Interview with Nasr Hariri on Iran-Israel and the Developing US-Syria Policy

After US-missile strikes in Syria on April 13, 2018, that targeted manufacturing components for the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, the initial outcome of the attack was unclear. The response of the Syrian regime, Iran, and Russia was immediate condemning the attacks. A month later, and most analysts counter that the impact was limited, and a comprehensive US-Syria strategy is still missing. SyriaSource interviewed Nasr Hariri, head of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee that represents the opposition, about Iranian influence in the region, the relationship with Russia, and the developing US-Syria policy. 

What was the impact of the recent US-led military strikes against the regime in bringing the Syrian conflict back into the spotlight of the international community?

In my opinion, before the chemical strike, there was a failure of political and diplomatic peace talks. With policy negotiations aimed at finding a political solution, and diplomatic attempts to unify the international community, one phrase has been repeated more than once, and that phrase is the “use of chemical weapons.” Now the first thing about the strike is that it only came as a response to the use of chemical weapons, whereas it overlooked many other weapons used to kill the Syrian people. In my opinion, after the strike, there was a diplomatic movement, and it is too early for us to judge whether it was productive or unproductive. There has been a movement, with discussions and negotiations among the world’s superpowers—especially the permanent members of the Security Council—and it has been for the sake of activating the political process and in adopting a comprehensive vision to arrive at a political solution in Syria; discussions that they are in the midst of now. But, we do not know if it will produce an international agreement moving forward, or if we will remain stuck in the same pattern.

Do you believe that the strike had a positive or negative role on the domestic regime, and do you expect that the regime will stop using chemical weapons again?

The regime still has the ability to manufacture chemical weapons and still has stockpiles of those weapons. The committee or delegation that came and was responsible for confiscating the chemical weapons arsenal from the regime, that has operated in Syria for almost a year, was unable to access all of the chemical weapons. Surely these airstrikes will not be able to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The regime has weapons and the ability to manufacture them, especially since it is allied today with two certain countries which support it [the regime] in everything. Consequently, it has weapons, and it may use them again if it is forced to do so in moments of urgency.

Now did the strike have a positive or negative impact? I believe that the regime, after these strikes, began a vicious campaign of direct retribution immediately. It began bombing the countryside of northern Homs. And it began besieging and starving the people in addition to bombing southern Damascus and the area around the Qalamoun; which led to reconciliation agreement in Qalamoun.

Now, the international community believes it punished the regime. The regime cannot retaliate directly against the international community except by targeting more citizens in Syria. Thus, if the Syrian people do not adopt a comprehensive strategy to stop the killing and to compel the regime into a ceasefire, then the Syrian people are the ones who will pay an exorbitant price for regional and international conflicts, and for the conflicts now between the regime and the international community.

After the direct military strike, Washington and the EU restated the significance of Russian presence in drafting the political solution’s main features in Syria. Any thoughts on the future of relations between you and between Russia?

The Syrian opposition has not stopped trying to build diplomatic relations with Russia since the early stages of the Syrian revolution. We have always reminded Russia that true support should go to the Syrian people and not the authoritarian, murderous, and criminal regime that has killed the Syrian people. The time will come, and they cannot live forever. These attempts will continue. We talked with the Russians in the language of common interests, fears, and good international relations in the past and for the future.

It is very unfortunate that these efforts have not been fruitful. Currently, the Russians stand with the regime militarily and politically. The Russians claims that they are adopting and supporting a political solution. We hope that the Russians truly do. However, from what can we see is that the Russians do the complete opposite from what they say.

Honestly without an international agreement brokered by Russia and the US towards a political solution, true negotiations will not be easy. Thus, the Russians still play a major and important role if they are convinced of the need for a political solution. But if they continue to act as they have up until now, then this will garner ill will as it indicates the killing of Syrians will continue and the world still views the Syrian issue as a crisis to be managed rather than solved.

However, I am sure that the Russians’ behavior cannot subvert the will nor silence the voice of the free Syrian people, who have made legitimate demands for the past seven years, and for which they have paid a high and exorbitant price. However, we want the cost of the bloodshed to be as little as possible. Thus, we strive to arrive at a political solution as soon as possible so that we are able to reduce the bloodshed and so that the Syrian people can achieve their ambitions within this desired international agreement.

If Moscow is not convinced, will it still be hostile towards the solution drafted by the UN for Syria?

No, it will not be able to do so. The critical key factor in this matter is the will of the Syrian people. Perhaps if we left it up to some countries they would not have a problem with what Russia is doing, and they would want to end the Syrian conflict in any way possible; even if it is the way Russia wants it.

However, the will of the Syria people I believe is a critical factor. The people are not willing to accept ideas dictated to them for Syria from foreign countries; especially countries that support the regime. Now the ability of Russia to remain [in Syria] also depends, in addition to the will of the Syrian people among other factors. The most important of these factors is the international reaction to what the Russians are doing. In the past, we have witnessed a cold and apathetic international response—statements, criticism, condemnation, repudiation—without there being a collective international will to restrain the Russians or force them to stop and not overstep their bounds. Thus, today we see that there is a new international movement perhaps, drafting the beginning of a new phase for dealing with the behavior of the regime and the countries supporting it in the region. As I said, it is too early to judge this international movement until we see the results, because the Syrian people have been met with repeated disappointments and great promises throughout the past seven years and more, and on the ground, we have not seen anything to back up these promises.

We return to the political issue or process. There has been a long interruption since February and up until now. What are the latest developments regarding the political process at the level of the constitutional committee? What are the preparations that the Syrian opposition has made during this time? Do you see any return to those discussions in the near future?

The political process is on hold. There is no progress in regards to the constitutional committee since the Russians adopted the Sochi Conference, which was attended by the three guarantor countries. Outside of this conference, they have not been willing or able to continue with the political process, and matters have continued to shift back and forth.

In the past, there was a large military escalation and an increase in the number of crimes recorded in the ledger of the regime and the countries supporting it. Up till now, yesterday the special envoy announced, in spite of the fact that he conducted an international tour including the three guarantor counties (Turkey, Russia, and Iran), that he would attend the Arab Summit and visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabic, and he was at the Brussels Conference. I do not expect that, for all of these efforts to activate the political process in the foreseeable near future. There will be no new call for negotiations, because up till now Russia has not pursued the political process as required, and it seems that the international community has not seriously evolved since the start of the negotiations.

Personally I do not encourage, nor have I encouraged, that a new, formal round of negotiations be called. I mean, we are always calling for negotiations. The UN came, the opposition was present and positive, and they entered into the negotiation and dialogue process, whereas the regime and the countries supporting it do not want a solution.

We also do not want that the political process to cover or protect the regime and the countries supporting it so that they have more time to continue with their military strategy. If they want a political process, then the political process should begin seriously and not in the farcical manner in which it has been discussed previously.

How can the Syrian opposition negotiate in light of its weak military force on the ground? In light of the regime’s progress and perseverance in Damascus, do you believe that you can continue with negotiations without international support? Will the political process arrive at a political solution that includes all sides of this issue?

The Syrian revolution has several components, among them is the military component. The military component was an urgent force pushed onto the Syrian people in order to defend themselves because the regime, clearly, resorted to that option favoring security, military, repression, murder, tyranny, etc. Naturally, no rational person can guarantee a solution to the Syrian situation through military issues. Also, if we follow the military reality in Syria, we see that in 2011, the regime had control over 100% of Syrian lands. The regime failed to put down the protests, as the Syrian people began to demonstrate and demand their rights everywhere.

Over the past few years, the military phase swayed from peaks and valleys with some progress here and a retreat there among both the regime and the opposition. In spite of all that, it was not possible to arrive at a solution. The solution in Syria cannot be accomplished without understanding the current situation. For me, the issue is a matter of a people rising up against a murderous regime. For me, it is a criminal regime and a president that has committed war crimes. The UN has documented the scope of these crimes committed, the type of weapons, and the classification of the crimes committed in documents and reports.

We have between twelve and fourteen million Syrians that have left their homes, whether internally displaced persons or as refugees. We have the phenomenon of global terrorism that sought out the regime, which [the regime] had a role in creating [ISIS], none of which originated in Syria before the revolution. For me, there are security concerns, institutional failure, absence of the state, chaotic borders, disruption of regional and global security, and interests. All of this does not matter to the regime’s current military operations; what matters is just their military strategy.

It is important for all sides to agree on the fact that no solution in Syria is possible except for a political solution. And there is no political solution in Syria except that which is based on international procedures, namely Geneva 1 and [Resolutions] 2254, to form a comprehensive transition governmental authority with executive powers and to establish a safe environment in which to create a constitution and electoral process under UN supervision. All of which until we can guarantee the Syrian people their right to determine their own future by choosing their own representatives, and lead themselves. Where is this happening? Through the political process conducted in Geneva under UN supervision. No solution can come about outside of this framework.

Thus, we have faith in a political solution emanating from this basis through which, if we can conduct serious negotiations, we can cut down the time and scope of the suffering experienced in Syria. And then we can begin the early stages of recovery, stability, and rebuilding. This is not only based on resources, but rather on humanitarian, democratic, and political means for a new political system guaranteeing the will of Syrian people.

Much of the discussion recently centers on an expected war between Iran and Israel over Syrian territories. The first signs of this have appeared via the Israeli airstrikes on Iranian militia positions in Syria. Does this have any negative effects on the political process and solution during the meetings?

The political solution must be comprehensive. At the start of the revolution, we demanded reforms. Then we demanded the fall of the regime because it began to target and kill civilians across Syria. Then, foreign forces were brought in, which now seem more like an occupation force. Iran today has 85,000 to 100,000 fighters. Russia today has air coverage and boots on the ground. There are many other countries that have raised several different flags all around Syria. A comprehensive political solution must include a requirement to remove these foreign forces, primarily Iran, because Iran is a country with a plan. There is an international effort concerning Iran, which is trying to evade and run away from confrontation. It is focused, the way it trained us in the past like the regime has, on the resistance. The resistance encompasses the war against the colonizer, liberating holy lands, and the wars on western forces, etc. We know this same old story. This is all done in an effort to overlook the crimes committed by the regime and in order to recruit and mobilize Syrian troops for Iran’s interest to serve in its war against Israel and instructing [Syrians] to attack and resist. I believe the way to leave this vortex, as we said previously a solution that guarantees the immediate exit of these forces, especially the Iranian ones, from Syria.

Iran today and the nuclear matter is a matter of international attention, especially for the EU, which wants to continue the nuclear deal, while Washington wants to reexamine this position on the nuclear deal. Does this have any negative effects on agreement over the Syrian issue?

Of course, the Syrian issue is not the only issue on the table. I believe that, as I said a little earlier, despite all the efforts we made with the Russians to come to a draft agreement or mutual understanding for ending what is happening in Syria, everyone was waiting on international negotiations first. The international negotiations are complex and composed of several points, among them being the Iranian nuclear deal, the NATO alliance, energy, security, and Ukraine/Crimea-related concerns, etc. So if there are international disagreements on these issues, of course they will affect the issues in Syrian. The international community must have a clear policy and plan to limit Iranian influence, and reign in ambitious Iranian plans to control not only Iraq and Syria, but all the countries in the region. Regardless of Iran and its ability to develop its nuclear program, missiles, or its ballistic missile program, it will have a negative and destructive effect on the region. Because we all believe that Iran uses all these weapons for the sake of its own interests and plans. This project is dedicated day and night to exporting the revolution and controlling the people, before controlling its resources in Syria and in other countries. Iran also aims to gain more religious influence through using religious methods. Iran’s behavior foreshadows religious warfare in the region. And if this religious war happens, some of whose characteristics have already clearly emerged, if it happens, then it will have disastrous effects on everyone.

On American withdrawal from Syria, do you think that this is a possibility, especially since the American president, Donald Trump, has taken serious steps in this issue, such as cutting off funding for the process of re-stabilizing regions liberated from ISIS?

If we consider the American priorities that we have talked about previously, these priorities have now almost become international priorities: war against ISIS, limiting Iran’s influence, stability in Syria and the region, and adopting the political transition in Syria. None of these priorities have happened. Yes, there was success in fighting ISIS, but ISIS has not disappeared. ISIS still appears in different regions and in different forms. Why? Because the basic source, the basic artery nourishing extremist thought, has not disappeared. It is necessary to deal with the root cause that leads to treating terrorism, which is this regime and the countries supporting it.

Limiting Iran’s influence has not been achieved. On the contrary, today, as we see, Iran is in more control over the Syria state, as well as Syrian, security, and military decisions. It strives to stretch its cancerous tentacles into other regions. Stability in Syria has not happened. The political solution in Syria has not happened. If the United States sets its priorities and has the will to deal with the phenomenon of global terrorism, and to deal with the horrible Iranian influences within and outside the region, then it must have a presence. It cannot withdraw before guaranteeing that these matters will not reemerge once again, and this is what we hear clearly and loudly from American statements.

We are not interested in foreign forces occupying our land in principle. So when we push towards a political solution, it is in everyone’s interests as well. If America actually wants to withdraw its forces from Syria after it has achieved these objectives, after it has eliminated the threats resulting from their withdrawal, then it must pursue a political solution [in Syria].

With a political solution, we can deal with the phenomenon of terrorism, say “enough” to Iran and remove it from the country, and re-stabilize Syria with a political solution. Nobody has called for the presence of any foreign forces in Syria. However, this unexamined withdrawal, I believe, America will not be able to do it. If we take a look at the US president, he makes statements, then changes his opinion, then makes statements, then changes his opinion, why? Because the subject is complicated and cannot be concluded with simple statements.

How do you see the political solution overall in Syria?

Geneva 1 and 2054 and a complete political transition. Complete political transition through a transitional government authority with full executive powers. We said we are going to the negotiations without preconditions. There should not be any preconditions. However, there will be no political solution in Syria, and the Syrian people will not gather again, and all of these phenomena that I have discussed will not be dealt with, as long as a criminal like Bashar al-Assad exists. How can the world today accept a war criminal they had punished in days past for using chemical weapons? How can a system of global values and morals, countries that practice and strive for democracy, and which strive to realize and ensure human rights, how can they accept a criminal like Bashar al-Assad?