Interview: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem
Thoughts from the United States' unlikely new middleman on Middle East peace.
JAli Haider-Pool/Getty ImagesLandmarks on the road map: Syria is emerging as a linchpin of Obama's Middle East peace plan. How does Syria feel about it?
In recent weeks, Barack Obama has jumped head first into the Middle East peace process, touting the two-state solution as the end point, the road map as the guide, and peace as the final goal. The U.S. president's high-profile speech in Cairo to Muslims around the world set the tone -- soon to be followed, it was promised, with action.
JAli Haider-Pool/Getty ImagesLandmarks on the road map: Syria is emerging as a linchpin of Obama’s Middle East peace plan. How does Syria feel about it?
In recent weeks, Barack Obama has jumped head first into the Middle East peace process, touting the two-state solution as the end point, the road map as the guide, and peace as the final goal. The U.S. president’s high-profile speech in Cairo to Muslims around the world set the tone — soon to be followed, it was promised, with action.
As part of that push, the administration has looked beyond Washington’s usual partners to engage other regional players, including Syria, officially designated by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism and treated by many Arab regimes as a pariah. But the country bills itself as a key go-between for the United States, Israel, and hard-liners in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. With Turkey looking to resuscitate talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv, U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell arrives in Syria this week to push for the same. Ahead of the visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem spoke with journalist Helena Cobban on Obama’s speech and on how Syria sees the challenges, frustrations, and hopes for U.S.-Syrian relations. Excerpts:
On his impressions of Obama, his hopes from Obama’s [at that moment underway] Cairo speech, and George Mitchell’s peace mission:
We think President Barack Obama seems very sincere. But can he deliver? There is always Congress and the pro-Israeli lobby to take into account.
With the speech, we hope Obama can deliver everybody’s dreams! Including his own dream and that of the Palestinians — to see the occupied territories freed from occupation and all Israelis to be able to live in peace.
… I don’t know [former] Senator Mitchell, but I have worked closely in the past with Fred Hof, who is one of his assistants. What we’ve heard about Mitchell’s work in Northern Ireland and on the Mitchell commission on the Palestinian issue is encouraging to us. We are very ready to work with him.
We approve of Barack Obama a lot. The man put a comprehensive peace back on the agenda. He also intends to pull out of Iraq completely. We are ready to help with that, but we need our conditions in the matter addressed, too.
On the May 31 phone call he had with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
I think Hillary Clinton is a good and effective secretary of state. We agreed on a road map to normalize U.S.-Syrian relations in all fields — political, security, and cultural. We agreed we have a mutual, shared vision that centers around these three points: to stabilize Iraq, to work for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and to cooperate on combating terrorism.
We realize none of these depend on Syria and the U.S. alone, but they also involve other players.
On the way the Obama administration has been implementing sanctions against Syria:
I am very eager to see a real improvement in our relations with Washington. But nothing has happened yet. Even on the question of the parts for our civilian air fleet [whose shipment has been blocked under U.S. sanctions legislation], we have seen no movement. They haven’t informed the Europeans yet that it’s OK to ship those parts. I think your commerce secretary could authorize this whenever he wants, as it’s a matter of aviation safety.
… It seems anachronistic to us that Obama recently renewed the Syrian Accountability and Restoration of Lebanese Sovereignty Act. The issue has been resolved! We withdrew our troops from Lebanon and have exchanged ambassadors with Beirut.
On Syria’s continued presence on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism:
We know that our position on the list is not even really in regard to Syria and the United States as such, but more related to Hezbollah and Hamas and their fight against Israel. But it’s very strange that you condemn me as a terrorist at the same time as you call on me to help you combat terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense!
On Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who visited Damascus recently and held a number of meetings with President Bashar al-Assad:
Senator Kerry’s role is essential. He enjoys the trust of my president. They have had good meetings and several good telephone calls. There is chemistry between the two men, you could say.
On prospects for dealing with Israel’s Likud government:
The most important thing is that there should be a political decision for peace. It is not important to us whether the government is Likud or Labor.
On the proximity talks that the Turkish government hosted throughout several months of 2008 between Syria and Israel:
We were very happy with the Turkish role. The Turks were completely professional, trustworthy, and helpful as mediators. We think that was a good approach: to start with the indirect talks in that way. And then, if we had gotten over the preliminaries with the Turks the plan was to hand the task of completing the peace agreement over to the Americans.
The best way would be to try to repeat this approach now. If this should succeed, the success would belong to Barack Obama — and if we fail, the failure would be ours alone!
Why do we need the U.S. in this? Firstly, because of the unique nature of the relationship they have with Israel, and secondly because of their command of certain technical capabilities — for monitoring and verification of a peace agreement — that only the United States has.
On Syria’s previous peace efforts with Israel, in nearly all of which he was a direct participant:
We got closest to bridging our differences under [Yitzhak] Rabin. He was the only Israeli leader we have dealt with who had a real strategic vision for this region. We were able to engage on every single issue with him. We differed only on some details regarding the timetable for implementation.
The effort that [American-Israeli businessman] Ron Lauder launched, trying to mediate between us and [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s first government in the 1990s, also seemed very serious. But it ended prematurely. Lauder told us that Ariel Sharon had interfered, leaking news of the initiative to Daniel Pipes and thereby aborting it.
We were ready to sign an agreement with Israel even if the Palestinians didn’t conclude their agreement. But this has to be a genuine peace agreement for us.
On Iran, and U.S.-Iranian and Syrian-Iranian relations:
We are ready to help. We want to help inform both sides about their real importance — about the United States’ true importance in the world and Iran’s true importance in the region.
Can the relationship we have with Iran help us to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or will solving the Arab-Israeli conflict actually help to reduce the importance of Iran in regional affairs? These are important questions to discuss.
Why would the U.S. want to persist in trying to mobilize an Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran? We are talking about peace in the whole region!
What would happen if we managed to achieve that? Iran would then have to choose to go with the peace, or against it.
If a close ally of Iran like Syria went to Iran and said, This peace is in our interest, what do you think would they do? I can tell you they have never opposed any of our peace moves since 1991. Even with the Turkish mediation last year, they told us they supported it.
On whether Syria could mediate between Fatah and Hamas:
This mediation effort needs an Egyptian direct role, as at present, and that role should be supported by the Arabs. But the mediator should be neutral between Fatah and Hamas. Ultimately, the two Palestinian parties must come together to reach common ground between them without pressure.
They need to see that they are both losing from the present stalemate — both of them!
Gaza is in a terrible humanitarian situation and has to be a priority.
Now we have a new U.S. president with a different approach, so we hope there can be speedy progress.
He should realize, though, that Hamas has already taken two important steps: [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal announced his support for a Palestinian state with its border at the pre-1967 line. He did this at a press conference two years ago and has restated that position many times since. He has also said that Hamas will accept a political solution to the conflict if the majority of Palestinians accept it. That means he accepts the political solution.
The Palestinians will have to have an election in January anyway. But meanwhile, their split need not be, and indeed is not, an obstacle to progress in peacemaking.
On how he views the three preconditions the United States and its Quartet allies have defined for Hamas participation in peacemaking:
First of all, this is a matter for the Palestinian parties to resolve, not Syria.
Secondly, this idea of recognizing Israel as a precondition to the Quartet even talking with Hamas has no basis in the international terms of reference for the diplomacy. Look at us: We have negotiated with Israel since 1991, sometimes very productively indeed, and we have never given, or been required to give, formal recognition to Israel. Recognition is something that will be part of the outcome of a successful peace negotiation and should not be considered a precondition!
Thirdly, these preconditions have become an obstacle in intra-Palestinian reconciliation, so everyone needs to find a way to remove that obstacle.
His hopes regarding the June 7 Lebanese elections:
I hope they happen peacefully and that the Lebanese people choose people who will represent their interests well. And I wish the Lebanese people well!
Excerpts of an interview conducted June 4, 2009, in Damascus by freelance journalist Helena Cobban. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.
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