Posted by Alex on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008
Posted by Alex.
Our own IDAF sent this summary of a question and answer session with President Bashar el-Assad that he, and about thirty other participants invited by the Emir of Dubai, attended this week. The meeting took place at Dubai's School of Government.
Q. How can Arab relations be mended?
I personally see that the points of disagreement between Syria on one side and Egypt and Saudi on the other are few. What you hear in the media is that the reasons for the deteriorating relations are Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran. Now that the “excuse” for Lebanon is removed from the discussion we look to move closer.
On Iraq and Iran, we should not blame Iran for our failure as Arabs to provide solutions in Iraq. They are serving there interest from their own perspective on how a solution should be implemented in Iraq. We as Arabs should do the same instead of blaming them.
Q. We heard a lot from officials and media sources about the “constructive role” of Syria in the Doha accord between the Lebanese. Can you give us more details on this role?
We have a strong relationship with Qatar. The solution in Qatar reached a dead end after few days. Then Syria was contacted to suggest ideas for alternative solution. The ideas we provided were the exact same ideas we provided the French last year when they were mediating. However, the French then did not comprehend or did not implement the ideas correctly. The Syrian French differences back then were because the French wanted the Syrians to “replace” some the Lebanese fractions in the discussions and solutions. This is why the French initiative failed. We wanted to help through ideas and solutions but not replace any Lebanese party in the mediation.
In Doha, we provided solutions to the Qataris and the Lebanese. The Qataris then played the crucial role in making our ideas and proposed solutions accepted by the different parties. The Syrian role in Doha was that of a rescuer. During the first 3 days, we did know what was happening in Doha other than information through news sources. When all parties reached a dead end and wanted to pack and go home, Syria was contacted and we were successful in providing a compromise for all parties.
Q. Will you visit and congratulate Gen. Suleiman in Beirut?
There is no reason for not going. However, we prefer to play a positive role without making noise in the media. Currently the case in the Lebanese media is that Syria is blamed for anything that happens in Lebanon. We prefer to play the same role without the fueling negative media coverage. For example, in the nineties when President Hafez Al-Assad visited Lebanon, he drove there by car. The whole coverage in the media then was that he avoided to go by plain to avoid the protocol of saluting the Lebanese flag. This is why in 2002 I decided to go by plain. This was not enough though. Anyhow, you must know that Gen. Sleiman is known for his friendship with Syria.
Q. What is the nature of the Syrian-Israeli indirect negotiation?
Let me explain. In an earlier peace process, James Baker used to fly between Syria and Israel to facilitate negotiations. This time, there’s a Syrian delegate hosted in one Hotel in Turkey and another Israeli delegate hosted in another hotel in the same city. The Turkish mediators are moving from one hotel to the other instead of flying from one country to another until a solution is reached.
In the Madrid process there was nothing in agreement. Now we have something in agreement. Olmert has agreed to return the Golan and this was the basis to start the negotiation. After we reach this infrastructure for peace a direct negotiation will start, we will then need the sponsorship of the USA as a superpower that can ensure the delivery of each party’s commitments.
Q. What is your assessment of the impact of US negative statements on Syria?
Asad: In the early days of such statements people used to base their decisions on them, either politically or even economically. Now, the US administration has lost all credibility and is viewed as illogical.
The US weapons are not that effective on the political terrain. We keep explaining to unofficial US visitors this lack of credibility problem in the region. John F. Kennedy in the sixties sent a delegation to the French president with an envelope including photos of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. The French president refused to see the photos and said that the credibility of the US president is enough for him to make a decision accordingly. The current impact of these negative statements is non-existent. On the contrary in 2000 the growth rate in Syria was almost 0 percent. It increased to more than 6 percent today despite these statements.
Q. How can Syria use its good relations with Iran to minimize the potential risk of any Sunni-Shii “Fitna”? What about the talk on Shiitization of Sunnis?
Asad: Our good relationship with Iran has never stopped us from telling them in every venue that we stand firmly with the UAE on the islands issue. Our problem with the current rhetoric on Iran is that no one is able to point to any evidence on the dangers presented by Iran to us Arabs. Why would Iran destroy its strong economic relationships with the Gulf and Dubai for example?
Regarding Shiitaization, we should make a clear distinction between state policies and independent personal or group actions. For example, in Lebanon we had a good strategy and policies in theory but with bad implementation in which individuals and groups caused many errors which we admitted. If these shiitization attempts exist on personal or group levels then we should deal with them as such. We have never seen any evidence on state policies or actions on this regard. This accusation has been used in the media as a tool of inciting for political reasons against Iran. It would be necessary to stop using inflammatory terminology in the Arab media for political exploitation.
Regarding the Sunni-Shii “Fitna”, let’s take Iraq as an example. Few days ago I met with an Iraqi Sunni leader who is known for his extreme anti-Iran stands. He was convinced and showed me compelling evidence on how US players in Iraq are fueling Sunni-Shii strife in the country for political exploitation. In Syria we have 1.5 million Iraqis from all sects, backgrounds and economic status and we did not witness a single sectarian conflict.
Q. Practically, what should be the Arab role in Iraq to help the fractions?
First there should be a pure Iraqi solution with Arab support, as was the case of the solution in Lebanon in Doha. Second, there should be sectarian-free constitution in Iraq. A sectarian quota system of political participation will lead to conflicts as we’ve seen in Lebanon. Sectarian Zua’ama usually live on these institutionalized sectarian divides by continuously inflaming the public to continue to extract political benefits from them. Third, there should be a political process parallel with a scheduled withdrawal of the US troops with an agreed time-line, for example 2 or 3 years. Then there should be an Arab league initiative or mediation that takes place in Baghdad to nurture and pin-down the final details. The later we start implementing this strategy the harder it would be to reach a solution.