Interview: British Envoy Says Syrian Unity Is Priority

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A rebel fighter, carrying a weapon, gestures to people standing near a fire reportedly caused by an aerial bombardment from explosives-packed barrel bombs in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 8, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Fadi al-Halabi)

Published Saturday, February 8, 2014

With the next round of talks at the Geneva II conference just around the corner, Al-Akhbar interviewed John Wilkes, Britain’s envoy to Syria, during his visit to Beirut.

The Iraqi scenario after the US-British invasion in 2003 is on the mind of Britain’s envoy to the Syrian opposition. He speaks of the need to not repeat the mistakes committed in Iraq, to preserve Syria’s unity, army, and institutions. Combating extremism is a priority and so is the need for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. In Wilkes’s words, the West wants the Syrian regime to survive but without its president.

Wafiq Qanso: What is your assessment of the first round of Geneva II?

John Wilkes: It is true we did not make significant progress in this round, nevertheless,the parties sat at the same table and all the sensitive issues were discussed, including forming a transitional governing body with full powers, combating terrorism, the humanitarian situation, and exchange of prisoners and all others detained. It was an important step but we must build on it.

WQ: The regime wants to discuss the Geneva I document paragraph by paragraph, while the opposition wants to delve immediately into the question of the transitional body. How are you going to transcend this predicament?

JW: Geneva II was convened to discuss all the issues entailed in the Geneva I communiqué, including forming a transitional governing body, the humanitarian crisis, combating terrorism and so on. That is why it is necessary to discuss all these issues without exception.

In our opinion, the basic and fundamental issue in the negotiations is maintaining Syria’s territorial unity. There has been a military stalemate for over a year now. The regime controls certain areas, the opposition controls others, the Kurds are in the east and north, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls some areas. The continuation of the war will lead to the partition of Syria.

One of the basic goals of the Geneva conference is to keep Syria, as it appears on the map, unified. So whoever rejects the Geneva principles is effectively encouraging partitioning the country. That is why we say to the regime, the continuation of the war will lead to humanitarian disasters and negative repercussions regarding the unity of Syria and the stability of the region, and we say to the opposition that there is no military solution.

WQ: Do you differentiate between the opposition and the extremists?

JW: Without a doubt. According to its official position, the regime is against al-Qaeda and so are the Kurds. But the moderate opposition is the one fighting al-Qaeda represented by ISIS.

WQ: Is the Islamic Front considered part of the moderate opposition?

JW: The Islamic Front is a variant of the Salafi movement. That is why we call on them and on all the battalions fighting on the ground to commit to the vision of the Syrian National Coalition regarding democracy and pluralism. We expect all the parties to respect the pluralism of Syrian society.

WQ: The Islamic Front includes battalions fighting to establish an Islamist rule. Al-Nusra Front, which fights alongside the Islamic Front against ISIS, embraces al-Qaeda’s ideology, while the Free Syrian Army has faded away. Where is the moderate opposition?

JW: The Free Syrian Army still exists and we, as a British government, deal with the moderate opposition. Without an opposition that respects pluralism and democracy there will be no chance of a political solution. We send clear messages to the Salafi movement that any attempt to impose an Islamist state in Syria will lead to the continuation of the war, and to the regime that carrying on with this war to erase the opposition off the map will lead to the destruction and partition of Syria. That is why we have to reach agreements between the moderate parties in the opposition and the regime in order to preserve the state and the institutions in the country, and to unite against al-Qaeda.

WQ: Is the army one of the institutions you want to preserve?

JW: We want to preserve all the security institutions. We need to maintain these institutions as national institutions and not an institution for a single party, family, or regime. This is at the center of the debate today because we are keen on preventing the country from descending into a state of chaos after the change happens or during the transitional period. We do not want to repeat the Iraqi scenario of 2003. This is accepted by the coalition, the Free Syrian Army, and by many within the regime as well as those in the middle. This is one of the common ideas that we must build on. We will discuss in Geneva next week how to preserve these institutions and their abilities and we will encourage delving into these kinds of details.

WQ: You are speaking of an agreement between the regime and the opposition to protect state institutions. You no longer call for regime change?

JW: According to the principles of Geneva I, the transitional body will be formed based on an agreement between the two sides. Our position is clear. We see no chance of a political solution without Bashar al-Assad stepping down. Nevertheless, we must discuss in detail not only the political process, but also how to maintain state institutions.

WQ: What is your interest in maintaining Syria’s unity?

JW: It is in the interest of Britain and other countries because we fear the negative repercussions of Syria’s partition on countries in the region, especially Lebanon and Jordan. We also fear a deterioration of the humanitarian conditions because Britain is one of the main donor nations as we provide billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, and we do not want this situation to continue for many years to come. Not to mention the dangers of the spread of extremism in the region and the world. For all these reasons, we want to end this war. That is why we saw wide international support for the Geneva conference.

Of course, to achieve results, three things should be available. First, there must be a brave initiative from within the regime and the opposition to reach a solution. Second, we need creative solutions because the situation is very complicated and there are major challenges. And third, we need an international consensus to accept the principles of Geneva I.

That is exactly what happened with the exception of Iran. We encourage Iran to clearly state its acceptance of these principles to pave the way for its participation in this international agreement because it is doubtlessly an important player. But is it a player for war or for peace?

WQ: Saudi Arabia and Turkey interfere in Syria. They send weapons and encourage fighters to fight in Syria. What is the difference?

JW: The difference is that the protests began peacefully in 2011, and because of the regime’s violent reaction, the revolution became a war. The Syrian people have a right to defend themselves. That is why there is a big difference between Iran’s role and the role of other states, whether they support the regime or the opposition. Anyway, there is an international consensus and we hope that Iran will participate in this process sooner or later.

WQ: Do you have any security contacts with Damascus?

JW: We do not have any contacts with the regime on any level, and we do not believe the claims that it serves as a shield against extremism. We know that the relationship between the regime and al-Qaeda in Iraq is an old one, and many of the latter’s cadres are the same cadres within ISIS today. Ideologically there is a difference between al-Qaeda and the regime but practically speaking, who is fighting al-Qaeda? In the past few months, it has been the Free Syrian Army.

WQ: The Islamic Front allied with the al-Nusra Front, which has been placed on the terrorism list, is the one fighting ISIS.

JW: The Free Syrian Army, along with part of the Islamic Front, is fighting al-Qaeda. Regime claims that all opposition groups are extremists and terrorists are not true, and it undermines the political solution. It is important to recognize that there are several parties on the ground. There is al-Qaeda, there is a moderate opposition, and there is the regime. There are also the Kurds (the Democratic Union Party or PYD) who need to clarify whether they are with the regime or with the opposition. Based on our analysis, we believe they are closer to the regime.

There are legitimate demands for important segments of the Syrian population that we must recognize if we want to reach a political solution. That is why there should be a return to Geneva, a discussion of the core issues, and a focus on our shared interests, such as standing up to the extremists, which is also in the interest of Syrians, the region and the world.

WQ: Is there a vision for what a solution will look like?

JW: I think Assad has to step down after all that has happened in Syria in the past three years. But we must preserve state institutions to avoid repeating the 2003 Iraq scenario. We can find a middle ground based on these principles. We also need guarantees for all the components of Syrian society and for their participation in governance and state institutions. These ideas have been fleshed out in the past. We have the outline of a solution, but we must let the Syrian parties discuss the details. We need brilliant solutions, and step-by-step, we will focus on all the core issues in the negotiations. In terms of the opposition, we do not want any attempt to impose an Islamist state; it is clear that the Syrian people do not want that. We need to defuse the situation. We need to change the tone in Geneva and in the ongoing contacts between parties.

WQ: Are you working to prevent repercussions of the Syrian crisis from reaching Lebanon?

JW: As we wait for the political solution in Syria, we do not want these repercussions to lead to another crisis in Lebanon or any of the neighboring countries. We respect the Lebanese government’s official position and its commitment to the policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis. There is no excuse for any Lebanese or any foreigner from any side to get involved in this war.

We support the Lebanese and Jordanian official positions to stabilize both countries and we recognize the negative implications of the Syrian refugee crisis and cross-border attacks on them. In regard to these two countries, we have programs for development and humanitarian aid, and in Lebanon we have a program to support the Lebanese army to protect the border.

WQ: Are you exercising pressure on regional countries that have influence on Lebanese parties to come together and form a government?

JW: Irrespective of the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon faces major challenges, and it needs a government. That is why we encourage all parties to form a government as soon as possible on a consensual basis to deal with the problems that the country is facing. There were regional and international impediments but they are gone now. We need a serious intra-Lebanese dialogue and God willing, the government will be formed soon.

WQ: Will it include Hezbollah?

JW: Of course. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese political spectrum.

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