Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that Saudi Arabia would remain a key partner to the United Nations, whatever the role it chooses for itself inside the UN system. Describing the kingdom’s decision to reject a seat at the UN Security Council as a “sovereign decision,” Feltman said he understood Saudi Arabia’s frustration, adding, “All of us are frustrated by the fact that we have been unable to find the right tools and the right political unanimity to force an end to the fighting in Syria.”
In an interview with Al-Hayat, Feltman said that Geneva 2 must convene in order to implement the Geneva 1 communiqué, and launch the transition in Syria by setting up a transitional governing body that will have full executive powers, and “lead to a new Syria.” Feltman stressed that the Geneva 1 communiqué specified the powers of this transitional governing body as including authority over the security services and the army. He then warned that the “costs of not trying at Geneva are far greater than the risks of failure at Geneva.” The UN official maintained that failure to hold the Geneva 2 conference with the continuation of the fighting will lead to the scenario that President Bashar al-Assad described, in relation to his candidacy in the presidential election next year.
Feltman refused to declare the UN position on Assad’s nomination for a new presidential term, stressing that talking about a political solution in Syria does not mean managing the status quo, but having the Syrians agree on a transitional process towards a new Syria, which would represent the beginning of a new day for the Syrian people.
He then said that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would set the date of the conference and issue invitations in consultation with the United States and Russia. Feltman explained that the invitations would be sent to those who have the ability to positively influence the various parties in Syria, and who must participate with the aim of discussing the transitional process.
Regarding Iran’s participation in the conference in the event Saudi Arabia does not participate, Feltman said, “Whether the Saudis are going or not, they have an important role to play. And we are going to continue to be engaged with Saudi Arabia on not only Syria, but a number of issues in which Saudi Arabia plays an extremely important role. We want to be partners with Saudi Arabia.” He then added, “I do not think we are going to link one country’s participation with others. We are going to be looking again at what the Russian Federation and the Americans believe in terms of invitation lists, [and whether] these countries [are] going to be able to help us support the Syrians to find a political solution,” stressing the need for the invitees “to understand what this is all about, which is about transition to a new Syria.”
The international official purported that he sensed from the Iranian leadership a strong desire “to discuss in a very detailed level what we are talking about when we are talking about transition in Syria.” But at the same time, Feltman pointed out that he did not see that Tehran accepts the “whole concept” of the Geneva 1 communiqué, despite what he called Iran’s “open willingness to discuss” it. He also stressed that “Hezbollah’s role inside Syria, which is a violation of their own national government’s policy of disassociation, has been part of the fuel of the rising sectarian tensions that characterize this conflict.”
Feltman denied that there is any support for military action that could tangibly lead to the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Syria, but pointed at the same time to the great difficulties facing the UN in its humanitarian work there.
Al-Hayat: We start with the notion of accountability and the Secretary-General of the United Nations saying that ending impunity is something that he wants to uphold. However, what we have seen recently in the issue of Syria is that impunity is well and alive and accountability is dead in as far as there are chemical weapons in Syria. And the Secretary-General said that there were crimes against humanity committed by President Bashar al-Assad, yet this was muted during the celebration of the role of the UN being revived through a Security Council resolution adopted by consensus
Feltman: Well, I would not exaggerate what it means to have a Security Council resolution on chemical weapons. It is an extremely important resolution, it shows that the Security Council can come together, even on issues that have long divided it such as Syria, but this is not the final word on Syria. The Secretary-General does feel a very, very strong commitment to issues of accountability and an end to impunity.
Al-Hayat: And what is being done about that exactly now? Nobody is moving any of these issues to the ICC. What is – besides just good old words – what is being done in as far as the issue of accountability and ending impunity is concerned via the Syrian dossier?
Feltman: No-one has forgotten the issue of impunity. You know, it has come up in several Security Council discussions. But we have an immediate problem, which is let’s stop the killing now, let’s prevent further death, let’s prevent further destruction, and let us make sure that the UN is doing all it can to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need. Those are pretty tall orders right now. There is a civil war going on in Syria and we are looking for ways to stop it. I do not want to suggest that impunity is being forgotten, or being put on the back seat. But there is an urgency to get to a political solution, there is an urgency of delivering humanitarian assistance that we have been working to rally the Security Council around.
Al-Hayat: But is there going to be anything new about that, by the way, sort of the corridor, the safe corridors for humanitarian assistance. You are doing a pretty good job as the larger UN making sure that the investigators for chemical weapons are going in to do their jobs. Yet you are really stuck not doing much as far as the humanitarian corridors. Are you going to do something about that rather than, again, just speak about it?
Feltman: Well, I defer to my colleagues on the humanitarian side. But I actually think we are doing more than your question suggests. Without question, it is very, very difficult to reach some areas in Syria, and you have heard Valerie Amos and others talk about the difficulties we have had. In some cases the Government has simply blocked us from reaching communities in need. In other cases, we have had trouble getting official permits or crossing some of the rebel checkpoints. It is difficult. Plus we have an issue of resources – are donors coming through and fulfilling the need for providing resources to meet the appeals? It is a mixed picture.
Al-Hayat: Is there any talk about – serious talk, serious action – about opening the humanitarian corridors, some humanitarian corridors, not throughout corridors? We understand…
Feltman: But what do you mean by humanitarian corridors because…
Al-Hayat: To get the aid in.
Feltman: What we are doing – and it is tedious, time-consuming work – is basically negotiating what amounts to safe passage from one part of the country to another part of the country to reach people in need. In some cases, this means brokering a temporary cessation of violence. In some cases, it means dealing with a variety of official organs and militia groups in order to be able to cross a sufficient number of checkpoints. I do not see any support, for having a sort of a military intervention that would physically open up a humanitarian passage like you are describing. I think what we have to do is continue to work case by case in order to reach people in need. We have had some success but certainly we would like to have more resources and more access.
Al-Hayat: The Saudi government’s position was clear in criticizing the UN failure in addressing the issue of accountability and doing the right thing on Syria, on celebrating itself, and celebrating the return of the UN role through the consensus on the chemical weapons, to the extent that they, you know, declared that they do not want that new seat they were elected to on the Security Council. Do you feel that they have a point?
Feltman: I have been in touch with the Saudis about Syria throughout my entire tenure in the UN and I am convinced that, in whatever role Saudi Arabia chooses for itself inside the United Nations system, it is going to remain a key partner with us in trying to find a solution for Syria. All of us are frustrated, all of us are frustrated by the fact that we have been unable to find the right tools and the right political unanimity to force an end to the fighting in Syria. All of us are frustrated. So yes, I understand frustration. My goal is to do what I can to build partnerships with member states, important member states such as Saudi Arabia, to work with other parts of other parts of the United Nations system to address the immediate concerns and to get to a political solution.
Al-Hayat: Do you think that they are going to reverse course and accept the seat on the Security Council now that efforts are ongoing? What sort of efforts are you as the secretariat doing, if any, to persuade them to change their mind?
Feltman: This is a member state issue. This is the sovereign decision on the part of Saudi Arabia. We are engaged with Saudi Arabia as an important member state, as a key player in the Middle East region, as a key supporter of UN institutions that go far beyond the Middle East, whether Saudi Arabia is on the Security Council or not.
Al-Hayat: Do you see any other efforts from the secretariat side to try to persuade them to change their mind?
Feltman: This is an issue for member states, it is an issue for Saudi Arabia. But we will work with them in whatever capacity they are involved in the UN.
Al-Hayat: You know that Al Akhbar quoted you as speaking very badly of Saudi Arabia, bad-mouthing the country and the process of decision-making, in fact, in terms that are not acceptable. And it said, you know, in the Lebanon rumor mill, it said that you said that actually to Prime Minister Najib Mikati when you met with him here in New York.
Feltman: This is not the first time that Al Akhbar has failed to fact-check its stories. This is not the first time that Al Akhbar has fabricated quotes for me. We have issued a statement that clarifies that that article does not reflect my views and certainly does not reflect the strong partnership between the United Nations and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Hayat: So you deny every single thing that was said and attributed to you?
Feltman: Yes, I have denied it on the record.
Al-Hayat: So did you have that discussion with Mr. Mikati when he was here about the Saudi role?
Feltman: I saw Prime Minister Mikati when he was here and we discussed his efforts working with Michel Suleiman to protect Lebanon from the spillover from Syria. So we were discussing what the UN can do to support his efforts, President Michel Suleiman’s efforts, to support Lebanon politically, financially and to help address the Lebanese communities’ very, very severe needs in addressing refugee populations.
Al-Hayat: Let us get into the political process that you seem to be involved with as far as the possibility of Geneva II on Syria. First, let me ask, before I forget, this question: President Assad is saying clearly that he may be seeking re-election. He says there is nothing that should be stopping him. What was also understood at one point, and special representative Lakhdar Brahimi had somehow wanted to tackle this issue of the possibility of al-Assad not running in the next elections – do you have a position on that? Is there something the UN has to say on the issue – does he have the right or does he not have the right to seek re-election?
Feltman: I don’t think it is up for the UN to choose Syria’s leaders. It is up for Syrians to choose Syria’s leaders. That is a point of principle. But I also do not believe that, when we talk about a political solution for Syria, we are talking about maintaining the status quo, or maintaining the status quo ante, of say January 2011. What were are talking about is bringing Syrians together around the idea of a Syrian-led transition to a new Syria that is developed by consensus, developed by Syrian leadership, but that symbolizes and represents a new day for the Syrian people.
Al-Hayat: Yes, but forgive me, how could you say that, on one hand, the Secretary-General says that the Syrian leader committed crimes against humanity, and then on the other hand you say that if he wants to run for election that is an internal issue?
Feltman: I did not say that. And I also, I’m not…
Al-Hayat: He said that on the record, you know. It was published.
Feltman: You are putting words in my mouth, though.
Al-Hayat: No, no, the Secretary-General said that.
Feltman: Yes, but … none of us said that it is OK for President Assad to run for re-election again. None of us has said that. It is not for us to say who should be leading lead Syria. What I said was a political solution for Syria, to be successful in our view, has to be Syrian-led, has to be developed by mutual consent by those at the negotiating table, but should lead to a new day for Syria, a new Syria. And I thank that Joint Special Representative Brahimi has used similar words in describing this. So you can see the concept that we have is you build momentum towards something that is new, towards something in which the Syrian people themselves can invest their hopes, their aspirations, that there is something better after almost three years of suffering.
Al-Hayat: You noticed in the London meeting, Friends of Syria – how do you read that communiqué by the way? Does it say, does that reflect an agreement that Bashar al-Assad would have a role in the transition, at the beginning, in the middle, the end, or not at all – how do you read that?
Feltman: The United Nations is not part of the London 11, as you know.
Al-Hayat: The London…
Feltman: We are not part of the London 11, we did not participate. We, the United Nations, will be the one that convenes the conference in Geneva. And we are having preparatory meetings, internally and in consultations with key member states, including the Russian Federation and the United States, but also beyond that. There were some things in that communiqué that I found very encouraging, such as the key push for a political approach to solve the civil war in Syria. But the modalities of the Geneva conference are things that we ourselves are still working out.
Al-Hayat: But do you have clarity on the, what do I call it, on the points of reference, I mean, you know, what is Geneva II about? Is it about confirming Geneva I, given that Geneva I was the cause of different interpretations that led to a freeze in the Security Council – the Russians reading it one way, the Americans and the P3 reading it another? Can you clarify where are we on this and is it a pre-requisite that participants in Geneva II must have absolutely adopted and endorsed Geneva I?
Feltman: You are right that there are some different interpretations of Geneva I. But there is a basic principle there, in that Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012 and the action plan that is in it, which is setting up a transitional governing body by mutual consent that will have full executive powers. That is the basic principle, and that is what I talk about when I said that we are looking to use the political process to get to a new day in Syria, to have a new Syria – not one imposed, one that is negotiated and agreed upon by mutual consent between opposition and government leaders. We want there to be full support for that from the participants who were there, we want there to be full support from the region, from the broader international community. It is important for the Syrians, no matter what side they are on in the civil war, to see that all of their international and regional backers are pushing in the same direction, which is toward a political solution based on this communiqué.
Al-Hayat: Ah, OK. So is it a prerequisite? Is Geneva, is accepting, endorsing, signing on to Geneva I a prerequisite for those who are going to participate in Geneva II?
Feltman: I would hope that everyone who comes to that conference, everyone who would accept the invitation from the Secretary-General, would understand that they are there for one purpose, and for one purpose only, which is to show support for the implementation of that Geneva communiqué.
Al-Hayat: So, I would assume that would be clear as terms of reference in your invitation?
Feltman: That is the purpose of the conference. And I am convinced that the Secretary-General makes this very clear when he invites the participants that we are going there with a single purpose in mind.
Al-Hayat: You have been to Moscow. Is Moscow clear on that or does Moscow, do the Russians have their own interpretation still of what Geneva I means, which is not, again… Tell me how they understood. Did they shift a little bit, did they change a little bit?
Feltman: I had very good meetings in Moscow and I am grateful to the officials I saw for the frankness and candor with which we had discussions. You know, the Russians, like many of us, are concerned about the rise of Al-Qaeda-type groups in Syria. All of us should be concerned about that. And I think that is one of the reasons why they have renewed, through their Security Council vote in (Resolution) 2118, through their public statements, through their meetings with other international characters, their support for the Geneva II concept based on the Geneva communiqué of last year.
Al-Hayat: The French are clear in saying that parties attending Geneva II must declare acceptance of Geneva I. Is this the UN’s position to declare acceptance, the word is to “declare” acceptance?
Feltman: We have not yet issued invitations, the Secretary-General has not sent out physical invitations to potential invitees. But as I said, I fully expect that when he does, it is going to be absolutely clear in those invitations what we are talking about, which is a transitional governing authority with full executive powers. The Geneva conference is not about the “what” any longer. The “what” is clear: it is the implementation of the communiqué from last year. The discussions behind closed doors among the Syrian parties will be about who is in that transitional governing body, what are the modalities for transferring the full executive powers to that transitional governing body. It is not about whether there will be a transition or not, it is going to be about transition.
Al-Hayat: So, logically, if I understand that, that means that during the transition, there should not be… that is a transition away from the current form of government of Bashar al-Assad, the regime. So what happens to that regime during the transition, what happens to Bashar al-Assad during the transition? Because you are saying there is a transition from A to B.
Feltman: To me that question, which looms so important right now, becomes less relevant once you start setting up the transitional governing body because the powers of the state accrue to that transitional governing body by mutual consent through the negotiating process. So the question of the current structure should not, in my case, be posed as obstacles of the conference when everyone understands that were are going to the conference to help the Syrians set up a new governing authority that will oversee a transitional period.
Al-Hayat: But the Syrian regime was very clear: listen, if you think you come and take away our authorities, particularly security agencies and security authorities, you are dreaming. So how are you going to sort of deal with that?
Feltman: You know, prior to any negotiating process, whether we are talking about something diplomatically or you are talking about buying a house, opening positions are often stated that do not represent the bottom line.
Al-Hayat: That leaves it as a very open-ended process in that case. If you do not have any terms of reference and things that parties are committed to then it becomes, you know…
Feltman: I urge you to go back and read that 30 June communiqué of 2012 and what it says about the powers, what it says about the security and intelligence services, what is says about the Syrians themselves making the decisions by mutual consent.
Al-Hayat: Just tell me, about the security agencies, what does it say?
Feltman: There is language about how they will perform according to high international standards and respect for human rights and all that. But it also says that they will report to the transitional governing body.
Al-Hayat: You mean the army will?
Feltman: That is the concept in the Geneva action plan that those participating last year agreed to.
Al-Hayat: So those who are saying that, listen, he needs to be a war president, that Bashar al-Assad needs to maintain the security authorities because there is a war in his country and he is a war president. What do you say to them?
Feltman: I don’t think that this is all about one person. I think this is about how best to help the Syrian people get out of this crisis that they have been in for three years, to meet the aspirations that people have for the future of their country. It is not about the fate of this or that person.
Al-Hayat: Is Nabil Elaraby correct in sort of indicating that Geneva II is likely to be held on 23 November?
Feltman: I am not in the position to confirm any date. The Secretary-General has stated and wants to continue working toward a target date in mid-November. We will be prepared – logistically, physically – to host a conference at any time. But obviously there is a lot of politics here. The opposition is still discussing things, so I am not in any position to confirm dates.
Al-Hayat: Very quickly on Iran. When you were in Iran, you know, you were sort of the architect of saying Iran is speaking a new language. You came to the Security Council to tell the world, listen, Iran is flexible. Were they flexible on Syria?
Feltman: What I can say is that there really was a new style, a new rhetoric that has come out from the Iranians leaders that is helpful. On Syria, what I found different, because I do not have a long history of talking to the Iranians. You know this is…
Al-Hayat: But you are in very good terms, all of the sudden, so…
Feltman: But it is not like I can compare this or that because I did not have a lot of discussions with the Iranians before I joined this job. But I found the Iranians were very willing to discuss in a very detailed level what we are talking about when we are talking about transition in Syria.
Al-Hayat: We were told that they have not committed to Geneva I, to accept Geneva I. At all the bilateral meetings at the highest level, with President Rohani, did you get any opposite feeling?
Feltman: The feeling I got was that they were very interested in knowing what we had in mind when we talked about Geneva I, and they were very interested in understanding our goals for a conference.
Al-Hayat: Yeah, but I am asking about their position.
Feltman: My impression was they themselves are still looking at that Geneva communiqué and what it means.
Al-Hayat: So there is so far no commitment on Geneva I? So far you have not received any acceptance by Iran of Geneva I so far?
Feltman: As I said, I think there has been a very open willingness to discuss what it means, but I do not yet see them as saying that they buy the whole concept.
Al-Hayat: I mean, it is really strange, you know, Hezbollah admits to fighting in Syria in support of the regime, and you are an expert on knowing the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, and you know that there is an active role by Iran inside Syria, in violation of a Security Council resolution that was adopted under Chapter VII, and yet you are thinking about inviting them to the table in Geneva. How are you going to reconcile that?
Feltman: You know, I think the Iranians, based on what I have heard, based on what they have said publicly, are very, very concerned about the implications of the sectarian aspects of the conflict in Syria, which has implications not only in Syria, it has implications beyond Syria. We see it in Lebanon, we see it in Iraq, it has the potential to go even further. So it seems to me that the Iranians should be very interested in seeing an end to the fighting in Syria because that fighting in Syria is an engine – it provides momentum behind the sectarian conflict that can touch the entire region and the entire world. And certainly I think that Hezbollah’s role inside Syria, which is a violation of their own national government’s policy of disassociation, has been part of the fuel of the rising sectarian tensions that characterize this conflict.
Al-Hayat: Yes, but I was asking about the strict, clear violation of the Security Council resolution under Chapter VII by a country that is given arms and support, and through proxy, in violation of this Security Council resolution.
Feltman: you know very well our position inside the United Nations, which is that….
Al-Hayat: which is what about this?
Feltman: which is that no country should be shipping arms to the protagonists inside Syria now, and we should all be looking for a political solution.
Al-Hayat: There is a big difference between the Saudis shipping arms, versus the Iranians shipping arms, versus even the Russians shipping arms, because neither the Russians nor Saudi Arabia are under a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII preventing them from shipping arms, while Iran is violating this resolution directly. Why do you, why has no-one, none of you, in the secretariat or otherwise, have you, basically, forgive me to say, why are you papering over that, and thinking that Iran has to be at the table anyway, even though it has violated a Chapter VII resolution?
Feltman: I know that there are member states that have far greater information than is available to the United Nations. We do not have intelligence services in the United Nations who are looking at some of the questions you pose.
Al-Hayat: But, I mean, you know, they said it publicly. The American diplomats said it, the British diplomats said it, publicly, in front of the Security Council, and they counted how there has been a clear violation. It is not like making this up, and even the Hezbollah, they admit that they are fighting there.
Feltman: We agree that countries should be abiding by the Security Council resolutions. That is part of the integrity of this organization, that member states comply with Security Council resolutions. In addition to that, it is time to look for a political solution for Syria.
Al-Hayat: OK, and on Hezbollah itself? You know, I mean, is there, why not invite Hezbollah? It is a party, an active party, in shaping up what is going on in Syria, why can they not be invited to Geneva? I mean, you know, since you are talking about players inside of Syria? Or do you think they are like Jabhat al-Nusra, equate them with Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, or do you equate them with a party that has a say since it has impacted the balance of power on the ground?
Feltman: I guess our analysis is different. I look at Hezbollah as almost like soldiers of fortune supporting one side of this conflict, that they are not part of the political process that can lead to a solution, that they are not a Syrian party that is going to have to decide on Syria’s future. We are trying to promote a process based on the Geneva communiqué of last year by which the Syrians, not Hezbollah and not foreign fighters on the Sunni side, are deciding the faith of Syria. The trouble right now is that as long that the fighting continues, Hezbollah does have an influence on what is happening on the ground, Jabhat al-Nusra does have influence on what is happening on the ground. We want the Syrian people themselves to be the ones who are deciding Syria’s future.
Al-Hayat: Is Lakhdar Brahimi going to Syria soon?
Feltman: Lakhdar Brahimi plans to go to Syria as part of his regional trip. I believe he is in Muscat today, but he is going to a number of countries and yes, he does plan to meet with the Syrian government officials in Damascus.
Al-Hayat: And what about Iran? Is he going to Tehran?
Feltman: He has stated his hope to visit a number of countries in the region and I have to defer to him on what his actual itinerary is.
Al-Hayat: But do you want, I mean, you are actually trying to invite Tehran to Geneva II, right?
Feltman: We are going to issue our invitation list, the Secretary-General is going to issue invitations, based on consultations with the initiating states. The initiating states are the Russian Federation and the United States. You remember that the momentum behind having a political conference based on Geneva I came from a 7 May meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. So it is important for us to keep those consultations going with the Russian Federation and the United States. It is not a secret that there are differences in views over who should be invited. Our basic concept on invitations rests on two principles. One is that those who have the ability to exercise a positive influence on the parties should be considered for participation. But they also must come with the idea that we are there to talk about transition.
Al-Hayat: Will you then invite Iran to Geneva II even if the Saudis tell you clearly that they are not going?
Feltman: Whether the Saudis are going or not, they have an important role to play. And we are going to continue to be engaged with Saudi Arabia on not only Syria, but a number of issues in which Saudi Arabia plays an extremely important role. We want to be partners with Saudi Arabia. But I do not think we are going to link one country’s participation with others. We are going to be looking again at, first, what do the Russian Federation and the Americans believe in terms of invitation lists. Second, are these countries going to be able to help us support the Syrians to find a political solution to the situation in the country? And three, do these potential invitees understand what this is all about, which is about transition to a new Syria?
Al-Hayat: But do you really think it is possible that you will have Iran at the table and not Saudi Arabia, since you are de-linking? Does that make sense at a time of this relationship with the United Nations, between Saudi Arabia and the United Nations?
Feltman: I really do not know. I am not going to speculate here. I want, whether people are at the table or not at the table, we hope that they will participate in their own way in helping change the dynamic on the ground in Syria today. Look there are a lot of people who are very concerned about that statement by President al-Assad that he has the right and perhaps will run for election again next year. There are a lot of people who have expressed a concern about that. As I said, I am not focused on that because I am focused on trying to get to a Geneva conference that changes the subject. But if we do not have a Geneva conference, if the situation on the ground continues as it is now, to me it seems more likely that you are going to end up with that scenario next year that President al-Assad described. What we are trying to do is to come with a new approach for Syria, a transition that allows the Syrians themselves to talk about how to set up governing structures that would meet the aspirations of the vast majority of Syrians citizens, how you stop this bloodletting in a way that turns the page. I think the costs of not trying at Geneva are far greater than the risks of failure at Geneva.
Al-Hayat: From how it looks, it does not look like the opposition is persuaded by the argument so far. What are you going to do to persuade them? Because they really do not feel that is to their advantage at all at this point.
Feltman: Of course we are concerned about the divisions in the opposition. We hear their statements and their concerns. But if we are all at Geneva, supporting the Syrians themselves, the subject suddenly changes. The subject is no longer about what did the opposition say in London or what did President al-Assad say to Al Akhbar. The conversation then is about transition. And that should be something that all Syrians would like to have happen.