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Interview with Al-Hayat Newspaper, London, United Kingdom - 06/01/2016

“Security Council Resolution 2254 represents a step-back … negotiations are our strategic choice” – Dr. Riad Hijab

In the light of Resolution 2254 which was passed by the Security Council on 18 December 2015 representing a step-back from previous international positions, and appeasing the Assad regime and its allies; Dr. Riad Hijab, Syria's former Prime Minister and General Coordinator of the HNC answers some of our questions, and talks of a way forward.

Hijab is looking to reclaim for the Syrian people the national initiative through 3 channels; humanitarian, political and military. The biggest challenge, he told us, was a public realisation that the Assad regime no longer has any part to play in this politically strategic equation.

This is the transcript of the interview and questions Al Hayat put to him.

What has the Supreme Commission for Negotiations achieved since its inception on 10 December 2015?

Firstly, it is necessary to thank Saudi Arabia for its efforts in bringing together the broadest spectrum of Syrian opposition, and assistance in creating points of convergence and common ground. They have also assisted in facilitating and providing all necessary resources for the success of the Riyadh Conference (January 9-10 2015), where important deliberations and decisions were reached; most notably achieving a historic statement and agreeing on the formation of High committee for negotiations. The committee consists of pro-revolution and Syrian opposition groups responsible for selecting the negotiating delegation and representing a reference point for the negotiators.

Following the formation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), its members held a constituent meeting adopting a Statute and finalising the formation of legal, political, media and public relations committees, as well as administrative office and secretariat.  In addition, standards and reference points for negotiations were set up to identify and accordingly select members of the negotiating team on the basis of qualification and professionalism.

The HNC held additional rounds of meetings on Sunday and Monday, January 3-4, 2016 where members of the negotiating team were chosen based on the principles and standards that had been agreed upon.  The Committee also reviewed the general situation in Syria and the latest round of military escalation by the regime and its allies.

We also met with the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday where we clarified the vision of the Syrian opposition vis-à-vis the political process and the means of contributing towards:  bringing about peace, cessation of combat, and moving forward in the political transition process. This process aims to establish a pluralistic system, inclusive and representative of all the Syrian people, and the creation of a transitional governing body with full executive authority; stressing that Bashar al-Assad and officials of his regime will have no place in any future political arrangements.

At the moment, our efforts are focused on developing effective mechanisms for communication and coordination with the various groups of the opposition, as are the components of the HNC.  We are continuously consulting with allies and friends in determining the position in light of the military escalation and discussing ways to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people in conjunction with gestures of goodwill and confidence-building measures.

What is your assessment of the international initiatives carried out by the Security Council to push forward the political process in Syria?

There is no doubt that Resolution 2254 which was passed by the Security Council on 18 December 2015 represents a step-back from previous international positions reflected in the Vienna Statements and Geneva Communiqué.  In the absence of Syrian representation and presence, international powers carefully crafted concessions and consensus without realising the inherent risks which left loopholes in the Resolution.  The international community must take the initiative to rectify these loopholes to ensure the launch of the political process in Syria. It is inappropriate to issue a resolution which states:  all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardment," and then a signatory to the resolution targets populated areas and uses cluster bombs the next day, killing civilians.  Inevitably, this undermines the UN resolution and erodes confidence, and certainly highlights the fact that the UN resolution does not specify any timetable for the implementation of the cease-fire.

In addition to these serious loopholes; linking any cease-fire to the commencement of the political transition inevitably means that parties, both local and foreign, could continue combat, aerial bombardment and targeting civilians throughout the negotiating phase, which can stretch for about six months! Has the international community not recognise the desperate need for the cessation of hostilities, the delivery of aid and the protection of civilians as a prerequisite for the start of the negotiations?!

Apparently not, instead the international urgency to appease Assad's allies led to serious oversights. One of which was the establishment of a UN mechanism for supervising and monitoring a cease-fire to ensure the viability of the negotiating process, especially since most of the groups involved in the fighting are linked to foreign countries and therefore, must be bound by international resolutions and by international supervision.  No doubt that the breach of this term will have bearing on other humanitarian aspects of Resolution 2254.  The cease-fire and its supervisory and monitoring mechanism should not be subject to the whims of the local negotiating parties, but rather, must be adhered to under the supervision and auspices of the international community, in the glaring light that hostilities are not limited to the regime and opposition factions, but also include foreign groups.

The international community’s rush to appease Assad’s allies also resulted in overlooking other key points, namely, the attempt to merge oppressive security agencies with government institutions– an act which would jeopardise the entire political process.

The continued Russian bombing of populated areas, the use of cluster bombs and the targeting of field commanders whose groups participated in the establishment of the HNC and whom we relied on in the fight against terrorist organisations, is a serious and worrying development.

In addition to all this, irresponsible statements issued by the regime and its allies not recognising the Riyadh Conference and its recommendations, plus attempts of interference in the opposition’s delegation, insistence on issuing a list of terrorist organisations according to their definition of terrorism, and other techniques used by Assad's allies to disrupt the political process and prolong the conflict.

The Syrian people feel let down by the international community. They are anticipating resolute action to reduce the suffering, and to bring to an end the targeting of densely populated areas, destruction of infrastructure, schools and hospitals, and the indiscriminate illegal use of prohibited weapons against them.

The opposition had previous experience negotiating with the regime in February 2014, do you think that the situation changed since the beginning of 2016?

Indeed, there have been two rounds of talks between the delegations of the regime and the opposition held in the month of February 2014.  The international envoy to Syria, then Lakhdar Brahimi, announced the failure of the talks and apologised to the Syrian people for failing to achieve anything; attributing the failure of the talks to the regime’s refusal to discuss the interim transitional governance and its insistence in discussing terrorism, and refusal to discuss a third of the negotiating agenda.  International condemnations of the regime were issued for derailing the negotiations.  Britain's then Foreign Minister, William Hague, held the regime responsible for the failure of the negotiations and French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, condemned the regime’s position which effectively hindered any progress.

The truth is that the regime’s negotiating strategy has not changed much:  it continues to insist on questioning the opposition's credibility, employs international media momentum to divert attention from important issues, placing all the focus on terrorism as the only item on the agenda. The regime depends on its allies to intensify military operations and aerial bombardments to shift focus, hence further obstructing any discussions relating to the removal of Assad and formation of a transitional governing committee with full authority and a clear mandate.

 It seems on the face of it, that the international community has succumbed to Russian pressure in the wording of Security Council resolution 2254. Points relating to the departure of Assad were deferred, replaced with focus on the issuing of a list of terrorist groups.

But let me assure you that the situation is very different since 2014: Bashar and his regime today live in underground bunkers, the regime’s control diminished to only 18 percent of Syria, 92 percent of the country’s wealth and resources are out of its hands, it has lost control of all the main roads and most of the border crossings with neighbouring countries and more than half of the Syrian population are situated in areas outside its control.

To ensure that he remains in power, Bashar al-Assad depends now more than ever on external finance, on the Russian aerial bombardment, the Iranian sectarian militias, and the mercenary groups fighting on behalf of his troops after the disintegration of most of his army formations.

Bashar realises that he has become a burden on his allies, and that his regime has become a threat to international security.  Although he persists in his defiance and is trying to prolong the conflict, he is aware of the inevitability of his fate which is now entirely dependant on international compromise, as his regime has lost legitimacy and sovereignty over its land and people.

We do not have high expectations of achieving a political breakthrough by negotiating with a regime devoid of legitimacy and sovereignty.   However, we are counting on binding international resolutions to make progress. We will not hesitate to cooperate with any sincere, international efforts to stop the Syrian conflict, and we will put all efforts to do whatever is required to achieve this.  We have taken a strategic decision to move forward on the diplomatic front to represent the just cause of the Syrian people internationally.

We will not comprise or bargain with Syrian lives, or allow for a continued disruption of the political process indefinitely.  We have a great deal of experience and various mechanisms at hand that we can reveal when the time is right.

Is there anything new on the international diplomacy front propelling the political process?

Yes...

We are at a new crossroad; we believe that the crisis had reached its peak for the international community when waves of refugees began knocking on Europe’s doors. Terrorist cells surfaced as a result of the protracted crisis - part of the regime’s export of terrorism to the outside world, thus, threatening international security.

Further incidents of military build-up and regional tensions are warning signs that the conflict is shifting from a proxy war to direct confrontations between international powers and various military forces which will prompt the international community to take decisive measures to resolve this crisis.

Economically, neighbouring countries are now more burdened after five years of the conflict. The human cost and devastation are a huge moral burden on international conscience, and on the credibility of the United Nations and feasibility of its resolutions.

Assad’s allies are facing unprecedented pressures as a result of the diminishing possibility of a military victory and the growing high costs of maintaining an ineffective, expired regime. Low oil prices and the increasing and sizeable losses in the ranks of the regime’s forces and its allied militias, will inevitably force the regime to seek face-saving solutions; hence, the regime and its allies’ attempts to persuade the UN Security Council to classify revolutionary forces as terrorist organisations- an outdated, exposed strategy.

We must also pay tribute to all the sincere efforts and ceaseless diplomacy of friends to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, and all the work to stop the fighting and to push for a genuine political process.  This is what motivates us to cooperate with the international community and dedicate all in our power to reach a peaceful solution.

How can international players be removed from a national equation?

This arduous process begins with the recognition that the regime has become outside the political and strategic equation since becoming an instrument in the hands of external forces which seek to establish a foothold in the country.

Stemming from this principle, we will work to maximise the guarantees for a viable political process, which requires pursuing several tracks simultaneously:

Humanitarian track which aims to secure the issuance of binding international resolutions to stop the shelling of populated areas, to work on the return of refugees and the lifting of the siege on the affected areas, to secure the delivery of aid to those affected and to provide safe zones for Syrians, and the cooperation with friends and neighbours where about five million Syrians have been seeking refuge; all this with a view to achieve real, tangible results in this humanitarian track.

Military track which entails a clear understanding of those who really have the decision-making authority to stop the fighting and to ensure its compliance in adherence to binding international resolutions.  This is an important negotiating track which must be achieved before proceeding to negotiate with the regime; as it makes no sense to negotiate with the regime to stop the fighting while foreign killing machines continue their operations, regardless of the negotiations, and refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the opposition’s negotiating team, even before its formation!

Political track which is tasked with defining terrorism prior to attempting to classify certain groups according to loosely defined, ambiguous concepts with a total lack of understanding of what’s really happening on the ground in Syria. And hence rightfully placing the regime and forces allied to it, as well as associated militias and mercenary groups on the list of terrorist organisations, and working to expel all foreign elements, sectarian factions and mercenaries of various nationalities.  This is a crucial matter, one which the regime has no control over because these groups are linked to foreign parties and thus negotiations on this front need to be directly with such parties in order to commit them to remove such forces in accordance with Security Council resolutions, and establish an international supervisory mechanism to ensure the cessation of combat.  There is no doubt that negotiating with the regime on issues outside its capacity will discredit the negotiation process and result in its abject failure.

What is your vision for the transitional period?

We have political authority and several international documents that we rely on; all revolutionary opposition forces agreed on the adoption of the principles contained in the Riyadh Conference as the basis for the negotiating process;  these principles are as follows: the unity and integrity of Syrian  territory,  a civilian Syrian state with sovereignty over all Syrian territory based on a principle of decentralised administration, the establishment of a pluralistic system- inclusive and representative of all the Syrian people; without discrimination or exclusion, and is based on the principles of equal citizenship, human rights, transparency, accountability, and above all, the rule of law.

In addition, Geneva 1 (Communiqué 30 June 2012) represents the foundation through which the political process may be launched, specifically: the clause on the establishment of the transitional governing body with full executive authority.

Above all, we engage on behalf of the Syrian people, who are the true proprietors of the visions and aspirations we represent - through free and fair elections, and on the basis of transparency and accountability.  This requires from us great efforts to work on stopping the fighting, the return of refugees and the displaced, to provide a safe environment for the restoration of security and order, fighting against terrorism, and ensuring the exit of foreign fighters from the country.

We have aims and aspirations, and we are keen to work within the parameters of a responsible agenda, which should alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and achieve their legitimate demands.  We will hold to these beliefs throughout all negotiating phases, the transitional period and final status arrangements.

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