BY ALIA ALLANA
In an exclusive interview to Fountain Ink, Syria’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Walid al-Moualem (left, above photograph) speaks about the upcoming Geneva Conference, the success of the Russian military campaign, and the role of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in fuelling the war. Moualem is the highest-ranking Syrian official to travel to India since the civil war began in 2011.
A UN-brokered conference will take place on January 25. The aim is to bring together representatives of the Syrian government and opposition leaders. What is the Syrian government’s aim?
Our aim is a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition without interference. We hope to reach an understanding to compose a national unity government where the opposition will take part. By the opposition I mean one that envisages a better Syria, not one that fulfils other countries interests. We want them to be a part of the political process. This national unity government can compose a constitutional committee to discuss a new constitution and this modern constitution will allow for parliamentary elections.
How will the rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia affect Syria?
I assure you that Iran is helping Syria to combat terrorism. Saudi Arabia is training and arming the terrorist groups. They have spent millions of dollars to strengthen the terrorist group. It will affect us because we expect the Saudis to increase the aid to the terrorist groups to intensify their activity and they will instruct their delegation at the Geneva Conference, which belongs to them and is financed by them, to make preconditions before starting the negotiations. Parts of the opposition which have allegiance to foreign countries are not a genuine opposition and we will not fulfill their demands. The UN is calling for Geneva Conference to be held without preconditions. What is the alternative then? To fight them militarily.
Saudi Arabia is training and arming the terrorist groups. They have spent millions of dollars to strengthen the terrorist group. It will affect us because we expect the Saudis to increase the aid to the terrorist groups to intensify their activity and they will instruct their delegation at the Geneva Conference, which belongs to them and is financed by them, to make preconditions before starting the negotiations.
How do you read the Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis?
We have a humanitarian crisis but I must admit that it is not as it appears in the foreign media. Why do we have a humanitarian crisis, we need to go to the roots. We are facing a coalition of countries, the US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey against us. From the beginning of the crisis they financed, armed and trained terrorists who came to Syria from 100 countries. This is where it all started. They massacred many Syrians, they destroyed the economic infrastructure, they stole factories and sent equipment to Turkey. They stole our oil, cotton and wheat and sent that to Turkey too. Syria became a poor country and Syrians lost the opportunity to work and their standard of living started to fall. In addition, the US and EU place sanctions against the Syrian people which prevents us from importing food and medicine. What will the results of this be?
We are facing a coalition of countries, the US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey against us ... From the beginning of the crisis they financed, armed and trained terrorists ... They massacred many Syrians, they destroyed the economic infrastructure, they stole factories and sent equipment to Turkey. They stole our oil, cotton and wheat and sent that to Turkey too. In addition, the US and EU place sanctions against the Syrian people which prevents us from importing food and medicine.
What is the reality of the Russian campaign?
First, by terrorist I mean any citizen or foreign fighter fighting the Syrian army. There is no distinction for us because the bullet that goes through the gun doesn’t say whether the fighter is a moderate or a terrorist. These descriptions of fighters, moderate, extremist are American descriptions and terrorists are just following instructions. The Russians came on our request to help us combat the terrorists and this is because terrorism is not just a Syrian concern but an international concern. Russians came in their fighters on September 30, 2015 and have achieved in three months 10 times more than the 10,000 American raids against ISIS. The Syrian army has started to regain many villages controlled by ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Do you feel betrayed by Turkey?
We feel more than betrayed but not just by Turkey. We feel betrayed by Saudi Arabia, by Qatar. The Turkish angle was that they wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to be a part of the Syrian political process but we refused because we ban the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey) considers himself the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood so from March to May 2011, Davutoğlu (then foreign minister and present prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu) made three trips asking the Syrian government to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life. The third trip was more of a warning message and when we refused Turkey began to take anti-Syria measures. It closed the Syrian embassy in Ankara and began to build camps even before the refugee started arriving. Since May 2011 Turkey opened training camps and let terrorists enter from its border with Syria. But the Qatar matter is different. Qatar is a small country that wants to play a big country and it also supports the Muslim Brotherhood.
Images of emaciated children, testimonies of starving citizens of Madaya are in the news. What is this happening and what is being done by the government?
Before the crisis, Madaya was a very prosperous village and Damascenes used to go there to buy their produce. Then about 500 terrorists came to Madaya and controlled it as well as Zabadani. The government troops had to liberate them but because there were many civilians in these two villages we preferred reaching an agreement. The agreement has three stages. In the first stage that began three months ago, a ceasefire was agreed upon for a period of six months. One week ago, the second stage started under which all the injured and sick in Zabadani and Madaya will be vacated from their village to go to the north. The second stage has been fulfilled. This brings us to the third stage which is due now under which food and medical supplies need to reach Madaya and Zabadani. The armed group in Madaya has in the past used civilians as shields and this has been a major challenge for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Fighters have previously taken control of convoys of food and medicine and have sold it on the black market to the people the food is intended for. Madaya has become a political campaign to fulfil the terrorists’ wish and break the agreement that led to the ceasefire. We are hoping that this doesn’t happen and that in the final stage the terrorists hand over their arms. Naturally the terrorists don’t want to do this.
How much dialogue is there between Syria and other countries?
There is no consultation between the US and Syria nor are there any talks between Syria and Turkey, Qatar and Saudi. Some countries in the Gulf want to talk without the media being informed but we don’t like under-the-table diplomacy. We are making new bilateral relations and this is why I came to India. I came to offer India security cooperation because these terrorists know no border. I went to China as well. Know that there are more than 700 families from China who have come to live in Syria. They are all Muslims. The men fight with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra and the wives and children remain at home. In the security arrangement between the Indian government and Syria there will be measures to prevent cases like the disappearance of the 39 Indians from Iraq. There will be intelligence sharing.
There is no consultation between the US and Syria nor are there any talks between Syria and Turkey, Qatar and Saudi. Some countries in the Gulf want to talk without the media being informed but we don’t like under-the-table diplomacy. We are making new bilateral relations and this is why I came to India. I came to offer India security cooperation because these terrorists know no border.
Do you feel as though there is a reshaping of the Middle East along sectarian lines?
Any sectarian war is bad war. We believe in a modern society where all Syrians can live together as citizens irrespective of their religion. We are unlike Saudi Arabia, we fight Wahhabism, and ISIS (Daesh) is based on Wahhabi education and practice. We are against sectarian divisions totally. In Syria we were always proud of our coexistence and we recognise that our society is rich with different religions. This Sunni-Shia divide in Syria is new. This divide wasn’t there before the crisis. We are Syrians whether we are Muslims, Christians or any other religion. Only those who take sides with the terrorists are seeing these divides. This is a conspiracy led by the USA with Saudi money.
When will this war end?
Two things need to be mentioned. First, what you are seeing in Syria is a conspiracy and the origins need to be stated. It was all planned in 2006 after the Hezbollah victory against Israel in July 2006, in which Syria helped Hezbollah in the war. We were fighting the same enemy. First we need to know the American strategy. We don’t know their official policy but we know that American policies are planned in Israel and fulfilled by the US in the Middle East. Second, the Security Council of the UN recently adopted an important resolution under Chapter 7 of the Charter which obliged all countries of the world including the US, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, UAE to fulfill that resolution to combat terrorism. The last resolution, 2253, was adopted two months ago and calls upon all countries to refrain from financing and arming the terrorist group. If our neighbouring countries and the US who is a permanent member in the Security Council adhere to the resolution then 70 per cent of the Syrian crisis will be finished. The remaining 30 per cent can be finished by the Syrian army along with the help of Russia and the war will finish at the end of 2016.
(Title image: Courtsey MEA, India) .
This is Part IV of Fountain Ink series on the Syria crisis. Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.