Syrian foreign minister calls for national unity government

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Walid Moallem, Syria's minister of foreign affairs and expatriates, said that the Syrian National Coalition's rejection of a resolution condemning terrorism was "unfortunate and strange."

al-monitor Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem awaits the peace talks in Montreux, Jan. 22, 2014. .

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turkish policy on syria, syrian opposition, syrian civil war, syria, john kerry, geneva ii, elections

Jan 31, 2014

GENEVA — Walid Moallem, Syria’s minister of foreign affairs and expatriates, called for a national unity government including a more expansive Syrian opposition than those represented by the National Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) at the Geneva talks.

“I don’t see the only opposition as the Coalition. There are other opposition who must join so we can have a national unity government,” he told Al-Monitor during an exclusive interview shortly after the close of the talks.

Moallem said he found it “unfortunate and strange” that the SOC rejected a Syrian government proposal brought forward during the talks that rejected terrorism.

“It was really astonishing that this opposition refused [the declaration on terrorism],” he said, adding that ordinary citizens from other parts of the world would have accepted a similar statement denouncing terrorism.

The Syrian government’s proposal for the transition — as obtained by Al-Monitor — consisted of five points focusing on sovereignty, rejection of foreign intervention, Syria as a pluralistic, democratic state and the rejection of terrorism.

Moallem, who also serves as deputy prime minister, rejected demands by the United States, the SOC and others that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of a transition.

“This is not their business,” he said. “The decision is for the Syrian people.”

The Syrian foreign minister, when asked for a reaction to a decision by the US Congress to approve the transfer of arms to factions fighting the Syrian regime until September 2014, said, “There will be no progress unless first the United States refrains from supporting the opposition and terrorists with arms, and creates a good atmosphere for Geneva talks.”

A key sticking point at Geneva II was the issue of a transitional governing body, which Moallem stated during his press conference, attended by Al-Monitor, was not a taboo subject for his government.

The foreign minister elaborated during his interview with Al-Monitor, saying that a “governing body has to fit inside [existing state] institutions, not to be a new organism that is planted in the Syrian body.”

“According to the constitution, they can participate in the government as opposition and we’ll call it a national unity government,” he said.

Moallem seemed flexible on whether elections would come before or after the formation of a national unity government, but preferred elections be held before. 

“It could be after, this is normal according to Geneva I,” he said. “But to be before is important, also because in this way you know for sure each side in this national unity government, [their] popularity. So if you start with the elections, parliament, now the blocs in the parliament, they can come together in discussion to create a national unity government.”

Moallem also took note of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit this week to Tehran, saying he hoped improved Turkish-Iranian ties have “a positive reflection” on the Syrian crisis, “but we need to test this on the ground.” Moallem had singled out Erdogan’s government during his opening speech at the Geneva II talks, blaming it for the “misery and destruction which has engulfed Syria.”

Asked whether Syria is prepared to “pick up the pace” on the transfer and destruction of its chemical weapons capabilities, as Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said on Jan. 30, Moallem replied, “The security situation plays a major role in this, so who criticized Syria that we did not meet the deadline, I invite him to come travel through the road where the convoy travels.

“If he finds it safe then we have to be blamed,” he said. “If it is not safe, he has to excuse us because we are speaking about chemical weapons. If any incidents happen, hundreds of people will die. So we must be very careful.”

The interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Can you describe your interpretation of the sequence for a political transition in Syria based on the Geneva communique? How do you envision implementing a transitioning body with full executive powers?

Moallem:  We are a country that has a constitution, that has institutions and government, a parliament and a president of the republic, and this governing body has to fit inside these institutions, not to be a new organism which is planted in the Syrian body. This is so we have, according to the constitution, they can participate in the government as opposition, and we’ll call it a national unity government, and I don’t see the only opposition as the Coalition, there are other opposition who must join so we can have a national unity government.

Al-Monitor:  Can you also explain, in your view, the process for a national dialogue but also elections, which have been mentioned in the Geneva communique as following a transitional governing body?

Moallem:  It could be following, it could be before. It could be after, this is normal according to Geneva I. But to be before is important, also because in this way you know for sure each side in this national unity government, [their] popularity. So if you start with the elections, parliament, now the blocs in the parliament they can come together in discussion to create a national unity government. This is a more democratic way than to compose a government then to make elections.

Al-Monitor:  Have you proposed that?

Moallem:  No, this is a ways away. And it could be also after composing this body.

Al-Monitor:  Now that you are leaving, what would you propose? Elections before or after?

Moallem:  This is up to consensus during the dialogue. If the other side wants after, no problem.

Al-Monitor:  What about the role of President Bashar al-Assad in the transition, particularly your reaction to the United States and the opposition saying he should not have a role in the process?

Moallem:  This is not their business. The president of the Republic has responsibility according to the constitution. Around the middle of this year we have presidential elections. He can be a candidate, others can be candidates and the people will decide who will rule the country. It is not up to anybody, the decision is for the Syrian people.

Al-Monitor:  You told Al-Monitor in your interview last week that a condition for your continuing engagement with the Syrian coalition team is the acceptance of a resolution dealing with terrorism. On Thursday your delegation said the opposition had rejected such a resolution, so how would you characterize the talks and the progress on this specific issue?

Moallem:  This is very unfortunate and strange. Because the draft resolution the Syrian Republic presented to the opposition was general[ly] inspired form Security Council resolutions. If you show this draft to any citizen in New York who suffered from terrorism, any citizen in Iraq who suffers from terrorism, or Egypt or anywhere, he will embrace it. For that it was really astonishing that this opposition refused it.

Al-Monitor:  So how would you characterize the progress then on this issue?

Moallem:  No progress at all.

Al-Monitor:  Why was it not possible to agree to send a convoy to provide relief for those in Homs? Do you still believe that the Geneva II process has a role to play in humanitarian areas?

Moallem:  The humanitarian areas are very important issues, as part of the Syrian government. It is a very important issue. Not in Geneva but it is dealt with by the government, the governor of each province, for example in Homs. Months before Geneva, the governor of Homs was dealing with this issue. He tried through the Red Cross three times to bring the civilians out of the old city of Homs and he failed. Even United Nations representatives tried to exert efforts to bring them out and they failed.

Why we did not send the convoy? Because there are three groups fighting in the old city. The bigger one’s leaders announced on his voice that any truck will enter, they will shoot it. So the safety of the driver and the Red Cross/Red Crescent is essential for us. For that, we refrain from sending them. With his voice on YouTube it is clear.

Al-Monitor:  When you were interviewed by Al-Monitor last week you said that your proposal on Jan. 17 to cease military operations was a response to an appeal by US Secretary of State John Kerry for a localized cease-fire in Aleppo but you had not heard back from the United States. Has there been any further discussion on this?

Moallem:  No.

Al-Monitor:  Have the Russians brought this up?

Moallem:  No, not with the Russians or the Americans.

Al-Monitor:  Have you brought it up with the Russians to inquire?

Moallem:  No, not yet.

Al-Monitor:  How close is your coordination with Iran and Russia on Syria?

Moallem:  We coordinate, but the decision [is] in Syria.

Al-Monitor:  Are you in daily contact with your counterparts in Tehran and Moscow?

Moallem:  Through their ambassadors, after each round of dialogue, we inform them what has happened.

Al-Monitor:  The National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) is not part of the current coalition, are you now or do you envision engaging with them or other Syrian opposition groups, and will this be in Geneva II or on their own?

Moallem:  No, in Geneva II, and we urged [Lakhdar] Brahimi to invite as much as they can from the national opposition to come to discuss the future of the country.

Al-Monitor:  You singled out Prime Minister Erdogan’s government in your speech at the opening plenipotentiary for “supporting criminal terrorists.” This week Turkey attacked the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Prime Minister Erdogan is now in Iran where he is talking about Syria. Do you detect or expect any shift in the Turkish position?

Moallem:  I hope so, but I did not detect any shift.

Al-Monitor:  What is your reading of his visit to Iran?

Moallem:  For economic reasons and for preparing for his own elections.

Al-Monitor:  What would the trip have to do with his election?

Moallem:  Because the economy in Turkey is falling down. Iran is [a] very important partner to Turkey, so he needs Iran to increase its trade with Turkey, especially in this period.

Al-Monitor:  What would be the implications of a warming between Turkey and Iran on the Syrian process?

Moallem:  I hope that it has a positive reflection, but we need to test this on the ground.  

Al-Monitor:  Syria missed the Dec. 31 deadline for the export of its priority-one chemical weapons; only 4% have been exported. There is concern that Syria will miss the priority-two deadline of Feb. 5, which is next week. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons executive council met yesterday and Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said, “There is need to pick up the pace.” Is Syria prepared to meet its commitments and these deadlines for the removal of chemical weapons?

Moallem:  Well, we have a national committee dealing with this issue, led by the vice minister of foreign affairs, and upon our return to Syria we will see where this issue stands.

Al-Monitor:  Are you concerned that this deadline might not be met?

Moallem:  Always the security situation plays a major role in this, so who criticized Syria that we did not meet the deadline, I invite him to come travel through the road where the convoy travels. If he finds it safe then we have to be blamed. If it is not safe, he has to excuse us because we are speaking about chemical weapons. If any incidents happen, hundreds of people will die. So we must be very careful.

Al-Monitor:  What do you believe would be the best approach for the next phase of the Geneva process talks, and how would you evaluate their progress to date?

Moallem: There will be no progress unless first the United States refrains from supporting the opposition and terrorists with arms, and creates a good atmosphere for Geneva talks, Geneva talks will not progress. This is why we were astonished on the date we opened the dialogue in Geneva, the United States announced the resumption of shipment of arms to the terrorists.

Al-Monitor:  On that, the US Congress approved arms to Syrian rebel fighters through September 2014. What is your reaction to this piece of news?

Moallem:  I said the United States is not [offering] positive elements to pave the way for the success of Geneva talks.

Al-Monitor:  Finally, between now and two weeks, you are obviously going to go back to Damascus, when do you think a decision is going to be made on whether you return or not?

Moallem:  When we present our report to the government, parliament will decide upon the need of our people.

Al-Monitor:  And your personal opinion? Do you think it is worth coming back here in two weeks?

Moallem:  I don’t know. It is not personal, it is a national issue.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think it was a waste of time being here?

Moallem:  Well, it is not a waste of time, at least we saw what the other side represents.

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