Iraq has grown increasingly divided over the Syrian conflict. Despite trying to remain officially neutral in the neighboring country’s civil war, Iraq, with its own history of sectarian tensions, has been increasingly affected by the fragmentation of opposition groups in Syria.
With the Geneva peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict postponed once again and no end to the fighting in sight, Iraq will have to cope with the spillover by supporting growing numbers of refugees, combating Islamic extremism along its Syrian border, and containing the renewed inter-sectarian violence within its borders.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari as the news broke that the Geneva peace conference on Syria would be delayed yet again, to get his insights into the complex diplomacy involved in bringing all interested parties to the negotiating table, as well as his opinion of US involvement in the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your opinion, will Geneva II ever be held?
Hoshyar Zebari: The conference is our best option in my estimation, and nearly all the countries of the world are on board.
Q: The Syrian opposition believes that Geneva I didn’t solve anything, failing even to achieve a cease-fire or bring in more humanitarian relief.
Differences emerged, and the opposition does not support the results of Geneva I.
Q: But they originally welcomed the results of the conference. . . .
But they did not respond by implementing solutions arrived at during Geneva I, in particular the call for dialogue. The option to intervene militarily is obviously out, so negotiation and dialogue are the only options left. As for arming the opposition, that option exists, but to a limited extent. There is also a question surrounding representation of all factions present on the ground at Geneva II.
Q: Have you spoken with the opposition regarding their representation at the peace conference?
Q: How did the opposition answer? You spoke with Ahmed Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, at the meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on November 3. How did he respond to this question?
He [Jarba] said he welcomed participation from all factions, but that the Coalition is the legitimate entity recognized by many world powers and Arab states and must therefore have a leading role. I replied that there was no dispute about this issue, and during the session I asked opposition members to be pragmatic and not cling to preconditions [for Gevena II] like the departure of Bashar Al-Assad.
Q: How do you think the parties to Geneva II can make peace with the military actions of the Assad regime enough that they feel comfortable going to the negotiating table?
A ceasefire should be announced to coincide with the start of talks, so that the overall atmosphere is more favorable—but we must not forget that revolutionary, popular forces also exist that previously negotiated with major powers. I say that we must stop the fighting in Syria, and it should come as a gesture of goodwill from both sides. I’ve always felt that the opposition should participate in dialogue with the regime under the guidance of international, UN and Arab authorities, as this would mean victory for the opposition. . . . I mean, representatives of the opposition sitting down with the regime is great in and of itself.
Q: Ahmed Jarba laid down preconditions for the Coalition’s participation in Geneva II. He also called Hezbollah and the Abu Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade terrorist organizations.
We support the extraction of all foreign forces participating in military operations in Syria, and at the Arab ministers’ meeting we asked Mr. Jarba to include in his speech a call for foreign and Arab fighters in the ranks of the opposition, such as the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to leave as well.
Q: Is the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade an Iraqi organization?
It’s a Syrian organization, but it most likely includes Shi’ite militia fighters [from abroad]. There are also Iraqis fighting in other groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front. Thus we asked Mr. Jarba to call on all foreign fighters to leave Syria.
Q: Is there any truth behind rumors that Obama has abandoned trying to find a solution to Syria and plans to leave the issue to his successor?
These rumors can’t be true, as the United States won’t have another president for two years. How can such an important country run away from an issue like this? The United States participated in talks, reached an agreement with Russia, and then the two sides issued a joint decision.
Q: Moving on to Iraq—How are the events in Syria affecting Iraq, especially in the border areas of Mosul and Anbar. Are there signs of growing extremism in those areas?
The main fear is that the Syrian conflict will spread like wildfire, and therefore we always emphasize the necessity of finding a speedy solution. Iraq is the country most affected by the violence after Syria due to our social, cultural and geographic overlap. Mosul and Anbar are extensions of Deir Ezzor and Hasakah in Syria, both Sunni areas, and within them we have noted increased activity from groups like the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq Syria. These groups have united to fight in the name of jihad and religion, and they kill both Syrians and Iraqis. Our fears have grown due to the Syrian regime’s failure to control these areas, as well as Iraq’s security problems and limited armament capacity. We are afraid these regions may turn into a second Afghanistan, especially as Salafist groups and jihadists use them as a platform to undermine security and stability—not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in the wider region.
Q: You mention limited armament capacity in Iraq. You recently visited Washington and met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Was this raised with the Americans? What were the results of those meetings?
The visit was a positive experience, and American representatives promised to provide weapons and other equipment to allow us to combat terrorism and deepen security cooperation. They agreed to continue this type of support into the future, although right now there are only limited requests for certain types of equipment. . . . During the visit, there was also a discussion about the need to expand political participation, to focus on reconciling various factions, building institutions, and conducting next year’s elections according to schedule.
Q: Do you think the US has lost its superpower status?
Both the United States and world politics have changed. Reliance on intervention has become a thing of the past, and the US only intervenes in special cases these days. For example, when flagrant human rights violations occurred in Syria, the US claimed it would intervene, but it did not. If chemical weapons were used and the Syrian regime crossed the ‘red line,’ the US was supposed to intervene, but it never did.
Q: But the US did intervene in a big way in Iraq and Libya.
These things happened in the past. The general trend in politics is not to enter or participate in new wars, and what happened between Syria, Iran and the US served to erase all previous understandings of the US position. The US has threatened to strike both Syria and Iran at various times, but then changed its position to pursue direct dialogue with Iran, and finally a US president spoke with an Iranian president for the first time since 1979. This is a huge change.
Q: What about the position of the United States toward what is happening in Egypt?
[On his recent tour of the Middle East, US Secretary of State] John Kerry spoke to me about his visit to Egypt and his informing the foreign minister that the US will engage with the current government and political situation. He certainly wants to speed up the steps to political transition in Egypt, because it is an important country not only in terms of its own people, but also for the US and the wider world.