Brahimi: Ending Syria crisis 'in hands of international community'

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In an interview with Al-Hayat, former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks about his efforts to resolve the crisis.

In the second installment of a three-part interview with Al-Hayat, former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi talks about his meetings with leaders of regional countries, in the context of his quest for a political solution in Syria. He said that during his visits to Damascus he asked to meet with Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa multiple times, but the requests were denied. Brahimi did not rule out that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's remarks harmed Sharaa, especially when the latter requested that President Bashar al-Assad delegate his powers to the vice president.

Here is the text of the second part of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  During your mission, did you meet with the former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani?

Brahimi:  Yes. I found that he was convinced that the regime of Assad was on the road to collapse, and that Assad should step down. He felt that the matter would be resolved within weeks or months, and that the sooner Assad left the better, because a solution would start with his departure.

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Al-Hayat:  It was reported that Qatar's prime minister at the time, Hamad bin Jassim, who was also the president of the ministerial committee monitoring the situation [in Syria], suggested a solution to Iran stipulating that Assad delegate all his powers to Vice President Sharaa, but [Tehran] refused this.

Brahimi:  There was a lot of talk about this subject, but I do not know whether they proposed this to the Iranians and they refused. In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu publicly called for such a move, and I think that this call harmed Sharaa. At that stage, the Iranians were saying, "We recognize that there is a crisis in Syria, and it involves two parties: the government and the opposition. And we recognize that the solution involves an agreement between the two. Thus, we call for negotiations that end in elections, which will decide who governs the country."

Al-Hayat:  Did Iran not support the Geneva I Communique?

Brahimi:  Iran was not present [at the Geneva I conference]. Tehran did not support the communique, nor did they announce their objection to it. Iran did not hide the fact that it was wholeheartedly with the regime. But they were saying that this did not mean that they accepted everything the regime said. Current [Iranian] Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: "We support a member country of the UN [Syria], should we be ashamed of this when there are countries supporting terrorist groups?" Of course, other countries do not support terrorist groups, rather they support the armed opposition.

Al-Hayat:  Did you meet with Turkish officials?

Brahimi:  Yes. I met with President Abdullah Gul, who is a respectable and rational man. I also met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with Ban Ki-moon at the G-20 [leading rich and developing countries] summit in St. Petersburg. [Erdogan’s] position was against the regime and he wanted changes.

Al-Hayat:  Was Davutoglu intent on his opposition to Assad?

Brahimi:  Very much so. In fact, I was proposing what we could do to those I met with, and some were quick to ask: When will Assad go? You can only imagine how difficult it was to carry out work in light of the contradictions in regional and international positions, and the depth of the rift among Syrians. Interestingly, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, Erdogan and Davutoglu were the people closest to Assad before the crisis, and they became the most hostile to him remaining [in power]. This is a topic one must reflect on deeply.

Al-Hayat:  Was there a Brotherhood program for the region?

Brahimi:  I don't know. But there is no doubt that the Turks supported the Brotherhood everywhere, including Syria. I think that Qatar took a similar stance, but I am not well informed about the Qatari details. The Turks supported the Brotherhood, and they were in contact with them in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. It's worth noting that in the [Syrian] National Council and in the first stage of the [Syrian National] Coalition, the Brotherhood obtained shares larger than their actual strength. This is undoubtedly due to the support of Turkey and Qatar, yet this support later decreased.

Al-Hayat:  You also met former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. How was the meeting?

Brahimi:  It was a short meeting because he was preparing to leave for Azerbaijan. I met him in the evening for about half an hour. He repeated the Iranian position that I referenced before, i.e., that there is a crisis, there is a need for negotiations and the final say should come from elections. This was the essence of the Iranian position all the time, yet it has changed a little with the arrival of [President Hassan] Rouhani. They have begun talking about mistakes that were made and that change is necessary. But, of course, Iran's position on the ground is well-known. In the era of Rouhani, the formulation of the Iranian position became more elaborate and proficient.

Al-Hayat:  Didn't Ahmadinejad take a hard-line stance in support of Assad?

Brahimi:  I told you how they presented their country's position. The foreign minister was repeating the same words. The essence of the position was full support for the regime, but the way they express it today is relatively different.

Al-Hayat:  And what about the Iraqi position?

Brahimi:  As you know, there are different parties in Iraq. [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki is wholeheartedly with the regime.

Al-Hayat:  Did he offer them assistance?

Brahimi:  I would imagine this happened. There are Iraqis fighting alongside the regime, as is the case with Lebanon's Hezbollah. They are militia members who come out publicly on behalf of the state. It's hard to believe that the state has no role in what they are doing.

Al-Hayat:  Were you surprised by the public intervention of Hezbollah alongside Assad?

Brahimi:  Yes. I was surprised because the legitimacy of Hezbollah, and particularly the legitimacy of their arms, comes from their standing in the face of Israel. This legitimacy increased via their steadfastness in the 2006 war in confronting Israel. Moving these weapons from the southern Lebanese border to Syria and entering the war there is not a simple issue and it constitutes a big change in the party's role. I don't want to go into the implications of this for the party's public or [its repercussions] in Lebanon.

Al-Hayat:  Do you think that the participation of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias in the fighting in Syria has given it a sectarian nature?

Brahimi:  You could say that it confirmed this nature, which was already present. This foreign participation in the fighting, for both sides, is what made me warn from an early stage about the risk of this conflict moving outside Syrian territory. And unfortunately today we are seeing these tragedies in Iraq. Of course, the sectarian polarization at the regional level is unfortunate and very dangerous, and there is no doubt that the conflict in Syria contributed to this [sectarian division] and increased it.

Al-Hayat:  Whom did you meet with in Russia?

Brahimi:  I met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. When I first went to Russia, President Vladimir Putin was sick.

Al-Hayat:  Some say that Lavrov is a competent negotiator.

Brahimi:  A competent negotiator and an insightful one as well. He defends his opinion vigorously and consistently, and it is hard to make him change his mind. But dealing with him is easy.

Al-Hayat:  Did your mission suffer from the repercussions of the deception Russians faced in Libya? Does this explain them constantly using their veto right in the UN Security Council?

Brahimi:  This is a very important point. In fact, Lavrov has tackled this issue more than once. I think that Western countries have not realized yet how angry the Russians felt about what happened in Libya, and did not try to alleviate it. Russians say that there was an agreement between the Americans and themselves, and that statements were issued by high-profile Western officials noting that the issue in Libya is not about changing the regime, rather about protecting civilians. Russians also say that the resolution they approved was crystal clear and does not call for any support for the regime change [in Libya] and that Western officials applied the resolution outside its content. Lavrov reiterated that Russia will not approve, now or in the future, any resolution that might be used this way.

I told him, “Why not add to Chapter 7 of the resolution a paragraph clearly stipulating that the use of arms requires a new Security Council resolution.” Lavrov refuted this proposition saying that Westerners will find a thousand ways to go around it. For them, the Chapter 7 issue has become a taboo.

Al-Hayat:  Did you ask Lavrov to put pressure on President Assad?

Brahimi:  The Russians said, “It is not our job to ask Assad to leave. Plus, our influence on the president is less than what a lot think.” On that day, Lavrov said, “Our influence on Assad is less than the Americans’ influence on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” So I told him, “This is bad news.”

Al-Hayat:  Was the Chinese veto a surprise for you? How do you explain it?

Brahimi:  No, I was not surprised, as China is sensitive about issues related to the sovereignty of states. We must not forget that it has its own problems with Tibet and if Chinese sovereignty is acknowledged, this means that [no other country] can interfere in Tibet. China does not accept any misinterpretation concerning the sovereignty issue.

Al-Hayat:  Does Russia’s fear of the “Islamic Spring” explain its position?

Brahimi:  There is no doubt that Russians considered that the situation in Libya is bad, and that the situations in Egypt, and even in Tunisia, are concerning. Regarding Syria, this country is geographically close to Russia. According to Russians, in the event of the fall of the regime in Syria, the people who would take power are not from the moderate opposition, but belong to radical Islamic movements. It was easy to explain their analysis of the situation, given how they dealt with the crisis in Syria.

Al-Hayat:  Was the United States ready to launch a war against the Syrian regime when the latter was accused of using chemical weapons?

Brahimi:  I don’t really know what was going on inside Barack Obama’s mind. He sent naval forces [to the Mediterranean Sea] and made threats [against Assad]. The forces were ready, but what did he really want, to launch a military attack or put maximum pressure on Assad? I do not know the answer. I was asked about my opinion vis-a-vis the use of power. I answered that I always say that the use of power should only happen with the authorization of the Security Council. And this is also stipulated by the UN Charter.

A wave of criticism ravaged the scene. Obama will not ask for my permission to launch a war, nor does he take into consideration my opinion. However, I am talking about international law. Indeed, UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] also mentioned international law on several occasions. Many thought that the war was imminent, that it will be devastating and will end the crisis Syria. A lot of articles were written about this subject. But, what happened next was shocking.

Al-Hayat:  Do you think the Russians seized this opportunity and prevented the Americans from using an excuse to launch a military offensive?

Brahimi:  God knows. Back then, i.e., at the end of August 2013, we were attending the 2013 G-20 Russia summit in St. Petersburg. The participants were eagerly waiting for three days for the Obama-Putin meeting and its results. No meeting was ever held. On the last day of the G-20 summit, the participants went for lunch, and to their surprise, they saw Putin and Obama standing there for about 20 minutes. Later, it was announced that US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart Lavrov were going to meet in Geneva to discuss the chemical issue.

This means that there were other lines of communication between the two parties on the political and intelligence levels. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was asked to visit Moscow. The latter said Syria is ready to hand over its chemical weapons. Kerry and Lavrov went to Geneva and met at the Intercontinental Hotel. Then, they came to my office at the UN headquarters where we held a tripartite meeting.

Al-Hayat:  What happened during this meeting?

Brahimi:  We discussed the Geneva II conference [which had not yet been held]. It was funny because one of them imposed the subject of a chemical solution on me and these issues are much bigger than me. The other one accused me of contributing to the halt of the military strike [against Syria]. These issues concern much bigger states, and I have no relation or influence on them. It was out of my hands. Lavrov and Kerry told me, “We want to meet to discuss the situation in Syria.” I told them it is inappropriate to hold the meeting in a hotel while the UN headquarters were only a few hundred meters away. So they accepted and the meeting happened.

They both said, “Let’s try to find a political solution.” I think they had good intentions. But both had their own calculations, allies and state interests, thus we failed in helping them reach a solution.

Al-Hayat:  Did you think about the issue of Syrian Vice President Sharaa?

Brahimi:  Yes, I even asked to meet with Sharaa, but I was told “no.”

Al-Hayat:  During which visit?

Brahimi:  During each visit I made [to Syria], except for this one. During my most recent visit, I talked with Assad. I told him that [Sharaa] is still a vice president, and I’ve known him for 30 years. What will people say if I don’t stop by him? He responded, “No apologies needed, you are our guest.”

Al-Hayat: Did you think that Sharaa will play a role in the transitional period?

Brahimi:  Absolutely. And Lavrov said so, I guess in February 2012, when he met with Assad and he stressed the need for negotiations to take place. Assad replied that Sharaa is leading the negotiations on his behalf. Lavrov said that at that point, the opposition had considered itself victorious and was not interested in negotiating with Sharaa or any other party.

Al-Hayat:  But, you spoke with Sharaa on the phone.

Brahimi:  He spoke to me, or they told him to speak to me. I strongly objected and I told them that I am the one who will call him first. But he spoke to me before I called him. I explained to Sharaa that there is an objection to our meeting and I asked him, “Would you like me to come to you? If you want to, I am ready to do so, and if you would like to come to me, you are welcome. We can also meet at a friend’s.” He did not call back and I did not try to embarrass him.

Al-Hayat:  What do you know about the use of chemical weapons in Syria?

Brahimi:  The UN formed a committee to investigate the incidents that happened in Khan al-Assal, before August. The Syrian government requested the secretary-general to conduct an investigation and he responded. He asked the committee to make sure whether chemical weapons had been used, without asking it to investigate the identity of the party that used [the chemical weapons].

The British and French asked for an investigation in other cases. The regime refused and said, “We asked that you investigate Khan al-Assal.” It was agreed that the visit of the committee should take place prior to Aug. 21, 2013, when news circulated about the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta. A few days earlier, the committee arrived in Damascus in preparation for the visit to Khan al-Assal, and probably two other places. On Aug. 21, chemical weapons were used a few kilometers away from the hotel where the committee members were staying. Discussions took place and ultimately, the government agreed, and the committee went [to the site] and confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in Ghouta. The committee had collected samples and confirmed the use of [chemical] weapons. I think they also said that chemical weapons have also been used in Khan al-Assal. There was a division. The Russians said they have full confidence that the regime did not use chemical weapons in any place, and blamed opposition parties for the use of these weapons.

Al-Hayat:  Why did the Russians agree on the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria?

Brahimi:  It is a general principle. The Americans and Russians have to destroy all chemical weapons, but they were too late [in this case]. I consider that Syria joined these efforts and that Israel was extremely happy that Syria abandoned this strategic weapon.

Al-Hayat:  During your mission, did you ask Assad to release the detainees?

Brahimi:  Of course. I told him, “I have a list prepared by human rights organizations in Syria that includes 29,000 names, and I will hand it over to your office. I hope that you interfere, as some of them were arrested during their participation in the demonstrations.” Later on, I asked Moallem why doesn’t he release women, children and elderly. They are talking now about a pardon and the release of some categories. It seems that quite a few have already been released.

Al-Hayat:  I heard you saying that you did not have hope that the Geneva II conference will achieve anything. Then why was it held?

Brahimi:  The two parties accepting the idea of ​​a meeting and the principle of a political solution was enough reason to hold the conference. The situation in Syria was tragic. The problem is that both sides were not looking forward to a solution. The regime is dreaming of larger victories on the ground and the opposition does not welcome negotiations under the current balance of power. The truth is that the opposition participated in the meeting as a result of pressure exerted by the Americans, while the regime was there under pressure by the Russians. Each party took its decision based on [the party] that obliged it to participate in the conference. I told this to the Americans and Russians, and I said, “I will not be able to get anything from them, unless you convince them seriously of the need to look for a solution, and that means making compromises and decisions,” which did not happen. The opposition's decision to participate was made one day before the meeting. I told Moallem and Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian delegate at the UN, “It is as if I was with you when were given the instructions. The Russians want us to go. What is required is not only that you make concessions, but also not to negotiate.” Moallem and Jaafari objected, and I replied, “Every word that you might say or not will confirm what I have told you.”

Anyway, Assad spoke later on about the impossibility of negotiating with the opposition abroad.

Moallem himself delivered in Montreux a harsh and violent speech, and leveled all kinds of charges against the opposition, starting from treason to others. The essence of the speech can be summarized as such, “How can we negotiate with you and we don’t know who you are?” I told him once [after the meeting], “If you considered them traitors and agents, it would have been better if you didn’t participate.”

Al-Hayat:  Was it hard to bring the two delegations together under one roof?

Brahimi:  This issue was not hard, the problem was the absence of [good] intentions. The truth is, after a few days, the opposition started talking about finding a solution. But the regime remained unchanged, this is why I stopped the meetings.

Al-Hayat:  When did you make the decision to end your mission?

Brahimi:  A year ago. I had told people earlier that I think about quitting every morning. Before Geneva II, I told the secretary-general that I will organize the meeting, but will leave soon after. In reality, you suffer when you see these tragic human losses and great destruction, while thinking that you cannot do anything to stop the killings or alleviate the sufferings. The secretary-general tried to convince me to stay, but I told him, “I would be more happy to leave.” I advised the secretary-general to find another person, who maybe has new ideas or different approaches.

Al-Hayat:  Do you expect that the confrontations in Syria will last years?

Brahimi:  When the regime says that its military position is improving, we can say that it is true. But when the regime considers that the end is near and victory is imminent, I doubt that. The issue of ending [the crisis] is not in the hands of the regime. It is in the hands of its neighboring countries and the international community. Syria is witnessing a civil war, and a regional war is raging through the Syrian crisis. A military solution is improbable in my opinion, as long as the internal opposition is able to send more men, weapons and money outside the borders. So, the possibility of a long war that will last years is probable.

There is always a probability that it will stop. The UN secretary-general is calling for an end to armament and funding from all parties, not just the opposition. The war will end with an agreement on establishing a new Syria, i.e., a Syria that is different from what it was under Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad. An agreement on a new Syria will restore cohesion between the people and between Syria and its neighbors.

Al-Hayat:  There are those who say that your mission was harmed by the Ukrainian crisis, the presidential elections in Syria and the continuation of the Iranian-Saudi dispute. Is that true?

Brahimi:  There is no doubt that this is true. But I prefer to speak about the obstacles that prevented removing this great injustice suffered by the Syrian people. There is a state of denial on the part of the regime. The regime denies the existence of an uprising, revolution or rebellion, and maintains [its position] that the issue is a foreign plot, and this is not true. The problem in terms of the other side is [that they are] simplifying the situation in Syria and consider that the regime is finished. This is true of the opposition and many of its supporters internationally and regionally.

We established a trilateral track comprising the United States, Russia and the UN. The Ukrainian crisis halted this track, which was already suffering as a result of the different readings and calculations between Washington and Moscow. The Syrian presidential elections practically confirmed that the negotiations we began in Geneva had ended. Indeed, they had practically ended, but the elections reinforced this conclusion.

Al-Hayat:  What is the inherent danger in the fact that we are witnessing two civil wars, one in Syria and the other in Iraq?

Brahimi:  This is very dangerous. Even one war can affect countries near and far; look at the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. [There are] humanitarian tragedies, economic burdens and security fears. Also, just look at the fear of European and Western states regarding their citizens who are fighting in Syria. A civil war with a sectarian nature, and this regional entanglement, is very dangerous. I wasn't exaggerating when I warned of the “Somalization” in Syria. Then there is what is happening in Iraq, and this threatens an important country in the region and [regional] balances.

Al-Hayat:  You dealt with Hafez al-Assad, then with Bashar al-Assad. What is the difference in their styles?

Brahimi:  Each of the two was a "son of his generation." Assad the father had good knowledge of the region and was patient. He held meetings that would sometimes last seven hours.

Al-Hayat:  Did you enjoy a friendship with the Assads?

Brahimi:  Neither with the father nor with the son, but there was respect. Perhaps Hafez al-Assad knew me better. And I knew him better. Hafez al-Assad and I traveled in the same plane to go to the funeral of [former Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the time, I was in Damascus after [former Algerian President] Houari Boumediene had sent me to Syria in the framework of efforts relating to the so-called "Black September," which involved clashes between the Jordanian army and Palestinian organizations. We learned of Nasser's death while having dinner at the home of late [former Syrian President] Nureddin al-Atassi. The next day we traveled [to the funeral] together. I knew that Hafez al-Assad had made a decision to [oust Atassi], but he waited for the appropriate time to issue his first statement. People knew this, and Atassi knew it too. It was learned that he postponed the announcement [of the coup] because of the death of Nasser.

Al-Hayat:  You met Saddam Hussein and Nouri al-Maliki. What is the difference in the styles of the two men?

Brahimi:  I didn't know either of them well. I met Saddam regarding Lebanon, and in regards to the Iraq-Iran war as well, but my relationship with him was not a close one, as was the case with Nasser, for example. I've met Maliki and the last meeting with him was regarding Syria. My knowledge of the two men does not allow me to compare them.

Al-Hayat:  What did you feel when you slept in Damascus while the country was suffering from death and destruction?

Brahimi:  I tried early on to express the feeling. It was painful. There is a church in Homs, built in 1957, that was demolished. The Khalid bin Waleed Mosque was hit. The Omari Mosque in Daraa was hit, too. Fighting occurred within the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo. The famous souks in Aleppo were burned. Thus, I said that they are destroying their present, their future and their past. The truth is they are destroying everyone's past, since this heritage concerns all humanity and not just Syria. When one goes to Damascus, a city that our poets sung about and that was described as the beating heart of Arabism, and a city that people have memories of, you feel sorrow and tragedy. I first visited Damascus in 1958. Now you hear the sounds of bombs day and night. This is terrible. One feels very sad and very angry.

Al-Hayat:  Neither the regime nor the opposition liked you.

Brahimi:  That's right, and each side [took this stance] based on their calculations. I was not on a public relations trip. I was on a mission that had rules and regulations. The feelings [of the two sides] toward the envoy are not important, what's important is their positions toward the proposed issues. I said from day one that my loyalty is to the Syrian people alone, even before my loyalty to the Arab League or the UN, which have no interests aside from the interests of the Syrian people.

Al-Hayat:  You speak as if you have been wronged in the media?

Brahimi:  Very much so, especially in the Arab world, and from whom I call "hired pens," which exist both in Damascus and elsewhere. Everyone wants to impose their own vision on you, and when you're independent, they consider you to be against Syria. As for the regime, [they believe] there is an imperialist Israeli conspiracy, and if you are against the position of the regime, then you are a part of this conspiracy and a supporter of terrorism, and whether you know it or not, you are an accomplice with Israel. In regards to the opposition, the regime has fallen and if you say there is no room for a military resolution this means you are protecting the regime, hence you are an enemy. Georges Sabra expressed this position very strongly.

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Found in: syrian conflict, syria, lakhdar brahimi, interview, bashar al-assad
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