Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—During his Middle East tour last week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague focused on one major issue, namely the on-going Syrian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Hague at the residence of Peter Millett, the British mbassador in Jordan. In this interview, Hague talked about the “Geneva 2” conference’s chances of success, the difficulty of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and Iran’s nuclear project.
As his Middle East tour draws to a close, Hague is set to head to Luxembourg to attend the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday to discuss the Syria arms embargo. In this meeting Britain and France are expected to push for an amendment to the EU decision to open the door to arms shipments to the Syrian opposition.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let’s start by talking about the Geneva 2 conference that is expected to take place on Syria. You have previously stated that a transitional government can only be formed following an agreement between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. How can we bridge this seemingly unassailable gap?
William Hague: The only thing that can bridge the gap between the two sides is genuine determination to put an end to this heinous violence and the gradual collapse of Syria. It is in the interests of all the Syrian people, and the entire Middle East, for this violence to end. Of course, finding a way forward at any time will require some concessions and will require people who do not trust each other to sit down together. This will have to happen one day…in the end if Syria is to operate as a single state once more then both sides have to sit down together. The sooner this happens the better, for the longer the conflict goes on, the more critical it becomes, particularly with regards to the development of extremist groups. The conflict is also becoming increasingly sectarian. The conflict being allowed to continue in this way only serves to make things worse for everybody. I think we must also recognize that neither side can secure a comprehensive military victory where Syria, as a unified country, survives.
Q: You say that no side can emerge victorious militarily and ensure that Syria remains unified, but what about those calling for the arming of the Syrian opposition to allow them to secure just such a military victory over the Assad regime? On the other hand, others have warned that this approach will only serve to escalate the violence and convince the opposition not to participate in any dialogue or negotiation. So how can we resolve these different views?
This is a classic question of foreign policy, while it is also a moral question. Until now, in all the conflict and revolutions that took place over the past years in the Middle East, neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union (EU) sent any arms to any party, even in Libya where our soldiers were directly involved. We are aware that this [sending arms to the Syrian opposition] would be a big step for us and we have not taken any decision on this. We can see the reasons behind these calls and we believe that unless we find another option, this will be necessary, particularly as the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly. Therefore we want to amend the EU arms embargo [on Syria], not to take an immediate decision to send weapons [to the opposition], but so that this option will be available if we see that this is the only way to save lives and to demonstrate to the [Assad] regime that they need a political resolution.
Q: Do you believe that the international community should forget about arming the Syrian opposition at this juncture and focus solely on a political solution to the Syrian crisis in order to maximize its chances of success?
I think that thinking about this option [of arming the opposition], and showing that we are thinking about it, serves to support the political solution. I think that they are connected. Everybody must be aware that we have this option, as well as diplomacy. However if the Geneva conference takes place soon—and I have said that I would prefer for it to take place soon and certainly within the next few weeks—then we must look to the progress made there before taking any decision about arming the opposition.
Q: There are fears over the presence of extremist groups in Syria, such as the Al-Nusra Front and others. Washington has designated this group a terrorist organization, while Britain and the EU have not. There have also been calls to place Hezbollah on the list of terrorist designated organizations, particularly in light of its role in Syria. Do you think there is a benefit from designating these two groups as terrorist organizations and preventing them from playing a political role?
There certainly is a benefit of clarifying our rejection, and according to the agreement it signed in Istanbul last month, the Syrian National Coalition [also] rejects extremist groups. We see in Syria today that the extremists are becoming increasingly involved. With respect to Hezbollah, Iran, and the organized participation of foreign fighters, the Assad regime is increasingly becoming a puppet regime run by foreign powers. This is something that is not healthy for regional stability. Therefore with respect to your question regarding placing extremist groups on the terrorist list, we are of the view that the EU must place the military wing of Hezbollah on this list. As for other groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front, this is something that must be discussed by the UN Security Council and we will work with our partners regarding the best way to deal with this issue.
Q: Regarding Iraq’s role in Syria, the international community initially focused on Baghdad’s support for the Assad regime, while today we are looking at the security deterioration in the country and the impact of the Syrian crisis. Do you think that Iraq, Lebanon, and other neighboring countries will be dragged into the Syrian crisis?
We are very concerned about this; the situation in Syria is not helping the domestic situation in Iraq and only creating further instability. It can also destabilize Lebanon, and it is a growing problem for Jordan and others. There is only one answer to these problems and that is to deal with the source of the problem and this is what we are trying to do in Geneva. We must address the Syrian crisis, particularly as it is threatening to destabilize the region. We are working with other countries to help them during this crisis. The United Kingdom is one of the biggest doner states, and until now we have provided USD 250 million of humanitarian aid to the refugees. We are also providing other forms of assistance; we will provide military equipment to the Jordanian armed forces which will help them to transfer refugees to camps across the border. We are providing direct financial aid to the Lebanese military for operations such as border control. We are helping the neighboring countries as much as we can.