UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks to the media after Security Council consultations at the United Nations headquarters in New York, May 13, 2014.  (photo by REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Former UN Syria envoy says Iran plan on Syria 'worth discussing'

Author: Andrew Parasiliti Posted May 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned on May 13 as Joint United Nations-League of Arab States Special Representative for Syria, said that an Iranian proposal for a political solution in Syria is "worth discussing."

SummaryPrint In his first interview since resigning as the UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi reflects on the reasons for the failure of the Geneva process and the prospects for a political solution in Syria.
Author Andrew Parasiliti Posted May 18, 2014
Translator(s)Inga Michaeli

“I told the Security Council the other day, one of the hopeful signs, maybe a straw that you are trying to catch out of this desperate situation, is that the Iranians have been saying let’s get all the foreign fighters out,” Brahimi said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in Washington.

“They must mean also Hezbollah, and the Iraqis, and their own,” said Brahimi, adding that discussing Iran’s four-point proposal “does not mean taking it all as it is. But I think it is one of the elements you can discuss.”

Brahimi, who succeeded Kofi Annan as Syria envoy in September 2012, lamented that divisions in the UN Security Council and the region complicated his diplomacy in support of a political transition in Syria.

“The thing is, very soon in Syria things were polarized,” Brahimi said. On one side was the view that there cannot be a solution involving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “while the other side said there cannot be a solution without Bashar al-Assad. This is the circle that everybody tried to square, and failed, and to a certain degree it is still the question that is to be resolved.”

The veteran Algerian diplomat, who previously served as the UN special representative to Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and South Africa, said that there may have been a missed opportunity with Russia early in the crisis.

“I think the Russian analysis was right at the beginning, but everybody thought that it was an opinion and not an analysis. The Russians were saying that Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks. People thought that this was not an analysis, it was an expression of position: 'We are going to support this regime,'” Brahimi said.

“Maybe, maybe if people listened to them, and went to them, and said, listen you clearly know the situation in Syria better than anybody else. Let’s sit down and see how we can help Syria solve its problems. Perhaps things would have been different. But that did not happen.”

Brahimi said that while the Syrian government “is justified in drawing attention to the fact that terrorism, as they describe it, is a reality in Syria,” that is not the full story.

“The Syrian regime has got to accept that it is not totally innocent of what is happening there. And that it is because of the situation, the rigidity of the regime, the brutality of their answer to the arrival of the Arab Spring (if the Arab Spring exists) to their country, that has opened the country to terrorists and foreign jihadists. And we cannot forget that,” he said.

“I think that the region has not done enough,” Brahimi added. “And as I told you a moment ago, perhaps the statements of [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif and [Saudi Foreign Minister] Saud al-Faisal. … I suppose everybody cooperating to get all foreign fighters out may be the beginning of the right treatment of this problem.”

Brahimi said that the negotiations that broke the siege in the Old City of Homs may indeed be a precedent, but “with a lot of warnings and conditions.”

“We cannot forget that we reached that negotiation, which was successful, through two years of starvation imposed on people, and this is definitely not right,” he said. “And also, I think everybody has to accept, that this is not part of a peaceful solution, it is part of the war solution. It is a victory of the government. The other side has accepted their defeat.”

Brahimi reflected on some progress in the disposition of the Syrian opposition in the talks.

“I think rather the progress we have made is that whereas the opposition and their supporters were saying that there is nothing to discuss, nothing to talk about, until Bashar leaves, they are saying now that we can talk while Bashar is there,” he said. “I am afraid now it is the regime saying that we are winning, and that there is no need to talk.”

Brahimi appealed for those dealing with Syria to put the Syrian people first.

“This may sound like the language of a priest, but I very strongly believe a lot of people are not really thinking of Syria. There are a lot of agendas involved in this that have very little to do with the Syrian people,” he said. 

“What I have been telling people and what is probably now starting to be seen is that if everybody thinks of the Syrian people, perhaps they will help solve the problem, and they will see that their own interests will not be fundamentally attacked or diminished in any way.”

The transcript of the interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the lack of a peaceful resolution in Syria as a "failure" for the United Nations. What were the causes of that failure? Why couldn’t the international community and the relevant regional powers come together to end the war, given the massive scale of the tragedy?

Brahimi:  First of all I think the secretary-general has put [not only] a lot of his personal thinking, but also a lot of his emotions, into this. He really cares for the Syrian people, for the country and for what is happening to it, and he really feels it is our common failure. 

Why? The UN is the sum total of the parts that make the UN. And right from the beginning it was very clear that the region was divided. The Syrians were divided. And the best hope, both for [previous Syria envoy] Kofi Annan and myself was that we were to work from outside, and come into the inside, as it were. So we tried the outer ring, which is the Security Council, and for me that was specifically the Americans and the Russians. 

The thing is, very soon in Syria things were polarized, and the circle that needed to be squared, was that one part of the parties, both inside Syria, and around Syria, and even further afield, was that there cannot be a solution with Bashar al-Assad and his immediate surroundings, while the other side said there cannot be a solution without Bashar al-Assad. 

This is the circle that everybody tried to square, and failed, and to a certain degree it is still the question that is to be resolved.

Al-Monitor:  How would you assess Russia’s role in the process? Were you satisfied with Moscow’s efforts, and US-Russia collaboration in support of the Geneva process?

Brahimi:  Two things. First of all, I think the Russian analysis was right at the beginning, but everybody thought that it was an opinion and not an analysis. The Russians were saying that Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks. People thought that this was not an analysis [but that rather] it was an expression of position: “We are going to support this regime.”

Maybe, maybe if people listened to them, and went to them, and said, "Listen, you clearly know the situation in Syria better than anybody else. Let’s sit down and see how we can help Syria solve its problems." Perhaps things would have been different. But that did not happen. 

Something extremely important took place on May 7, 2013, in Moscow, when [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [US Secretary of State John] Kerry agreed on four very important points.

One, that Syria was a very dangerous crisis for Syria, for the region and for the world. 

Two, there was no military solution in Syria.

Three, a political solution is possible, and the Geneva Declaration contains the elements that can be the basis of a solution.

And four, we, Russia and America, are going to work together and with others, in particular the United Nations, to make that solution possible.

We have tried to widen the base of that agreement between the two parties. It has been very very slow, but we were making progress when Ukraine happened. And that is making it difficult for the Russians and the Americans to work together.

Al-Monitor:  Do you believe that the position of the United States and other key parties that a political transition in Syria should not include the regime of President Assad may have contributed to the lack of productive talks, as it seemed unlikely that Assad would negotiate himself out of his power, especially as his forces were reclaiming territory by the time of Geneva II in January 2014?

Brahimi:  This is going back again to the circle I told you we had to square. You have one side saying there can’t be a solution with Bashar and his people, and the other side saying there cannot be a solution unless Bashar remains at the center of things.

Of course, I tend to say that, I think rather the progress we have made is that whereas the opposition and their supporters were saying that there is nothing to discuss, nothing to talk about, until Bashar leaves, they are saying now that we can talk while Bashar is there.

I am afraid now it is the regime saying that we are winning, and that there is no need to talk.  

How are you going to take both sides out of that … they are standing in front of wall. They cannot go forward. How can you take them away from that wall, to see how you go around them, and find a solution?

I think that you can do it by — and this may sound like the language of a priest — but I very strongly believe a lot of people are not really thinking of Syria. There are a lot of agendas involved in this that have very little to do with the Syrian people. 

What I have been telling people and what is probably now starting to be seen is that if everybody thinks of the Syrian people, perhaps they will help solve the problem, and they will see that their own interests will not be fundamentally attacked or diminished in any way.

But how is that going to be done of course remains to be seen.

Al-Monitor:  You were an advocate of a role for Iran in the Geneva talks and in support of a peaceful resolution in Syria. Al-Monitor’s Week in Review has consistently called for more Iranian engagement on Syria, and this week tracks Iran’s statements in support of the chemical weapons framework, counterterrorism and aid corridors. Can and should Iran be doing more? Was Iran’s operating outside of the Geneva process perhaps one reason for the failure of the talks?

Brahimi:  What the secretary-general and myself have been saying right from the beginning is that, if I may say so, before Kerry and Lavrov agreed on this, the secretary-general was saying there is no military solution. A political solution is possible, and should be possible.

And Iran, if people say they are part of the problem, the logic of that, is that they must be part of the solution.

If the Syrians are not capable of solving the problem alone, the first people who can help are the neighborhood, and definitely Iran is part of the neighborhood. So I think we have always been in favor of Iran being involved.

I told the Security Council the other day, one of the hopeful signs, maybe a straw that you are trying to catch out of this desperate situation, is that the Iranians have been saying let’s get all the foreign fighters out. They must mean also Hezbollah, and the Iraqis, and their own. And Saud al-Faisal I think said something similar some time ago.

Perhaps this is the head of the strings that are lying around. Perhaps this is somewhere where you can start.

But definitely, we think that Iran, we are aware of their proposition, the four-point plan of Zarif.

I think it is worth discussing it with them.

Discussing it does not mean taking it all as it is. But I think it is one of the elements you can discuss.

Al-Monitor:  The Syrian government emphasized the fight against terrorism as a priority for the Geneva talks. The rise of terrorist groups, including those linked with al-Qaeda, has now been characterized not just as a grave threat to Syria and the region but also to the US itself, according to US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Please comment on the Syrian position, and the evolution of Syria as ground zero for jihadi terrorists, and whether you thought regional parties did and are doing enough to cut off arms and support for terrorists operating in Syria.

Brahimi:  The regime is justified in drawing attention to the fact that terrorism, as they describe it, is a reality in Syria. It is. 

Where they are a little bit overstating their case, is their tendency to say there is nothing else: “The only problem there is is that there are jihadists and we are doing our duty to fight the jihadists and to protect our people from them.”  

That’s not true.

So jihadists, terrorism and foreigners fighting in Syria is a reality, it is a problem which should be given a great deal of attention.

But the Syrian regime has got to accept that it is not totally innocent of what is happening there. And that it is because of the situation, the rigidity of the regime, the brutality of their answer to the arrival of the Arab Spring (if the Arab Spring exists) to their country, that has opened the country to terrorists and foreign jihadists. And we cannot forget that.

I think that the region has not done enough. Yes, sure. I think everybody is realizing that is a very important problem. I am afraid nobody has a simple solution yet. There is no simple solution to this one. And as I told you a moment ago, perhaps the statements of Zarif and Saud al-Faisal. … I suppose everybody cooperating to get all foreign fighters out may be the beginning of the right treatment of this problem.

Al-Monitor:  Al-Monitor’s Week in Review has highlighted the negotiations in Homs, in which Syrian government officials, opposition leaders, Iranian, Russian, and UN diplomats brokered a deal to end a brutal siege. What is your assessment of the Homs diplomacy, and perhaps its precedent for future diplomacy?

Brahimi: There is a precedent, but with a lot of warnings and conditions.

We cannot forget that we reached that negotiation, which was successful, through two years of starvation imposed on people, and this is definitely not right.

And also, I think everybody has to accept, that this is not part of a peaceful solution, it is part of the war solution. It is a victory of the government. The other side has accepted their defeat.

But there were a lot of positive things that happened in that negotiation, in particular, the fact that it led to the freeing of quite a lot of people, who shouldn’t have been held to begin with, and some of the soldiers, including one Iranian woman, and I think some foreigners also who were in the hands of the armed groups, and also the delivery of aid to Nubl and Zahraa, that were being starved by the opposition.

So there are a lot of positive things on condition that you don’t forget where it came from, and also that this is part of the war it is not part of the peace.

It is part of the continuing war, it is not the beginning of a peaceful process.

Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/05/brahimi-syria-envoy.html

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