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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Peace Talks Without Preconditions: WP Interview With Syrian Foreign Minister

There is no precondition. A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions. Dialogue has a literature (of proper procedure). You don't put demands. You put agreed goals. Under this, you put each side's commitment to achieve the goals in a parallel way. This is how we understand constructive dialogue.

This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon.' Our only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, to get Syrian regional stability.

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Interview With Syrian Foreign Minister

Here's the transcript the interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem conducted on December 14, 2006 in Damascus, Syria.

Q: Ignatius: Perhaps you could begin by giving an overall view of the Baker-Hamilton Report

A: Moallem: During my work in Washington (as Syrian ambassador in the early 1990s) I knew Baker and I knew Hamilton. I know their objectivity. I know that both of them and others on the (Iraq Study Group) committee who I used to know have vision.

The first question Baker asked me when we met in New York (in September 2006) was: Walid, how can we return to the Syrian-American situation of the early 1990s, when we succeeded to build mutual trust? I told him: This is our wish also in Syria.

But how can we make it? We need to ask ourselves one question: Has the prior American policy against Syria--isolation--worked or failed? I think from what we are seeing in the region today, it failed. What will be another option? The challenge is to adopt policies of engagement. The method is dialogue.

Why is this challenging? Through dialogue, no side can stay in his position. Constructive dialogue means both sides have to meet. We can call it a 'common ground.' Through an engagement policy, you agree on certain principles and goals.

What are Syrian goals in the region? There are three: Peace, stability and prosperity. These are the Syrian goals. Are these three goals contradicting American national interests in the region? I don't think so.

--If we tackle first the issue of peace: The American administration knows that during our previous direct talks with the Israelis (during the early 1990s) we achieved 90 percent of the agreement. We lacked the political will from Israel to achieve the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel. Is it contradicting American interests to continue the path of Madrid (the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which laid the ground for subsequent Israeli-Syrian peace talks) on the same basis?

I wonder why the administration is preventing Israel to go on this path of peace, to secure its northern border. I wonder why this administration failed to achieve the question the late Prime Minister Rabin asked: What is the meaning of peace between Syria and Israel? When I say this, I mean a comprehensive peace--including Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon. But as foreign minister of Syria, I will speak on behalf only of Syria.

Q: You referred to Bush administration efforts to prevent Israel from negotiation with Syria. What are you referring to?

A: I have been told this in New York by Americans who are attached to peace. Why is this administration preventing Israel?

Q: When did this happen?

A: Immediately after the war between Israel and Lebanon. (August 2006). In Israel, there is a weak government. This means that this government needs encouragement from Washington to move on the way to peace. If this administration put on its priorities peace in the Middle East, why didn't they (encourage the Israelis). Is this an administration for war only?

In December 1990, when President Hafez al-Assad met President Bush the father in Geneva, Assad told Bush: Mr. President, no one can challenge your military strength. But we understand when you hold in one hand the gun, you need to hold in the other the olive branch. This is how superpowers can survive. President Bush the father was honest to his promise. After the ceasefire (in the 1991 Gulf War) in March, Secretary Baker in April moved to call for a Mideast peace conference. This is how we understand the responsibilities of a superpower.

--Second, I turn to regional stability. Is it contradicting American interests? I don't think so. How do we achieve this when the administration is at a crossroads. Either we go for stability or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over. Will this serve U.S. interests?

It is not useful for anyone to tackle the deep concerns in the region by giving us tablets of aspirin. You need to tackle the biggest issues. One of them is a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will lead to a solution in Lebanon, immediately. It will help Iraqi stability and security.

Syria always asked America to change its behavior. The Syrians are asking the Americans: When you are showing keenness on Lebanese stability and Iraqi stability, why do you try to de-stabilize Syria? If you want us to have constructive dialogue, you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability.

--Third, prosperity. If you achieve peace and stability, you can focus on prosperity. Prosperity in the region has an effect on illegal immigration, terrorism, poverty. All these objectives serve our interests and the Americans'. So the question here is: Why do you sanction Syria?

We are ready for constructive dialogue to achieve these three objectives, based on our knowledge that you need to take history and geography into account. We are in the middle of three crises--Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians--and you are far away.

Q: Let me ask you to discuss the specifics of the Baker-Hamilton report. Do you support the report?

A: There are many positive elements in this report. But it is not a Bible or Koran. This is the first time there is a report on the desk--another plan for the administration. We are not the decision-makers. It is up to the president to decide.

We say: We are not against the U.S. To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that in our opinion serves American interests in the region.

Q: Let's go through the specific recommendations in the report that concern Syria. The first is recommendation 4, which calls for an Iraq Support Group composed of Iraq's neighbors and the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council. Would Syria join in such an Iraq Support Group?

A: I will explain: I went to Iraq (in November 2006). I spent three days there. When others visited they have spent three hours. I met with all the Iraqi leaders. I discussed issues with them on the basis of agreed principles. One, the unity of Iraq. Two, the independence of Iraq. Three, an agreed timetable of withdrawal between the U.S. and Iraqi leadership.

When I refer to a timetable, it is not to offend the U.S. To the contrary. It is a timetable for withdrawal and building Iraqi security. They will go in parallel. It is not a timetable of immediate withdrawal.

Q: Do you have in mind a time frame? What about the Baker-Hamilton suggestion of early 2008?

A: It is not up to me to answer. It depends on Iraqi ability to take over security. Immediate withdrawal? This is an immoral step. Iraq must be prepared to take over. It is not a duty (for the US military in Iraq) of fighting. It is a duty of training.

Iraq is similar to Lebanon. You cannot rule Iraq by majority. You rule Iraq by consensus. All Iraqi groups have to participate in the political process. The first steps must start with the Iraqis themselves. They need to end existing divisions within themselves. They need to agree on the constitution, unity, the distribution of wealth, dismantling of militias. When they reach agreement on these, they need to start preparation of a national reconciliation conference. Even their legislation of uprooting the Baath (de-Baathification), they realize they need a change, to uprooting the Saddamists.

(Moallem goes off record to describe his conversations with the leaders of each of the main groups in Iraq. He agreed to allow me to summarize the basic outlines of his advice: To the Kurds, don't secede; to the Shia, recognize that you can't rule Iraq alone and work with the Sunnis; to the Sunnis, recognize that old system of Sunni rule is gone and work with the Shia.)

Q: But what about the Baker-Hamilton idea of a regional Iraq Support Group? Should that come later?

A: The Iraqi consensus (after it is reached) has to be supported by the neighboring countries. That is the third step, after Iraqi agreement on issues and the national reconciliation conference. The third step is a meeting between Iraqis, their neighbors and the five members of the UN Security Council.

Q: Let me return to the specific recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report. Recommendation 12 says the U.S. and the Support Group should encourage Syria to do three things: control its border with Iraq to the maximum extent possible, including joint Syrian-Iraqi patrols; open a Syrian hotline to Iraq; increase Syrian political and economic cooperation with Iraq.

A: Leave that language aside. These are Syrian ideas that have been offered to the Iraqis. Tomorrow we will have the Iraqi interior minister in Syria, for talks based on these ideas. We will have 22 generals coming, from the Defense ministry, the Interior ministry. We are not doing this to please the US. We are doing what is in the Syrian and Iraqi interest. We promise to do things with Iraq, and we started doing them Dec. 11, when we raised flags at our two embassies. The next step is security arrangements, economic arrangements.

Q: So you are already doing the things mentioned in recommendation 12.

A: Yes.

Q: The next is recommendation 13, which calls for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts. I assume from what you said before you favor that. And then recommendation 14, which calls for an unconditional meeting, like the 1991 Madrid conference.

A: It is a good idea. I would like to see this administration really honestly have interest to accomplish this goal. It has a duty to encourage Israel to walk on this path.

Q: Finally, Lebanon, which is discussed in recommendation 15. It has a series of specific items. First, it says that Syria should pledge full adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006 (which called on Syria to halt deliveries of arms to Hezbollah.)

A: We are adhering to it. We have increased our border patrols on the Lebanese border.

I deny all rumors that Syria is sending arms to Lebanese parties. You have satellite and air surveillance over these borders. Nobody has presented us a document telling us that there is this transfer of arms. President Assad committed to (UN Secretary General) Annan that Syria will work with the UN to implement 1701.

Q: The Baker-Hamilton Report next calls on Syria to cooperate with the UN investigation of the Hariri assassination and other killings. I know that Brammertz said this week in his latest report that Syria is cooperating, but will you continue to cooperate?

A: We will continue our cooperation with the Brammertz investigation, as long as this investigation is proven it is professional. Because discovering the reality of this crime is serving the Syrian interest.

Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah and use of Syrian territory to transport weapons.

A: There is no such cooperation (with Hezbollah). We have moral support, not operational support, because we want to see Lebanon stable. We want to help UNIFIL (the UN force in southern Lebanon) in achieving its mandate, and we believe the Lebanese are capable of solving issues.

Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for Syria to use its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of Israeli army prisoners.

A: Who has influence on Israel to release Lebanese, Palestinians and 20 Syrians who are being held prisoner? Why don't we combine the two influences to achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners. We are ready.

Q: Next, the report calls on Syria to stop its efforts to undermine the Lebanese government.

A: We are for the stability, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.

Q: But I believe the report is referring to the current Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora.

A: Fouad Siniora is not Lebanon. Fouad Siniora was invited to visit Syria three times. He was reluctant. We support Lebanese stability. We support what Lebanese agreed upon to achieve their stability, within Taif (the 1990 Taif agreement) and the constitution.

Q: Next, the report calls for Syria to cease arms shipments to Hamas.

A: This is nonsense. We are far from Gaza.

Q: Next, the report calls for a Syrian commitment to help obtain an acknowledgement by Hamas of Israel's right to exist.

A: I will disclose something to you for the first time. We are exerting efforts with the foreign minister of Qatar with Hamas and Fatah together. We kept the same distance between them, to reach agreement to compose a national unity government. We convinced Hamas to agree on a ceasefire in Gaza. We hope this will be applicable to the West Bank. We convinced Hamas to agree on a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories. (An implicit recognition of Israel). What else do you want from us?

Q: Finally, recommendation 15 calls on Syria to make greater efforts to seal its border with Lebanon.

A: Can the US seal its border with Mexico? Unless you want us to build a wall to seal the border with Lebanon. Are the Lebanese seeking this? Will it serve their interests?

Q: Finally, Recommendation 16 says that in return for Syrian help in all these matters, Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria. Is that a precondition, for Syria--that it would get the Golan back in any negotiations?

A: There is no precondition. A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions. Dialogue has a literature (of proper procedure). You don't put demands. You put agreed goals. Under this, you put each side's commitment to achieve the goals in a parallel way. This is how we understand constructive dialogue.

This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon.' Our only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, to get Syrian regional stability.

Q: A last question. I am assuming that you have discussed these issues with President Assad, and that he agrees with the views that you expressed today in this interview.

A: I am the foreign minister of Syria. The president and the foreign minister can speak. He is the leader. I an expressing his ideas.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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