London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, British Ambassador to Syria, Simon Collis, revealed his views on the Syrian crisis, the latest developments on the ground, and scenarios for the collapse of the al-Assad regime. Collis, who was recently recalled to London, after Britain took the decision to close its embassy in Syria due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, has been an outspoken critic of the al-Assad regime. He was appointed British ambassador to Syria in 2007, having previously held diplomatic posts in Bahrain, Tunisia, India, Jordan, and Dubai. He previously served as British ambassador to Qatar between 2005 and 2007.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Syrian Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameddin announced his defection from the al-Assad regime on Thursday, how importance is this defection? Do you expect more Syrian officials to defect from the Damascus regime?
[Collis] This is possible, and I believe this [defection] is important as an indicator of the course that events are heading in. There are honest people who are hold positions within this government and regime who feel ashamed of the actions taken by this regime against its own people and who are no longer willing to be considered associated with this, even indirectly.
Nobody considers the deputy oil minister to be part of the [al-Assad] killing machine, even indirectly; however he was part of the government. Therefore it is clear that he is someone who listened to his conscience and his heart and decided that the time had come, despite the dangers to his family, to take the decision [to defect], and I believe that this is something that we must respect and welcome.
As for whether this will lead to other defections, we must wait and see. He is the most senior defector, but he is not the first. As we see, things are developing, and I think yes, we can expect more people to take such steps. I think there are many others who must share his feelings but do not find themselves able to take action out of fear. However when fear retreats or the pressures of these events that cannot be accepted intensify, this is when we can expect others to take this courageous step.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you were in Damascus you were in contact with people in the government as well as members of the Syrian opposition. Did you ever feel that Syrian officials wanted to defect but were afraid to take this step?
[Collis] Yes, I spoke to former ministers in the previous government which was dissolved last year, and some of these figures are respectable figures who took up positions due to their experience as technocrats, and not necessarily because they were Baathists.
When speaking to them, it was clear they did not want to be linked to a regime that suppresses its own people, detaining, killing and torturing civilians. This government was dissolved, so they did not resign. However there are other high-ranking ministers who know that this regime no longer represents a way forward. Perhaps in the past they believed they…were playing a role in developing the country, however they have discovered that this is not possible under the current leadership.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What options are on the table for Syria? Some people believe it will be possible to reach a deal with al-Assad like that enacted in Yemen, ensuring a safe exit for the Syrian present in return for him handing over power, whereas others believe that only a military solution is possible. Is there a third option?
[Collis] I believe there is interaction between the military option and the political option, however what is happening on the ground will, of course, influence the chances of a political solution. In the end, the solution must be a political one; any crisis such as this can only be solved through a political framework. The question is how to create the conditions for this political framework. When Britain was working with France and the US last year to encourage the [Syrian] regime to work towards transition of power based upon negotiations, we were clear that the problem that must be resolved was a Syrian – Syrian problem, not a Syrian – Western one. We felt it was necessary to take certain steps to make sure that a political solution was possible [in Syria], such as [the regime] freeing political detainees, ending the killing, mass arrests, and torture, and allowing opposition figures to freely meet and organize their operations as well as allowing the media freedom and accepting the continuation of peaceful protests. These were all proposals we put forward. We explained that so long as security operations were ongoing, we did not believe it would be possible to make progress in the political process, for it is not possible to reconcile the two tracks. When we look at what Turkey tried to achieve after last Ramadan, this was based on the same thinking, and it met with the same results, as the regime completely ignored this. After this, there was the Arab League initiative which essentially put forward the same thing. Until now, these same issues are on the table, which were defined by the Arab League initiative, which includes the withdrawal of all heavy weaponry, the release of detainees, and allowing journalists to enter [into Syria]. These are the issues – not the conditions – that will determine the political process. However the regime has not shown any signs of good faith with regards to any of these plans, with the exception of the Arab initiative which the Syrian government signed but ultimately failed to implement any of its terms. If the regime does not change its behavior, it is difficult to know how we will reach a political solution, however this must remain our political objective.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan is heading to Damascus, with the same issues and problems and Syrian intransigence. Do you have any hope that his visit will be successful or have any concrete results?
[Collis] We must wait and see, we welcome his appointment [as UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria] and we support his visit. He has been appointed jointly by the UN and the Arab League, and this is important. The task which he has been entrusted includes working to implement the Arab League initiative that the Syrian government itself signed. What is required for the Syrian government to do is implement what they have repeatedly said they are prepared to do, but which until now they have failed to do. As for ourselves and our partners, we will do what we can to help, which includes increasing pressure on the [al-Assad] regime, increasing its political and economic isolation, as well as working to ensure accountability, which is important. It is necessary that the Syrian army and security leadership and officers who are carrying out the orders of the Syrian leadership understand now – not in a few years’ time – that they will be held accountable for what they are doing today.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However there is a general awareness that the decision to transfer the Syrian file to the International Criminal Court [ICC] requires a resolution from the UN Security Council, which is unlikely thanks to the Russian and Chinese veto. In this case, do you think this threat will truly serve as a deterrent to the Syrian regime’s forces? Isn’t it true that many of the al-Assad regime loyalists are of the view that they are facing a “kill or be killed” scenario?
[Collis] Yes…we are working with the Syrians and Arab organizations to ensure that lawyers meet with victims of violence and suppression and document their evidence and testimonies so that this is ready, whether this is for the ICC or another judicial organization, it could even be for the Syrian courts themselves in the future. However we must work to undermine this confidence of the Syrian leadership that does not think it will be held accountable. In addition, it is essential that the international community and the Syrian opposition send a message that the situation is not necessarily as it seems, that the choice is not kill or be killed. It is important that the Syrian opposition clarifies that its vision for the future of Syria has a place for all Syrians, regardless of background and sectarian factors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about political background?
[Collis] One of the most difficult things for any country or people to do is to draw up a transitional plan, but this transition is necessary and will include people from every party, including members of the [Syrian] armed and security forces. It will be important to find a space for them in a new democratic state that is committed to the law. It will not be easy, but Syria is not the first country to face these challenges; many countries have faced similar challenges, and some have been more successful than others in reaching a peaceful path, most prominently South Africa.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let’s talk about Russia. Moscow has announced its refusal to change its position on Syria. How can we reach an agreement with Russia to pressure the al-Assad regime to stop the violence?
[Collis] We must look at China and Russia. Following the second veto at the UN Security Council, I spoke to senior Chinese officials and my attention was drawn to the fact that China has only used its veto 8 times since it joined the Security Council, 6 times on issues related to Taiwan, which is something that everybody recognizes is a red-line for Beijing, and now it is has used this veto twice on Syria. I do not think they are keen to continue this approach. I do not think there is any reason for the al-Assad regime to think it has a blank check from China, which is a permanent member of the Security Council and which has numerous interests in the region, including regional stability. In spite of their position on foreign intervention in domestic issues, they also have important economic interests in the region, and they must take into account whether China’s national interests are served by supporting a regime that is doomed to failure, at the expense of their relations with many countries in the region and the wider international arena.
As for Russia, following the second veto the Foreign Secretary [William Hague] clarified that we will remain in contact with Russia on this issue. If they continue to support a regime that is carrying out crimes in their own country, they will do this under an intense media and diplomatic spotlight, and we will talk publicly about what they are doing and the results of their actions. They are now in a very awkward position; for it is embarrassing to defend actions that are indefensible. However at the same time, we will continue to talk with them and stay in touch with them. Perhaps the draft resolutions about the humanitarian situation in Syria which is presently being discussed in New York [by the Security Council] may be an opportunity for cooperation. We are cooperating with the Russians wherever we can at the Security Council, and if we felt that we had reached the limit of this cooperation we can work outside the Security Council via groups such as the Friends of Syria group and with countries with similar positions to our own.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, what is the point of no return that would signal the end of the Syrian regime? To what extent will economic factors play in this process?
[Collis] I think that it is impossible to know when we will reach the point of no return, but we are now witnessing a decline in the support for the regime as a result of the increasing number of people – like the former Syrian deputy oil minister – who understand that there is no future for Syria or themselves and their families so long as this regime remains in power. This decline in support will mean that the Syrian regime has become increasingly fragile and may collapse at any time.
The same thing is happening now amongst the [Syrian] businessmen; they are now aware that there is no future for themselves, their families or their companies and businesses under this regime. They may not feel that they can move at the present time, but if they see the opportune moment, this may happen quickly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the collapse of the al-Assad regime will happen anytime soon?
[Collis] This is possible, but nobody knows. I have publicly stated that I doubt this situation can continue beyond the current year; perhaps it can continue beyond this, however I personally doubt it. The question is not will the regime collapse, but when. This is something I am sure of.
As for the economy, we are seeing increasing pressure [on the government]; the people cannot afford to heat their homes or fuel their cars. The official cost of substances that are subsidized by the government have increased, whilst due to corruption the original cost of such goods has also increased. Inflation is on the rise, and the Syrian pound is losing its value. The [Syrian] economy is collapsing, and it is collapsing due to the actions of this regime. It cannot carry out such major security operations across the country and expect the economy to continue as normal. Tourism has collapsed whilst investment has stopped; in addition to this consumer confidence has declined, as has trade with neighboring countries…the sanctions have also had an effect on this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Syrian economy will collapse before the end of the year?
[Collis] I believe that the continued collapse of the economy clearly demonstrates, to the Syrian people, the results of the actions of this regime. The regime has caused this situation, and it cannot resolve it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You therefore believe that the collapse of the al-Assad regime will be from within, not as a result of foreign intervention?
[Collis] Yes…I believe this is what will happen, and I believe this is what must happen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You do not believe there should be a military solution, or foreign intervention in Syria?
[Collis] No, we – and other countries – will work to isolate the regime and to maximize our support of the opposition, but we will not arm the opposition. I think that the Syrian people will gain their freedom by their own efforts, as has occurred in other countries in the Arab world.