In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor from his office in Damascus, Syria, Ali Haidar, Syria's minister of national reconciliation and leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, said that President Bashar Assad’s recent speech consisted of “preliminary ideas” about a transitional phase in Syria and should not be discounted.
“We personally think that this is the first time that the president has put forward a set of ideas which constitute a step forward toward solving the crisis,” Haidar said, adding that “the relationship between Assad's proposal, the Geneva Initiative and Lakhdar Brahimi's statement was a set of principles to resolve the crisis.”
Haidar, who is an Ismaili originally from Hama, explained that Assad’s proposals lay out a process leading to a referendum on a new constitution.
“This is when the role of this current government will come to an end,” Haidar said, “paving the way for a new government that will be the product of subsequent elections and the national dialogue.”
Haidar described the Turkish role in Syria as “very bad,” adding that Ankara’s “role is based upon a sectarian position, and they are supporting some of the Syrian people at the expense of others.”
In contrast, Haidar praised the roles of Iran and Russia in Syria.
“There has been full agreement between Assad's proposal and what Iran understands the transitional phase to mean,” said Haidar.
He added that “it is in Russia’s best interest to continue to protect the Syrian people against any decision by the Security Council, which could allow a military intervention in Syria. Russia continues to push all political forces towards the national dialogue.”
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, according to Haidar, is complicit in the continued violence in Syria by advocating only a military solution to the conflict.
“I will say that merely through resorting to violent means, through excluding a segment of Syrians from the future dialogue table, from refusing to participate in dialogue, this makes [the coalition] responsible for a large part of the violence that is happening in Syria,” he said.
Haidar, who is one of only two opposition parliamentarians with a ministerial post, has been working with opposition figures inside Syria to achieve a wide ranging dialogue in support of a political solution.
“This conference will be held under the banner of 'Yes to Dialogue and No to Violence' or 'No to Violence and Yes to Democracy and Dialogue,'” he said.
The full text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: On Jan. 6, President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech that was termed as both defiant and disappointing by many Western officials. How do you evaluate the president’s three-stage proposal? What did he say that you found helpful? Is it a step forward? And how does it correspond, in your view, with Special Representative Brahimi’s initiative and what is known as the Geneva Plan?
Haidar: First of all, his speech was deemed as defiant and disappointing by just one party but not by all the international parties, as there were other parties who had a different opinion and who thought that the ideas proposed by President Assad were good and could be built upon. We personally think that this is the first time that the president has put forward a set of ideas which constitute a step forward toward solving the crisis, and of the government being in charge of establishing an integral initiative. As for the correspondence with Special Representative Brahimi’s initiative and what is known as the Geneva Plan, it should be noted that first, Lakhdar Brahimi has not yet come up with an integral plan. He is still at the stage of listening and talking about ideas. The Geneva Initiative is different from Lakhdar Brahimi's suggestion. The Geneva Initiative is an integral project that is based on the idea of a transitional period but that lacks in-depth detail on the meaning of the transitional phase. Thus, the transitional phase was the basis of what politicians have widely called constructive ambiguity because the international political conditions are still not ripe for the achievement of a final political solution. Thus, Assad’s proposal consists of preliminary ideas about the Syrian meaning of such a transitional phase. Likewise, the relationship between Assad's proposal, the Geneva Initiative and Lakhdar Brahimi's statement was a set of principles to resolve the crisis. These converge at times but diverge at others depending on the major countries' understanding of the meaning of the transitional phase. On the one hand, there has been full agreement between Assad's proposal and what Iran understands the transitional phase to mean. On the other, there is a set of ideas that can be built upon according to Russia and China. Meanwhile, other nations, such as the US and France believe that there is a huge difference between Assad's proposal and their understanding of the meaning of transitional phase.
Al-Monitor: On Jan. 11, following his meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Williams Burns and Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said that they “underlined the necessity to achieve a political solution based on the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012. As you know, a key element of the communiqué is the governing body, which should exercise full executive powers during its existence. And we agreed that full executive powers mean all the powers of state.” What is your view of the transitional governing body and what do you understand by “full executive powers?” How do you envision the process for a “political solution?”
Haidar: The Burns-Bogdanov meeting did not bring anything new and what was announced by Lakhdar Brahimi was nothing new because everyone agrees on the need to reach a political solution, but each party has its own understanding of the meaning of what constitutes a political solution. However, it should be noted that the Geneva Initiative does not mention a governing body, but a transitional government with large or full executive powers. As opposed to what some understood, this does not mean that the full executive powers mean all of the powers of state, because the powers of state include legislation, implementation and the state’s higher policy. This policy is not part of the powers of the governing bodies or of the transitional government. This brings us back to the crux of the matter in understanding the meaning of the transitional period, which has been used as one of the main principles of the Geneva Communiqué. However, this does not mean that there is an international consensus on the meaning of the transitional phase. Therefore, the outcome of this meeting and Lakhdar Brahimi's press release do not mean that there is a consensus, that there is an agreement, that there is a governing body or a transitional government tasked with all of the state powers, but executive powers only. In fact, the executive power, not only in Syria but across the world, excludes foreign policy and the military. And the military is different from security. Therefore, even on this point there is a different understanding between Russia and America. Moreover, Lakhdar Brahimi's statement was a little ambiguous in this regard.
Al-Monitor: That same day Mr. Brahimi was asked about his comments to the BBC last week that implied there might be no role for President Assad in a transitional government. He clarified that he “said the Syrian people are saying that 40 years is enough. And I never said that there will be no place for members of the government, I never said that.” In your opinion, what would be the role of the present government be in the transition process? Do you believe Mr. Brahimi still has the trust and confidence of the Syrian government to perform his role as mediator?
Haidar: First of all, there is an issue that has not yet been addressed, neither at the Geneva Conference, nor in the Burns-Bogdanov meeting, nor in the recent meeting held between the two a few days ago: It is the role of President Assad in the transitional phase and the next presidential election. This is one of the unresolved dilemmas. Once again, there is a mysterious understanding and explanation based on this unfathomable understanding of the transitional phase. Lakhdar Brahimi's statements to date make him embarrassed to stay an honest broker between all parties of the Syrian people. By the way, this does not mean that I support another explanation.
However, I believe that those who seek to play the role of mediator must stand the same distance from everyone. As a result, there has been disagreement among Syrians on this point. We wish to use constitutional and legal means to come up with a solution. We do not work on the whim of major countries. Who said that the Syrian people believe that 40 years are enough? Yes, there is a part of the Syrian people who believe that 40 years are enough. However, others say that this matter is not subject to the decision of others. They say that this issue will be decided through the ballot box in the coming days. Therefore, people are urged to cast their votes with full transparency and international support. This is how we find out whether people will vote for the regime or not. Yet, this issue has yet to be resolved and agreed upon among all forces.
Regarding the role of Lakhdar Brahimi, I believe that as a mediator, he is relying on two main points to make his mission a successful one. We talked about this issue when we last met with him. Again, we confirm that Brahimi must stand an equal distance from all parties. He ought not to rush in, making inflammatory statements that could provoke both sides. Brahimi ought to leave this matter to national dialogue and to the results of the ballot boxes, which will be our vote on the outcome of the national dialogue. Thus, his making of early judgments suggest that Mr. Brahimi is not an honest mediator. Should he continue with this approach, his mission will be disrupted inevitably.
As for the role of the current government, this matter depends entirely on the political process as a whole. If we accepted the proposals put forward by President Assad in his political project, then the current government ought to prepare for a national dialogue conference, and secure infrastructure logistics to launch the national project. Once a national charter is produced, we shall head to the polls. This is when the role of this current government will come to an end, paving the way for a new government that will be the product of subsequent elections and the national dialogue.
However, if we head to the political process from a different position, a government of national unity could be produced, but during the first stages of the political process. Therefore, the role of such a government would be subject to the political process that ought to be launched. Should we begin with the political initiative of President Assad, we believe that the product of this initiative would be a government that would have a major role in bringing the political forces together at the negotiating table. This could be done by defusing tension, or addressing pending issues that are likely to improve the people’s conditions and convince friendly nations of the feasibility of this project so it can be supported on an international level. The role of this government would end once the national dialogue had been implemented.
Al-Monitor: We have seen the limits of Russian influence, and that Moscow does not have the capability to engineer the departure of President Assad, as some had speculated. What in your view is the most useful role Russia can play at this point? Are you engaged with Russian officials?
Haidar: I shall begin from the end. The contact is continuous with our Russian friends, whether through the Russian embassy or the Russian ambassador, who is staying in Damascus. We have also met with Russian officers affiliated with Russia’s Foreign Ministry, during previous visits to the country. We have had three consecutive visits to Moscow, since the beginning of the crisis. We have met Mr. Lavrov twice and Mr. Bogdanov three times. Thus, we are in continuous contact with the Russians. It must be noted, however, that it is in Russia’s best interest to continue to protect the Syrian people against any decision by the Security Council, which could allow a military intervention in Syria. Russia continues to push all political forces towards the national dialogue.
Nevertheless, whether or not the Russians are able to sway the president’s decision to step down, it does not give any indication of their power and influence in Syria. In the first place, Russia does not believe that Assad’s departure will solve the Syrian crisis. Thus, their efforts have never been channeled in this direction.
According to the reading of Russia and some other nations, Assad’s departure under these circumstances and under international pressure will only complicate matters. Indeed, should Assad step down now, the bloodshed will increase, spreading chaos across the existing or remaining state institutions. This is not to mention that the influence of foreign forces in Syria that are linked to terrorist organizations will grow rapidly. Thus, there is a certain consent that President Assad’s role is essential to reach a solution and therefore, efforts are being employed to let him embark on the path of a political process, instead of pushing him to step down.
Al-Monitor: The leadership of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces are demanding regime change prior to negotiations. Are you in contact with the National Council? What is your message to them? How do you assess their influence within Syria, and their relationship to FSA forces?
Haidar: Naturally, the coalition that was formed in Doha and that came against the backdrop of the Istanbul Council is a coalition comprising a group of figures rather then being one of political forces, or political forces closely linked to a foreign project calling for the overthrow of the regime, without considering its capabilities, its ability to implement this call, or the benefits of implementing it through violent means as is going on today in the Syria.
Therefore, without making a value judgment as to whether or not the position of the National Coalition, which is based abroad today, is correct or not, I will say that merely through resorting to violent means, through excluding a segment of Syrians from the future dialogue table, from refusing to participate in dialogue, this makes [the coalition] responsible for a large part of the violence that is happening in Syria. Thus, in our view, we can say that if [the coalition] has influence inside Syria, then their influence only involves condemning clashes, which raises the general level of violence and bloodshed, and is not related to solving the Syrian crisis.
On the one hand, they are insisting on calling for regime change prior to dialogue, but after a regime change who would we hold a dialogue with? What is the basis of dialogue? For there to be dialogue there must be another side with which we disagree regarding goals, principles, and slogans, as well as regarding the political project and general project for Syria. Therefore it is not logical to say that we will participate in dialogue after regime change. We participate in dialogue to achieve regime change. We participate in dialogue to present our vision for the future of Syria. We participate in dialogue to present our opinions and ideas, and to defend the rights and just demands of the Syrian people, to defend their visions for a better future in a proper manner, not vice versa. As for [the coalition's] relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the fact of the matter is that this point should be examined from another point of view. First of all, the armed organizations on the ground in Syria are not all part a unified organization called the FSA. In Syria today there are up to 300 armed regional groups that are not linked to one another through any joint leadership or shared vision regarding what is happening on the ground. The FSA constitutes only a small number of the armed forces fighting in Syria today.
[The FSA] could become even less influential with the presence of armed terrorist groups coming from abroad, which have their own agendas that are completely different from that of Syrians, as well as different interests and needs. This suggests that both sides agree not to interfere with each other's interests. There is no direct relationship between the coalition and the armed groups, especially the FSA, within Syria. However, when abroad, the political forces, and the National Coalition in particular, say that they have an internal presence through the FSA, in order to strengthen their position and to put forth their ideas and positions. The coalition does not speak of political forces existing in Syria that they have relations with, or that could play the required political role in Syria in the future.
Thus, these statements are not based on reality, nor are they a description of reality. Instead, they are put forth to strengthen [the coalition's] position abroad; a form of political discourse. At the same time, the armed groups in Syria want political cover, and thus have not denied these claims, nor have they issued a statement to the contrary saying that whoever is abroad does not represent them. Yet, through field work we know that no one can rely on the other. Neither the military nor the armed groups can rely on the politicians who are abroad, and the coalition is one of these formations.
Take, for example, the experience of Ireland. The Irish [Republican] Army had a political wing and a military wing and the two complemented each other. This does not exist here. On the contrary, politicians abroad are involved in military action and benefit from it. There is no direct relationship between the two sides, there is an interest-based relationship between the two sides. Each side is using the other for its own interests, and for its rhetoric and performance on the ground. They are not a unified body, they are performing two separate tasks.
Al-Monitor: What is your assessment of the Kurds in Syria, and especially the role of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its forces?
Haidar: Of course, I view the Kurds in Syria as a part of the Syrian people. They are Syrians of the first degree and have historically been subject to oppression in humanitarian and everyday life issues. This should be addressed within the framework of addressing the situation of the country as a whole, as a country that protects its citizens on the basis of citizenship and equality for all, regardless of color, gender, race, ethnicity or anything else.
This issue should not be treated as though it were a nationalist cause, independent from other issues affecting Syrian society. We have often discussed this issue with the Kurds and Kurdish forces. We agree with them on many of the details. When there is a solution to the Syrian crisis at a national level and on the basis of citizenship, where every Syrian citizen is equal to another, regardless of ethnicity, race, color, sect, religion or party, only then will the Kurdish cause be addressed as part of the Syrian national project, rather than as a separate issue.
As for the Kurdish Democratic Union, it is one of the forces in the Syrian conflict, and exists within a unified and well-structured framework. It is a part of the Kurdish forces, which are today split in two. There are those in support and those against, as well as those in between. This division is a form of division that took place in Syrian society between supporters and opponents, and those who are in the middle. It is not an issue based on a personal matter, or a personal cause, or demands of their own.
Al-Monitor: What is your perspective, as minister of national reconciliation, on the Turkish role in Syria? In October, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu advocated Vice President Al-Sharaa leading a transitional government in Syria, saying, “There is nobody else who knows the system better that Farouk al-Sharaa.” Do you see the vice president, following his call last month for a “historic settlement,” now emerging as a key negotiator between Damascus, the Syrian opposition and other relevant parties to bring about this historic settlement? Does Mr. Sharaa’s engagement in the process foreshadow any change in the Turkish role in Syria?
Haidar: Unfortunately, the truth is that the Turkish role in Syria is very bad. Turkey's role in Syria in no way stems from a commitment to the interests and demands of the Syrian people, or from their visions of a future Syria that will work in the interest of all Syrians, regardless of what we have said in the past about partisan and sectarian identities.
The problem is that the Turkish role is linked to NATO's role in the region. [Turkey] is the policeman advancing the Western project in the region. On the other hand, its role is based upon a sectarian position, and they are supporting some of the Syrian people at the expense of others.
Turkey is, therefore, no longer an impartial mediator, but rather it has become a party in the Syrian crisis, even though it is another country. The same is true of some other countries. Regarding Davutoglu's statements concerning Sharaa, I was not surprised. I have asked this question repeatedly and have yet to receive an answer. [Turkey first says:] We demand the downfall of the regime, and then Davutoglu and the Turkish government under Erdogan demand regime change, while at the same time suggesting that Sharaa lead the transitional phase. I wonder, isn't Sharaa a part of this regime? Historically, Sharaa is deep-rooted in the regime and has been in it for at least 20 years more than Bashar al-Assad.
How can I object to President Assad leading this transition — given his popular support, and his ability to control the institutions and leadership during this period — and at the same time accept Sharaa, who, as we have said, is a part of the structure of the regime? Thus, the issue is not about regime change or arriving at a better stage, rather it is an issue of playing on the joints of the existing structure and dismantling and weakening them, and eventually dismantling the state. It a part of the foreign project inside Syria. Turkey may be the spearhead for this project.
Regarding talk of a historic settlement, let us ask ourselves what a historic settlement means. This question is to be addressed by other parties.
The Syrian crisis is two years old, so a settlement for the crisis would not be historic. The Syrian crisis is not a part of history, and therefore a settlement for the situation in Syria is not part of the concept of historical settlement. There are not historical conflicts with neighboring countries, neither with Lebanon nor with Turkey. Conversely, [relations] with Turkey were excellent, [and there were no problems] with Iraq or Jordan. So, a historic settlement with whom?
A historic settlement would be a settlement to end historical conflicts in the region. Does this mean a historic settlement with Israel? I will not answer this question, rather I leave it for Mr. Sharaa, who proposed this idea. Regardless, Sharaa is today, up until this moment, in the position of vice president of the Republic within the national leadership. He has not abandoned his responsibilities nor is he exempt from them. Therefore he is a part of the structure of the ruling establishment, and he has the same duties and rights as this establishment. His responsibilities are confined to his official role within the state. This is all that he can do, no more and no less, aside from what the state as a whole can offer. Things should not be linked to a single person, but to the state as a whole.
Al-Monitor: Iran offered a new six-point peace plan in December. You attended a conference in Iran on Syria last year, which was widely attended by Syrian political and opposition figures. Are you, as Minister of National Reconciliation, supportive of Iranian efforts in Syria? Is the National Coalition opposition group engaged with Tehran?
Haidar: Iran's initiative does not differ much from the rest of the initiatives that have been put forth in Syria over the course of the crisis. Remember, first there was a Russian initiative and a Russian set of ideas, there was a five-point Chinese initiative, Kofi Annan's six-point initiative, the six-point Iranian initiative among others. Also, let us not forget the role of the Arab League, which has involved itself in the crisis. Thus, talk of the initiatives and their abilities to solve the Syrian crisis is not linked to the points included within these initiatives, since all of the initiatives include two key items that have been agreed upon. These are: stopping violence and launching a political process through political dialogue. Everything else is details. How do we begin to stop the violence and launch a political process to stop violence? This is the details.
Therefore Iran's initiative came within this same context, and on the same basis as the previous initiatives. Thus, its chances of success or failure are linked to international circumstances to be ready to produce a Russian-American settlement to resolve the crisis.
As for the Syrian opposition conference held in Tehran, it was the first conference gathering all of the political forces who say 'no' to violence and 'yes' to necessary political change in Syria. Although there are those who have been supporting this stance since the beginning of the crisis, and many forces have professed this view, it was the first time that they have taken pragmatic steps to implement their views through meeting and putting in place a single charter, and starting the next steps through a committee under the authority of the national dialogue. Today, this committee handles a lot of work, including communications with foreign parties. Yesterday, the committee met with a Greek political delegation and today they have a meeting with a Turkish human-rights delegation.
Discussions and extensive work are under way to prepare for an extended dialogue in Syria for the Syrian opposition to be held in the future. As I said, this conference will be held under the banner of 'Yes to Dialogue and No to Violence' or 'No to Violence and Yes to Democracy and Dialogue.' This is one thing, while the Iranian efforts are a totally different thing. Until now, Iranian efforts have consisted of two parts. The first part relates to historical relations between the Syrian and Iranian governments. These relations have not changed throughout the crisis, because the Iranian side has not found anything to change the historical relationship between the two states.
As for Iran's view of the Syrian crisis, until now the Iranians have insisted — and I have met with most Iranian politicians during two successive visits to Iran, and also with the Iranian Ambassador [to Damascus] and other Iranian politicians who came to Syria — that there is a reality which must be addressed and that there is a crisis that we must emerge from, but it must be done through a consensual political solution that includes all Syrians. The solution should come from the negotiating table, taking into consideration the positions of Iran, Russia, China, the BRIC countries and all countries that have been friendly to Syria until now. I think that Iranian efforts in this regard are positive.
Regarding relations between the two countries, there are some who think that these relations do not serve efforts aimed at convincing Syria to make the changes wanted by the West, for example, as I said recently, Russian efforts to convince President Assad to step down. Aside from that, the Iranians and the Russians are demanding that the Syrians go quickly to the negotiating table to reach a political solution that satisfies everyone.
Antoun Issa is a news editor for Al-Monitor, based in Beirut.