In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who rarely speaks to the Western press, cast the violence in Syria as a war against Salafi terrorists, who are backed by predominantly Sunni Arab nations that expected the Bashar al-Assad regime to fall quickly amid the Arab uprisings that swept Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
But those who anticipated Assad's fall and armed anti-regime militants miscalculated, Moallem said, and the result has been the dramatic escalation of armed conflict that has taken an estimated 20,000 Syrian lives over the past 20 months.
"If ending the violence was in the hands of the Syrian government, then I assure you we would have ended it yesterday," Moallem said. "Unfortunately, it is not a Syrian government decision. It is in fact Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, who are arming, hosting, and financing these armed groups. So the decision is there."
“When they started this crisis in Syria they felt that within a couple of months everything would change, as it's happened in Tunis and Egypt and Libya,” Moallem, himself a Sunni Muslim, said. But Turkey and other Western and Arab powers were "mistaken,” because the Syrians, he said, “are different.” Despite casting blame for the conflict on external powers, Moallem told Al-Monitor that Syria welcomes mediation efforts, including those of Lakhdar Brahimi, the new joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy.
"I met Brahimi yesterday," Moallem said. "I assured him of our readiness again to cooperate with his efforts. We are ready to work with him."
Moallem also said he welcomed a new mediation offer proposed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to broker discussions between the Syrian government and the opposition, under Brahimi's auspices. Moallem questioned, however, whether the Syrian opposition was ready to take up the offer of dialogue with the Damascus regime. That reluctance might be explained in part by Moallem's expressed resistance to hold early Syrian presidential elections, currently scheduled for 2014. "Under Syria's constitution, there cannot be early elections," he explained.
Moallem singled out Turkey especially for blame in the Syrian crisis. He reflected how over a decade he had built a “strategic relationship with Turkey in all fields,” which was, he said, destroyed by the anti-Assad stance adopted by Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan. One of the reasons for the falling out, Moallem said, was Turkish pressure on Syria to engage the Muslim Brotherhood. Moallem, who at one time was personally close to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, said Erdogan’s government is “causing the bloodshed” and “hosting terrorist groups and sending them to Syria ... harming the Syrian people.” Moallem said that he saw no sign that Turkey was considering shifting course, saying some 200, 300 fighters are entering Syria from Turkey every day.
Asked about the role of Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani in convening meetings of the Syrian Kurds, Moallem said he has received "assurances" from Barzani that "he is not interfering" in Syria.
Moallem was also highly critical of Washington’s stance toward the Syrian conflict.
“I don't understand why at this juncture in Syria they are helping, supporting a terrorist group,” he said, likening US support for the Syrian opposition to its covert support of the mujahedeen anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s who later gave rise to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The Syrian envoy scoffed when a reporter pointed out that the United States has shown little appetite to wade more deeply into Syria’s civil war, and ostensibly limited its acknowledged role to providing humanitarian and non-lethal assistance — such as communications equipment — to the Syrian opposition.
“Communication instruments are part … of any army,” he said. “It is military help. Second, you make people hungry and suffer because of your sanctions and then you pay few dollars .. to feed them — isn't it double standard policy?”
Despite his criticism of the United States, Moallem acknowledged nostalgia for the country, which sanctioned him and other Assad regime leaders last year. "I miss Washington a lot," he said. Moallem lived in the Kalorama section of the city for ten years when he served as Syria’s envoy to the United States from 1990-2000, during which time he was involved in Ameerican-brokered peace talks with the Israelis at Wye River Plantation.
“Frankly speaking, we tried all types of talks with Israel — direct, indirect,” he said. “From my personal experience, I assure you that Israel is not ready for peace. Israel wants to impose peace, but not to have a peace treaty which is fair for both sides.”
Moallem spoke Saturday to Al-Monitor's Andrew Parasiliti and Laura Rozen at the Waldorf Hotel in New York, where he is attending meetings surrounding the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.
The full interview continues below. (To see other Al-Monitor newsmaker interviews, click here.)
photo by Victoria Will
Al-Monitor: Mr. Minster, I'll begin. The war in Syria is taking a terrible toll. Special Envoy Brahimi this week described the situation as “grim,” a “stalemate,” and going “from bad to worse.” What is your plan to end the violence in Syria?
Moallem: Well, if ending the violence is in the hand of the Syrian government, I assure you we are happy to end it yesterday. But unfortunately it is not a Syrian government decision. It is, in fact, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, who are financing, arming, hosting, training this armed group. So the decision is there. And from there you can take it to Washington, DC.
Al-Monitor: You mentioned some of the key regional players. As you know, there are several regional initiatives to support a negotiated solution to the crisis in Syria. One includes Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. [One was] announced yesterday is by Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari, to organize a transition, a meeting between the Syrian opposition and your government. There's Special Envoy Brahimi. Which of these, if any, do you support, and, if so, on what terms?
Moallem: In principle, we support all initiatives who has goodwill and honesty. If Turkey [is] part of this initiative which contains Iran and Egypt — so Turkey has to show goodwill and to stop what Turkey is doing by sending armed group, by training them — it is not only Syrian. Armed groups coming from al-Qaeda, countries in North Africa, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya. They all gather in Turkey and [are] sent to Syria. So, as I said, we welcome all initiatives which contain goodwill and honesty. We — you referred to Lakhdar Brahimi — I met him yesterday. I assured him again our willingness to cooperate with his efforts. He's a man who is experienced in the region and we are willing to work with him.
Al-Monitor: There are also the initiatives by Iran, coming out of the Non-Aligned Summit [and the one] announced by the Iraqi foreign minister. Do you consider those goodwill initiatives as well?
Moallem: Yes. I just came from a meeting with Mr. Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq, and I told him we welcome publicly their initiative.
Al-Monitor: Will you be meeting with the Syrian opposition under Foreign Minister Zebari's hosting or is that something [that you] — do you see the Syrian leadership and the Syrian opposition sitting down under the hosting of Foreign Minister Zebari?
Moallem: No, it has to be under the hosting of Mr. Brahimi. But the idea came from Zebari. We are ready, but are the opposition ready? Until today, they refuse. [If] they are ready, this is important.
Al-Monitor: You mentioned Turkey at some length. It was not so long ago that Syria was quite close to Turkey and you personally were close to your counterpart
Moallem: Without a doubt.
Al-Monitor: … Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Now Turkey is literally on the front lines of the fight against your government. Could you just reflect for a minute — what happened? And how do you see Turkey’s present role, and do you see any prospects, in your view, for Turkey in helping to end the fighting in Syria?
Moallem: Well, during 10 years we built a strategic relationship with Turkey in all fields. Politically, economically, socially, because the relations between the Syrian people and the Turkish people are very well-rooted in history. So we came to see this relation with the people and between the people restored. …
I’m speaking and complaining from Mr. Erdogan government policy vis-à-vis Syria. In fact, they [Turkey] destroyed what we built during the 10 years of relations. They drifted from a friendly neighborhood country to a country which is harming the Syrian people.
They're causing the bloodshed. They are hosting terrorist groups and sending them to Syria. They mobilize their armed forces to the border. All these hostile policies and activities put the Turkish role in question. Now if Turkey was to play a role in the future for stability and security, they have to show their goodwill by stopping what they are doing today. This is very important. A practical goodwill.
Al-Monitor: Do you see any sign that Turkey may be changing its position —
Moallem: No, no, no. Every day, we receive more than two or three hundred fighters coming from Turkey.
Al-Monitor: Laura and I were both with — and at several events with — Iranian President Ahmadinejad Monday. He described the fighting in Syria as “tribal warfare”. Others have characterized the fighting as kind of ground zero for a regional sectarian Sunni/Shiite conflict in the region. Is the war in your country tribal warfare? Is it a sectarian war? Or something else?
Moallem: They want it to be like that. They want to make it like that. But the Syrian people succeeded not to make it like that. Today, the war — I can describe it correctly — it is a struggle against terrorism of al-Qaeda, against the extremist Salafists.
Al-Monitor: When you say they would want to describe it as a sectarian war, who are they?
Moallem: Well, you can start from Washington to Doha ...
Al-Monitor: Why would such a wide axis, not always seeing the region the same way, perceive a tribal war or sectarian war in Syria and not just a fight against terrorism?
Moallem: Well, unfortunately this crisis came with a chain called ‘Arab Spring.’ It started from Morocco to Tunisia to Libya to Egypt to Yemen. So it started in Syria. But their calculation was mistaken. When they started this crisis in Syria they felt that within a couple of months everything would change, as it's happened in Tunis and Egypt and Libya. But the Syrians are different Why they are different? We have in our society many components, religious and ethnic bases. In Syria, we are proud during our history of the coexistence policy. You can't [define] a Syrian citizen because he is Muslim or he's Christian, he is Sunni or Shiite. We never stop on this. We consider all these components as a Syrian citizen. For that, they felt the base is not there in the society.
Al-Monitor: In the past you worked with and through Turkey to engage Israel. You were involved in the Wye talks, and the key peace initiatives under the Clinton Administration and after. How vital, in your view, is the Israeli role in conflict resolution in Syria and throughout the region? What are your thoughts on direct talks with Israel, for you, Iran, or other regional powers?
Moallem: Well, frankly speaking we tried all types of talks with Israel — direct, indirect since Madrid, this conference, and after. And I've been the chief negotiator. From my personal experience, I assure you that Israel is not ready for peace. Israel wants to impose peace, but not to have a peace treaty which is fair for both sides. We tried direct talks in Washington through the American mediation. Then we tried through Turkey. Then we tried through Mr. Fredrick Hof indirectly. But no result. So, as Shamir said once, it is talks for the sake of talks.
Al-Monitor: Who said that?
Moallem: Shamir — Prime Minister Shamir before Madrid Peace Conference. Now I believe that peace between Syria and Israel, between Israel and the Palestinians, are vital for the stability of the region. But it has to have political goodwill. There came a time we were very close to a peace agreement during late Prime Minister Yitzakh Rabin. But the man was assassinated.
So, today, I don't see [an] Israeli will to achieve this peace. To the contrary, I can see the American foreign policy in the Middle East has to take in its account and priority the Israeli interest. And the Israeli interest today is to continue this violence in Syria as long as it's Syrian killing a Syrian, as long as the country infrastructure is destroyed. For that, we don't see any American initiative to end this violence
Al-Monitor: I mean in some ways the Israelis see at some point that if the Assad regime leaves that there's likely to be an Islamist successor in Syria and they're not at all happy about that ... Just the way they're not thrilled about the Muslim Brotherhood playing a larger role in Egypt and that crisis. So I think they're more ambivalent in some ways. They did have a cold peace with Assad. You know, are you sure it's fair to characterize them —
Moallem: I don't know what the Israelis are thinking, but what I see practically, on the ground — first, Israel is not ready for peace with Syria. Second, Israel is happy to see Syrian killing Syrian, so violence to continue. Thirdly, I can see American-Israel-coordination concerning this policy.
Al-Monitor: To shift back to another part of the conflict, what's happening in Syria is giving attention to the role of the Kurds, not just in Syria but throughout the region. From your perspective, what is the role of the Kurds in Syria in the present conflict? And how do you see the Kurdish question playing out now in Syria, Turkey, Iraq?
Moallem: Well, in Iraq they are [unintelligible] according to the constitution. In Turkey, there were some clashes between the PKK and the government army. In Syria, according to the new constitution, we fulfilled the condition — demands. We recognize them as an important component of the Syrian people. For that, the region where are the Kurds [live] is stable in Syria.
Al-Monitor: A related question. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has convened meetings of Syrian Kurdish groups and is attending the AK Party conference in Turkey. What does this mean, in your view, for Syria, and your relationship with the KRG of Iraq, and Syria-Kurdish issues?
Moallem: Well, according to their assurances we are receiving from Mr. Barzani, he's not interfering in the Syrian issue and he does not forget what we did for the Kurds during Saddam era. We hosted them, we helped them in Syria for many years. Mr. Hoshyar Zebari used to live in Damascus for 15 years. So I think these are the type of assurances we are receiving from Mr. Barzani.
Al-Monitor: How is the war in Syria influenced by Iraq or more broadly? How do you describe your relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki?
Moallem: Well, we have good relations with Mr. al-Maliki. He understands well the root of the crisis in Syria. [For that], the Iraqi role in the world arena is active role. But without doubt, because of the neighborhood, the Syrian crisis affects them and the result of this crisis affects Iraq. For that, Iraq is very sensitive towards this crisis.
Al-Monitor: Can I ask what is the Iranian role in Syria now?
Moallem: Well, first, if you meant by this question that Iran is interfering on the ground, I assure you no Iranian whatsoever is playing a role on the ground. The only thing Iran is trying to help by initiatives ... to solve the crisis. They have received some of the opposition in Tehran and they are trying to convince them to resolve through dialogue with the government.
Al-Monitor: I mean I thought they've talked about having advisors [and] playing an advisory role, not on the ground fighting but —
Moallem: Absolutely not.
Al-Monitor: And which type of opposition [are they] —
Al-Monitor: You're here in New York as foreign minister, dealing with this issue, what would be your message to the Syrian opposition outside and inside Syria and to the Syrian expatriate community.
Moallem: I assure you my message is very clear. And my message not as a Syrian foreign minister, but as a Syrian citizen. I call all of them to work together through the dialogue to build the future of Syria — not through arms, not through violence, but through peaceful talks.
Al-Monitor: Can I ask — sorry — but what is the situation of President Al-Assad these days. Is he hiding in a bunker? He's more invisible to us in Washington.
Moallem: He's not in a bunker. He's in Damascus doing his duty every day in his office, follow us of what we are doing, follow other ministries. Especially he focuses on the Syrian economy and the wellbeing of the Syrian people.
Al-Monitor: I saw an interview you gave to Foreign Policy in 2009, the beginning of the Obama administration. You expressed optimism about the administration. I know the administration also was more interested to engage the Syrians and the Iranians and others and that Chairman Kerry [of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] came to Damascus, [State Department official Fred Hof, and [former US Envoy] George Mitchell as well. Some of those people now have said that they feel like President Al-Assad's promises of reform have not materialized and have expressed a sense of disappointment or even being deceived. Can you speak at all about that period of engagement and why people seem to be disappointed?
Moallem: Well, it was welcome period of engagement, but unfortunately the American administration did not make use of their experience of Afghanistan. At once in the mid of1980s, during Reagan Administration, they considered Bin Laden and his group as freedom fighters. And they changed after that, considered them — Al-Qaeda terrorist group. The same issue — they did it in Libya. And now they are repeating it in Syria. In Libya, they were a victim of this group they support, as they are victim in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda they created in the middle of 1985, which hit in 9/11 the towers up in New York, and elsewhere. Terrorism has no country or border limits. And there are Security Council resolutions which the international community has to work together to combat terrorism. For that, I don't understand why at this juncture in Syria they are helping, supporting a terrorist group.
Al-Monitor: [The] United States — because honest to God — you talk to senior U.S. officials, they're giving humanitarian aid and some communications equipment, but they do not want to get involved in Syria's civil war.
Moallem: ... Communication instruments are part or branch of any army. The armies cannot [be] active on the ground without communication facilities. So it is not, as they say, nonmilitary help. It is a military help. Second, you make people hunger and suffer because of your sanction and then you pay few dollars for them to feed them — isn't it double standard policy? The last question.
Al-Monitor: Given your past relationships with the Clinton administration and others, are you in touch with any US policy makers?
Moallem: No. I've got a lot of friends, but I did not offend anybody by calling them.
Al-Monitor: You haven't called anyone.
Al-Monitor: And do you miss — I know you were in Washington for 10 years? Do you —
Moallem: Yes. I miss Washington a lot.