New US envoy to Syria says elections now would be illegitimate

New US envoy to Syria Daniel Rubenstein has told Al-Hayat that he's pleased that the Syrian opposition is serious about fighting al-Qaeda.

al-monitor Daniel Rubenstein shakes hands with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (right) in Ramallah, Dec. 14, 2009.  Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

us intervention in syria, us influence, syrian civil war, lakhdar brahimi, geneva ii

Mar 24, 2014

Those close to him describe him as an “Arabist,” a term for diplomats who specialize in Arab culture and Middle East history. Daniel Rubenstein has 24 years of experience and has worked in regional capitals including Damascus, enabling him to become the new US envoy for Syria two weeks ago.

In his first press interview since taking office, he told Al-Hayat that “strengthening and uniting the moderate Syrian opposition” will be a central part of his mission, in addition to fighting al-Qaeda. He said that anyone thinking that a military solution in Syria is possible is “deluded” and that Washington “will not accept” President Bashar al-Assad staying in power.

On the eve of a regional and European tour including Turkey, Jordan, Paris and Geneva to discuss the Syrian crisis, US strategy and the options for the next stage, Rubenstein said, “The situation is thorny and there is considerable frustration. But we want to push forward and work with our friends in the opposition, in the region and in the international community” to influence the Syrian crisis.

His first tour aims to listen to opposition representatives, regional officials and the members of the European and international organizations regarding how they view the situation and its troubling issues. He said, “We will renew our commitment to do what we can to put things on a better path.” Rubenstein is also expected to meet with UN and Arab envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during the tour and exchange ideas and propositions.

Rubenstein said that Washington’s strategy and goal in Syria is to reach “a political solution to the conflict, according to an international framework for the Geneva mechanism." He said, "We understand that many were frustrated that the last Geneva round didn’t take us where want to go,” and that Washington will consult with “regional friends about how to push the [Syrian] regime to develop a different approach about the Geneva mechanism.” Rubenstein, who's fluent in Arabic, stressed the importance of regional coordination and “to do whatever possible to ensure the highest possible degree of unity of the moderate opposition and to strengthen it.” He linked achieving that goal to the “balance on the ground and to the regime’s approach toward the Geneva mechanism in order to form the transitional body," saying, "That will be our focus."

In response to a question about the possibility of secretly arming groups in the moderate opposition after a letter from members of Congress in this regard, he said, “I can say that we will increase and intensify our review and our consultations to see what can be done to strengthen the opposition. This requires a lot of coordination with our international partners.”

He refused to comment on how to change the power balance on the ground until his review is completed, pointing out, “What I hear from others is that there’s an essential need to change the power balance and current patterns of the crisis, and to pressure the regime in various ways in order to make it look at the political process differently.”

Al-Hayat asked Rubenstein about the American position if Assad runs for a new presidential term in June despite the crisis. He said, “I don’t want to do any prognostications. But my understanding is that holding elections in these circumstances violates the Geneva Convention, and it would be difficult for the United States and the international community to consider them legitimate. And for that, we see that the United States and others will not hesitate to consider [the election] illegitimate” if it is held in such circumstances.

Regarding the battlefield and the chances of the Syrian regime achieving a military victory, he said, “Those who believe that there is a military solution are deluding themselves. Any solution that is solid and that improves Syria’s future must be political.” He clearly rejected the possibility that Washington would accept Assad staying in power, saying, “We talked clearly about Syria’s future, which will not be led by that regime.”

Rubenstein spoke extensively about regional coordination on the situation in Syria among Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and other countries, pointing out that “Washington is fortunate to have friends and partners in the region with whom it agrees on several interests. The situation in Syria, because of its sensitive and strategic nature, is linked to these interests. We appreciate the existing coordination. And I will do my best to deepen it and to avoid the spread of the conflict” outside Syria’s borders.

On the concerns about al-Qaeda and related groups in Syria, Rubenstein welcomed “the position of the National Coalition for rejecting al-Qaeda and the statements [warning] about [the danger that al-Qaeda represents].”

He said that the opposition “is clear and serious in facing al-Qaeda and will not hesitate to make efforts to combat this threat.” He expressed his appreciation for these efforts and for the participation of “regional allies” in this regard.

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