-Nasrah…because the majority of Syrians are moderates and do not want to see sectarianism or any force dividing the country. We must build upon the majority of the Syrians who reject extremism. However there is certainly concern regarding the presence of extremists and concerns regarding whether there is chaos in Syria and the problem of chemical weapons. We do not want any extremist groups to get their hands on these weapons. Their presence, until now, is limited, but this is increasing and we have concerns over the impact that this will have on the neighbouring countries. We are afraid of the extremists securing a permanent presence [in Syria], allowing them to plan for operations abroad.