Brussels, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke about NATO’s ongoing role in Libya, as well as the developing situation in Syria, whilst renewing calls for Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states to partner with NATO. Rasmussen is a former Prime Minister of Denmark, who was appointed NATO chief in August 2009, and he has overseen NATO involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed his optimism with regards to the “Arab Spring”, adding that the popular uprisings and revolutions that have taken place across the region represent a “good opportunity” for NATO “to strengthen and renew our relations with the region.” He also once again reiterated that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] No specific date for the withdrawal of NATO forces from Libya was put in place, following NATO’s meeting of defense ministers earlier this week. What are the conditions that must be met for NATO to end its operations in Libya?
[Rasmussen] Our presence in Libya will be determined by what is required by necessity, and I believe that it is premature to talk about the end of the [NATO] mission. We previously said that we had extended our operations in Libya by 90 days; however at the same time we believe that it is necessary to continuously review our operations. Withdrawal will occur as soon as circumstances allow.
Our operations were primarily focused on the protection of civilians from attack, and we will continue operating in this regard until security is achieved [in Libya]. We will continue to carry out our mission until the threats to the safety and security of [Libyan] civilians are dealt with.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about NATO’s relations with the Libyan National Transitional Council [NTC] that is currently ruling the country? Have they asked anything from NATO during this transitional period?
[Rasmussen] I met with [de facto Libyan Prime Minister] Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, and NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil on a number of occasions in a professional context in Istanbul, and later in a more personal context in Libya. I want to confirm that our mission is to protect [Libyan] citizens against attack via aerial and maritime operations within the framework of international action. We are in constant contact with the NTC, and they have visited us here at NATO headquarters.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons behind this communication? What are the most important issues that you discuss with the NTC?
[Rasmussen] The most important reason for these talks is to monitor the political developments in Libya, and allow me to reiterate: our mission is to protect [Libyan] citizens from attack, it not part of our role to intervene in what is happening in the country, but we are interested in following the political developments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Divisions and disputes have begun to appear within the ranks of the Libyan rebels – particularly with regards to the formation of a new government – do you believe that a civil war might break out in Libya?
[Rasmussen] I do not expect a civil war to break out in Libya, and I believe that the NTC will play a major role in protecting Libyan unity, and working with determination to achieve democracy, and this is very important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have previously stressed that NATO will not intervene in Syria. With the al-Assad regime continuing and indeed intensifying its brutal crackdown against the Syrian protesters, is it possible that you will change your position?
[Rasmussen] No, NATO will not intervene in Syria, but we strongly condemn the al-Assad regime’s practices against the Syrian protesters, and I call on this regime to stop such actions and meet the legitimate demands of the Syrian people, and implement democracy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the future of the Arab world following the Arab Spring?
[Rasmussen] I am very optimistic; I believe that freedom is the most important force in the world, because it paves the way for creative thinking and putting forward a practical framework for economic developments, as well as the creation of a stable society. As for political freedom, this is the most important means to ensure security, whilst political stability guarantees general peace and stability.
I think that with the Arab awakening, we will see the region flourishing in the coming years. Although the people will face many challenges, I believe that their strong desire for freedom and democracy will allow them to overcome all difficulties in this regard.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We heard that the United Arab Emirates [UAE] is set to be the first Arab country to send an ambassador to NATO. Would you like to see more Arab or Gulf countries following the UAE in this regard, or joining NATO organizations and initiatives?
[Rasmussen] Yes, I believe that the “Arab Spring” is a good opportunity [for NATO] to strengthen and renew our relations with the [Middle East] region and I believe that Arab states have positively contributed to the NATO “Unified Protector” operation in Libya. A part of our new policy is to let our partners join us by establishing ambassadors to NATO. Some of them have responded to this and made formal requests, and we appreciate this.
The UAE was one of those who responded to this initiative. We also have two organizations. There is the “Mediterranean Dialogue” which is made up of 7 countries from the Middle East and North Africa. Whilst the second organization [Istanbul Cooperative Initiative] was established in Istanbul in 2004 and is made up of 4 Gulf states, namely Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Bahrain. I believe that a democratic Libya can easily join the Mediterranean Dialogue, and thereby become one of our partners. This is an example of how relations can develop.
We also call on all other Gulf States, and renew our calls for Saudi Arabia, to join our partners.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There have been calls from Europe to halt all forms of dialogue with Iran under the pretext that Tehran is not fulfilling some of its international obligations. What is NATO’s position towards Iran?
[Rasmussen] We, in NATO, have nothing to do with Iranian affairs. However some NATO members are dealing with Iranian affairs in a unilateral manner. We support diplomatic efforts to reach a solution regarding the problems with Iran, and we call on Tehran to comply with its international obligations.