Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari
Iraqi Foreign Minister discusses Syrian crisis and rapprochement with Saudi Arabia
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari believes that national dialogue is the only way to end all manifestations of anger in Iraq and is the key to achieving political accord.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Zebari discusses the results of the recently held Munich security conference and international and US stances on the Syrian crisis, as well as rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: You recently participated in the Munich conference on world security. What were the results of the conference?
A: The importance of this meeting lies in the fact that it presented a new vision of international moves and international decision-making in the future. The United States participated in this conference effectively. It was represented by Vice President Joe Biden who presented the new administration’s view on addressing various issues.
In fact, however, there will be no fundamental change in the US Administration’s policy in the coming period. All delegates participated in the conference effectively. An elite group of officials of Western nations, security agencies, defense ministers, intelligence and national security agencies attended the conference.
The conferees discussed a number of issues, including energy and the United States’ huge technological advance in the production of Shale gas and oil. This will change energy production in the world as regards the world’s need for oil. And in 10 years’ time, the United States will export oil and gas and be self-sufficient. There is huge progress by US technology in this respect, and it will reduce the United States’ dependence on the Arab states’ oil in the future.
The other subject was the Euro crisis and its effect on the economies of the world and the region, in addition to the Syrian crisis and its effect on all states of the region. Also, the French intervention in Mali was one of the main issues that were discussed.
Q: Was there a visible change in the international stand concerning the Syrian crisis?
A: The new development was the Chief of the Syrian National Coalition Dr Moaz Alkhatib’s participation in the conference. Alkhatib presented an initiative to hold conditional dialogue with the Syrian regime and held bilateral meetings with Sergey Lavrov, US Vice President Biden, and Joint UN-Arab Envoy Lakhdar Ibrahimi. However, a four-way meeting did not take place. Thus, we cannot say that something was achieved. In fact, all conferees asserted the already known stands.
Q: After the Munich conference, do you Still believe that the Syrian crisis will be resolved by spring?
A: The United States’ policy on Syria is currently under review. The question that was asked in Munich was how the United States can propose solutions and help the parties overcome the difficulties. Some Europeans and other important officials called for an international move by the UN Security Council to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Q: Does this mean that the UN Security Council should approve Lakhdar Ibrahimi’s report and pass a resolution under Chapter Seven binding both parties in Syria to a ceasefire?
A: Thus far, no agreement has been reached. The issue was discussed, and we reached a conclusion to go back to the Geneva document as a framework together with certain amendments or improvements. To date, however, some people do not agree on resorting to Chapter Seven.
Q: Do you mean Russia and China?
A: Yes. These two states persist in their stands. Accordingly, the Syrian crisis will regrettably continue with this level of violence and killing in the absence of any prospect for a solution. All parties are frustrated for several reasons. The first reason is that there is no international desire to act, and this is what we pointed out in the beginning. We said that the Syrian crisis may have broken out at a time when world and regional balance of power was changing. This was one of the topics discussed at the Munich summit.
The conferees supported the French intervention in Mali, but not all Europeans agreed on this intervention. There were disagreements over the size of the intervention, the way it was carried out, and the size of assistance by other European states. Nevertheless, all the conferees asserted that the French decision to intervene was a bold one. This shows that action may be carried out if there is a will. Also, there was a view at the conference that the aim of the French intervention in Mali was to fight against terrorist and extremist groups. But there was a question that if intervention in Mali took place, why there was no intervention in Syria.
Q: And what was the answer to that question?
A: No one has the answer.
Q: What is the Western nations’ view of developments in the capitals of the so-called Arab spring states?
A: They believe that the Al-Qaeda Organization will become active in all neglected areas of the world, that is to say, when states lose control of security. When ignorance and poverty prevail in an area, Al-Qaeda groups establish presence there. What happened in Mali was that some of these groups, which previously operated in Libya, and Libyan weapons moved into Mali in large numbers. These groups joined Al-Qaeda there, so that they may secure a larger share of the donations. And these groups might move to Algeria or Egypt.
Q: Do you expect US Aid to Arab spring nations to continue?
A: They speak about supporting democracy and transition. This aid will continue, but in my assessment, the challenges and problems have increased. A cure to these problems depends on the development of these states and their societies and the way they will build their political regimes. There are problems in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and in our country Iraq.
Q: What is the crisis that Iraq is currently going through?
A: I continue to believe that Iraq was ahead of the Arab spring states in its revolution. It made reforms, wrote a constitution, held elections, and achieved transition. However, the reason for the crisis in Iraq, demonstrations, disagreements, and other forms of problems is the absence of an impartial mediator to reach a settlement or agreements to prevent the crisis from deteriorating.
In the past, we suffered serious political, security, and constitutional crisis but there were local and international mediators to achieve reconciliation and include more Iraqis in the political process. Among these mediators was the [Shiite] religious authority in Al-Najaf Al-Sayyid Al-Sistani. He played a role in mediation efforts, particularly when disagreements emerged over the constitution. And he spoke loudly to prevent any deterioration of the situation when dealing with the issues of sectarianism and resistance. But these mediation efforts abated now.
The other point is that whenever a Sunni-Shiite tension arose in Iraq, Kurdish leaders intervened to bridge the gap and called for dialogue. President [of the Kurdistan Region] Masud Barzani intervened to resolve a disagreement over the formation of a government in the past and he intervened on many occasions. Currently, we do not have such initiatives. Besides, we see that all other leaders are party to the conflict. Therefore, it is difficult to choose one of them to mediate.
Q: And in your opinion what is the solution?
A: The United Nations is there, but there is disagreement over its role. The positive thing is that, in spite of these sit-ins and demonstrations, the confrontations have not reached the point of using force and violence and the security forces did not intervene. When initial signs of violence emerged on two occasions, the forces withdrew from the demonstration areas.
On the other hand, the government is currently taking some reform measures, including the release of male and female detainees from prisons, review of cases regarding seizure of funds, lifting restrictions on the remnants of the former regime, paying salaries to the awakening council members who fought against Al-Qaeda. All these measures are in progress. These are legitimate demands, but the question is whether the crisis will be resolved. In my assessment, all these issues cannot be addressed without a serious national political dialogue.
Q: Can the Arab League act as an impartial mediator, especially in the issue of dialogue, as it did in the past?
A: To be honest, the Arab League offered help, and the secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, spoke to me officially. He said that the Arab League is ready to help but only at request and agreement by the Iraqi Government.
Also, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations expressed the same desire. Thus, there are options, and the situation has not reached the point of estrangement and clash. All political leaders are ready for dialogue, but there is no mediator who can bring all parties together. This is the main problem in the Iraqi situation.
There is another point: Whenever a political disagreement emerges, acts of violence and terrorism increase, and this problem needs to be resolved. It can be said that, even though there is a desire for a solution and efforts are exerted, the situation remains really tense and it affects the government’s performance and endorsement of the budget (this year’s budget). This budget is important. It amounts to $119 billion. Therefore, we have always said that the Syrian crisis cannot be kept inside the Syrian border.
Q: Do you mean the crisis in Syria had a great effect on Iraq’s current problems?
A: In my assessment, it has a great effect because most of the areas where people are angry and hold demonstrations are in the western provinces, Al-Anbar, Salah al-Din, Al-Fallujah, and others, that are close to the Syrian border.
Q: Is there any new move in developing relations with Saudi Arabia?
A: Surely we share a view on opening a new chapter and achieving full cooperation with Saudi Arabia in all spheres.
During Iraq’s participation in the development summit in Riyadh, the Iraqi delegation held useful meetings with Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and the Interior Minister. All these meetings were good and positive.
We believe that there is a need to review the bilateral relations that must not be reduced to a routine relationship. We agreed on the importance of implementing a series of confidence-building measures on issues including the detainees who are held in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia and we passed an agreement in this regard in the Iraqi parliament. This agreement will help resolve this issue.
Also, agreement was reached to open border crossings between the two countries beginning with the Arar Crossing because most of the Saudi exports to Iraq enter via Kuwait and Jordan.
On a separate issue, we agreed to correct all unclear reports published by the media and to coordinate on many regional issues, such as the Syrian crisis and security of the Gulf. In addition, we agreed to continue to communicate and coordinate to complete the process of diplomatic representation with the appointment of a resident Saudi ambassador to Iraq. Thus, we sensed a new spirit prevailing in the bilateral relations.
Q: How about relations with Kuwait?
A: Our relationship with Kuwait is proceeding very positively. We recently reached a number of agreements, including an agreement to finally settle the issue of the Kuwaiti Airlines. Besides, the Kuwaiti National Assembly ratified a very important agreement to organize navigation in Khawr Abdullah. On the other hand, we have security teams operating on the ground to fix land border markers. So, we are moving in the right direction, and our relations are good.