Transcript: Prospects for Political Settlement in Syria

On October 3, the Atlantic Council convened a distinguished panel to discuss prospects for a political settlement to Syria’s civil war. Moderated by the Atlantic Council’s Executive Vice President Damon Wilson, the discussion explored the viewpoints of the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom—represented by Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; HE Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister (1999-2004); and The Right Honorable Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, former UK minister of defense (1997-99) and NATO secretary general (1999-2004).


Welcome and Moderator:
Damon Wilson,
Executive Vice President,
Atlantic Council

Igor Ivanov,
Former Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation (1998-2004);
Russian International Affairs Council

Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen,
Former Secretary General, NATO (1999-2004);
Senior Counselor,
Cohen Group

Frederic Hof,
Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,
Atlantic Council

1030 15th Street, N.W., 12th Floor,
Washington, D.C.

Time: 8:00 a.m. EDT
Date: Thursday, October 03, 2013

DAMON WILSON: Good morning, everyone. Welcome here to the Atlantic Council. We’re delighted to have so many – so many friends in the audience. My name’s Damon Wilson. I’m executive vice president here at the council, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have some of the most leading voices on Syria joining us to – this morning for a discussion about Syria and prospects for a political settlement, representing Europe, Russia and the United States.

One month after a U.S. military strike on Syria seemed inevitable, the September 26 U.N. Security Council agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has opened a new window for international diplomacy. Yet, while momentum is building perhaps for Geneva II, the brutal civil war in Syria rages on. After 30 months of fighting the war has claimed more than 115,000 lives. Clearly, a durable settlement in Syria will depend in part on the influence and good will of outside actors, and the chemical framework agreement may have opened up a diplomatic path, but clearly the resolution of Syria’s political problems requires much more than the Security Council has agreed to so far.

So to work through this complex diplomatic landscape this morning, we couldn’t have convened a better group. To my right, Lord Robertson, Lord George Robertson, the former British minister of defense; also served as NATO secretary-general. He’s a member of the House of Lords now as well as a senior counselor at the Cohen Group. He serves on the international advisory board of the Atlantic Council. And most importantly, he was formally my boss when I worked at NATO for him.

To his right His Excellency Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister of Russia, who is now president of the Russian International Affairs Council. The Atlantic Council and RIAC have undertaken a major partnership, which we’re working with former undersecretary Ellen Tauscher. We’re delighted to have you with us today, Mr. Minister.

And to his right, Ambassador Fred Hof, the Atlantic Council’s own senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Ambassador Hof was the Obama administration’s special adviser for transition in Syria. He brings deep experience in the Middle East, is known for being a plain-spoken analyst and the top analyst on Syria here in Washington as well as a personal friend and colleague here at the council.

To set the scene and frame our discussion this morning, I’m going to turn to Ambassador Hof to ask him to kick us off and give us a sense of how he sees the current situation in the wake of an agreement on the chemical weapons, yet seemingly intractable future on the – on the fighting on the ground. Ambassador Hof, over to you, please.

FREDERIC HOF: Terrific. Thanks. Thanks, Damon. I’ll try to – I’ll be very brief, and I’ll just try to set the scene in mine with two basic categories: the situation on the ground and the prospects for building a diplomatic bridge from the chemical framework agreement to something broader that can actually address the crisis in Syria itself.

First of all, with respect to the situation on the ground, I think the – you know, the most plain-spoken thing I can say is that it’s absolutely appalling, notwithstanding the agreement on chemicals. Syria continues to hurtle at full speed in the direction of cataclysmic state failure. The implications of state failure for 23 million Syrians and for the neighborhood are actually quite appalling. Refugees will continue to flow. The body count will continue to climb. The economy will plumb new depths. And Syria will become, in essence, a passive host for all kinds of terrorist organizations that will plague the region and the world for years to come if the current course continues.

The Assad regime is consolidating itself in Western Syria alongside Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Alongside Mediterranean sea frontage, it’s in possession of several key urban areas in the western part of the country. The Kurds seem to be creating a sort of uneasy autonomous zone in the northeastern part of the country. And much of eastern and central Syria is dissolving into chaos as jihadist groups continue to marginalize those groups, armed and otherwise, that remain true to the original nonsectarian tenets of the – of the Syrian revolution.

Now, after a brief post-August 21st hiatus, the war on civilians has resumed in earnest, albeit without the use of chemical weapons. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria recently reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council that the regime’s practice of targeting civilian neighborhoods with artillery, aircraft, rockets and missiles is the biggest single driver of the humanitarian crisis affecting Syria and the neighborhood. And it also cited three jihadist units for similar behavior. The commission was quite categorical in describing all of this in the context of war crimes and crimes against humanity. And of course, 13 jihadist organizations recently declared their opposition to the Syrian National Coalition and to the sort of mainstream nonsectarian Free Syrian Army. So that pretty sums up the situation on the ground, at least as I see it.

In terms of diplomatic prospects for resolving this crisis, I – you know, I must say I would – I would like to be optimistic about this, but I think the prospects are dim at best.

As we all know, Russia and the United States recently reached a framework agreement for the control and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. And this has been buttressed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. As we speak, U.N. inspectors are arriving in Syria and checking into the Four Seasons Hotel, where I think they’ll (probably ?) have no trouble finding accommodations.

Implementation of this agreement obviously is going to be fraught with difficulties. But its aim is good: to remove chemical weapons from the hands of a regime that over the years has established itself as a serial weapons proliferator and a regime which has used these weapons against its own people.

The real diplomatic challenge, however, in my view, will be to build a bridge from this chemical weapons agreement to something broader, something that seeks to resolve the Syrian crisis itself. And this will be exceedingly difficult I think for several reasons.

Keep in mind that the purpose of the Geneva approach, the mission of a Geneva II conference, would be to produce on the basis of mutual consent a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive power in accordance with human rights standards. That is the essence of Geneva, and that is the objective.

Syria’s foreign minister has already announced, however, that his delegation will not, will not discuss the political status of President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition, meanwhile, is fragmented and is being asked to come to Geneva for a dialogue while its constituents are being pounded daily by artillery, rockets and bombs.

So there is a danger, I think, that the Assad regime may see the chemical weapons agreement as a license to continue doing what it does so long as it does not use chemicals. This means that clearly, the United States and Russia in particular have some very heavy diplomatic and political lifting to do if Geneva is to produce the political transition that is at the heart of the June 30th, 2012, Geneva agreement.

For the United States and its partners, clearly, a central task is to stop the continued marginalization of Syrian nationalists in the opposition. The U.S. and its partners in my view have to help this opposition form a coherent, representative and legitimate delegation to negotiate at Geneva, and this will be extraordinarily difficult.

Russia on the other hand I think has a – has an equally difficult and perhaps more difficult task. It really has to persuade the Assad regime of two key things.

First, the gratuitous shelling and bombing of residential areas must stop. There is no military aim, purpose or mission entailed in any of this. This is something the Assad – this is something the Syrian government could do unilaterally today. It could stop the shelling of residential areas, and by so doing help to create a foundation whereby a meeting at Geneva could actually produce some creative and potentially productive discussions. If Geneva is convened with business as usual going on, I for one just can’t see how those kinds of positive discussions could take place.

The second thing I think that Moscow really needs to – really needs to press on the Assad regime is to convince it – and this is probably mission impossible – that the subject of Geneva is indeed political transition, and that the status of President Bahshar al-Assad and the rest of the structure in Syria will be fair game for discussion and for results reached on the basis of mutual consent. Now, it’s not – it’s not 100 percent clear to me that it’s in the interests of Moscow to do either of those things, but I suspect that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing this morning.

MR. WILSON: Thank you, Fred. Thanks for setting that scene.

I want to use that to turn to you, Lord Robertson, to begin our conversation. We’ve heard from Ambassador Hof a fairly bleak picture. I think you said Syria hurtling toward catastrophic state failure. So, Lord Robertson, against this backdrop, you’ve had – you’ve had to negotiate with difficult actors. You’ve had to use force to advance diplomacy. You’ve dealt with implementing agreements, difficult agreements, issues of WMD. Let’s start first with the prospects of following through and succeeding implementing the chemical weapons agreement. Give us your sense of where that – where the territory lays with that first.

LORD GEORGE ROBERTSON: Well, let me say first of all that I disagree, and – (audio break) – the world community that we’ve got to a situation that has just been described in these – in these terms.

You know, Syria is not far away from Central Europe. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride. It’s in the middle of an area which is already a powder keg. Its conflict is an internal civil war, but it’s already spilling into Lebanon, into Turkey, into Jordan, into Iraq. And up to now pretty well nothing has been happening until there was the use of chemical weapons, and all of a sudden we begin to realize that there’s something grave going on here. And what worries me – worried me when we debated it in the House of Parliament was that we seem to be ring-fencing the issues of chemical weapons but saying the rest of it simply goes on and we’ll simply wring our hands about it.

So that’s the sort of bad side of things. And I think that what is done almost with one fell swoop is to destroy the concept of the responsibility to protect, R2P, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005, and sort of gave an indication of what the international community should do if a state imploded and its consequences were spreading around the world. We seem to be saying, well, yeah, we did that; that’s a good theory but doesn’t actually matter in practice.

What I think now is happening, and what I think has got some good signs inside it, is the fact that Russia has accepted a degree of responsibility for what is happening. I think up to now – and I’ve argued with Russians – the Russian approach has been primarily negative. I think that the Russian government felt that in Libya they were duped. They stood back and allowed a resolution for an air exclusion zone and it turned into, effectively, regime change, and therefore there’s a hardened view that under no circumstances is President Assad going to be dealt with in the same way as Colonel Gadhafi was.

But now, with the appearance of chemical weapons and with the predominance now of the jihadis on the opposition side, I think Russia now recognizes that it’s got a very big and a nasty dog in this fight. And I think that is much to the good. We now have a resolution agreed by the Security Council. It doesn’t go as far as to say what will happen if it is – if the regime does not comply, but in a way it’s like Resolution 1144 on the eve of Kosovo. It leaves that hanging, that the use of force might be there.

And actually we wouldn’t have that resolution had there not been the threat of force, if there had not been the possibility of America taking military action. But Russia is now engaged. And I think, as we found in NATO in my time there, when Russia is engaged, Russia is an effective partner in trying to find the outcome and the solutions. It’s a responsibility that they’ve taken on. And not all members of the Russian government will be entirely comfortable with it, but it’s a new dynamic in the situation, which I think can go beyond simply the chemical weapons issue.

We haven’t actually solved much if all we’ve done is to ring-fence chemical weapons but say he can use every other method to scorch the earth and get rid of his opposition, because 100,000 people have died up to now without the use of chemical weapons. In fact, I don’t think that there would probably have been any inclination by the regime to use chemical weapons again. But a standard has been established which I think offers a degree of promise. And I think there’s now a responsibility on the United States and Russia in particular, but the Security Council in general, to actually deliver more than just the dismantlement of a chemical weapons arsenal, which they denied having, but actually begins to look at the wider implications for the Middle East, which are terrifying, as we have just heard.

MR. WILSON: I want to come back to couple issues you raised, including the parliamentary vote. But because you focused so much on Russia, let me bring Minister Ivanov in on this point.

Lord Robertson just said that Russia now has a dog in this fight, has some sense of ownership, of responsibility for the outcome, and that if the attention is simply on implementation of the chemical weapons agreement, that that doesn’t actually solve very much. There needs to be a responsibility to go further.

What’s the dynamic, from your perspective? How does – how does Moscow look at the situation? Do you feel a sense of responsibility, reality, viability of implementing the chemical weapons agreement and responsibility for taking this further on a political settlement?

IGOR IVANOV: Thank you very much for inviting me.

MR. WILSON: Thank you.

MR. IVANOV: First of all I want to say that I totally agree with the analysis of the ambassador of the situation on the ground. Maybe two points: that we don’t have evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Let us wait international judgment. And the second, that in Geneva one protocol – there is no words about the – about Assad personally, the recent transitional – (inaudible[20:11]).

MR. HOF: That’s correct.

MR. IVANOV: But in general, I repeat, I agree with your analysis and I think that this is the strange thing, what we have in many of the cases. We agree in our analysis – Russia, Western counties – but we disagree how to deal with the problem. And that’s why – as you said, the Syrian crisis is civil war, is regional conflict, but also is international challenge, a challenge for all of us that we, great countries, cannot do something real to stop the violence, because all of us, we’re against violence. We’re against that people every day dying there with chemical or without chemical. But we see what is happening there. We see what is happening in Iraq, in many other places.

After the Cold War we didn’t resolve any serious local, international conflict. What does it mean that after Cold War we, five permanent members who are responsible about the security – international security – we didn’t take any serious measures to create new mechanisms which can help us to resolve such a crisis? That’s why this is not only the responsibility of Assad, of the government of Syria or regional organization, but it’s our responsibility. This is the first point.

And I think that we may speak about this, the – that the whole system of governance doesn’t work today. We have to recognize. Why? Because after the Cold War everybody started to do their deal. Americans started to create their unipolar world. Europeans, and largely the European Union, thinking that they can do it easily. Russia, first of all trying to survive, and then with oil, gas they were happy to do their – to do their life.

And nobody seriously working on new mechanisms of conflict – how to deal with conflicts. And conflicts are coming all the day. We see today Syria. Tomorrow there may be other – many. We have Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, all – Mali. We have a lot of conflicts without serious capacity to resolve them. That’s why this is one of the lessons which we have to take for this conflict.

Second, I think that today the main responsibility, if we speak about chemical weapons, is of the Russia and United States, because only our two countries can really resolve that problem. We cannot say this is the problem of United Nations, as some people say, or this is other countries. Only our two countries we have capacity to do this job, and we can. If we fail, we fail. We cannot blame, after that, Great Britain or France or the United States. We will have to blame our two countries that we – and this is big responsibility I think that – of both countries.

The second issue I think that’s very important: If you see a lot of analysis, you see that people say there is no trust – that we don’t have trust between Russia and the United States, between Russia and the Western countries. There is no trust. Sometimes I feel I’m coming from the Cold War, that during the Cold War we had no trust, and we have today for different reasons. This is not the subject of discussion today – meeting, but this is so because we cannot sit and take decisions together on many issues.

And during the – all major agreements in disarmament area were signed during the Cold War. And the – but how to create trust? By statements? Impossible. Trust you create only working together. That’s why if we succeed to work together with positive results in Syria on chemical issue concretely, I think that it will be very big step forward in our bilateral relations to create this atmosphere of trust, not because the United States will want to give gifts to Russia or Russia to the United States; because for different reasons, or maybe to common reasons, we have the same interest: to eliminate chemical weapons in the – in Syria.

If we can do, positively, this issue, I think that also together we can lead the international process for political settlement. I repeat: Our responsibility will be higher not because I want to say that other countries, they cannot play big role, but our – Russia and the United States can, for different reasons, play the leading role to lead the international community to Geneva II and (et cetera ?).

Now you ask me about Geneva II. I think that we have protocol of Geneva I signed by everybody, and you have everything there – not everything, but some first steps to create the body from the representative of government or opposition. It will be with full power transitional body. They will have to prepare political transitional period, changes, consideration or something (there ?) and to prepare the country for democratic elections in the future. It will – it will be – it may be one year or two. I don’t know how many. But it will be under the strong support and supervision of the international community. It means we have the first paper to start to work together and signed by everybody. And this, I think, the – a very important challenge.
MR. WILSON: So, Mr. Minister, let me just ask just a quick follow-up on that. You talked about the – your concern about the system of governance and some of the greater diplomatic issues surrounding this, the bilateral aspect. You’ve said in the past that the Kremlin’s priority is not necessarily Syria itself but its relationship with America – in essence, that Syria is the diplomatic playing field for how Russia wants to be seen as being engaged in international decisions.
From that perspective, clearly this is a victory for Moscow, and that you’re in the – at the center of the game. But picking up on your last comments, is there a sense of responsibility – is there a strategy for the way forward in Syria beyond the chemical weapons agreement in Moscow? And is there a real sense of ownership of responsibility for not just implementation of the current agreement, but for an enduring political solution?
MR. IVANOV: Look, we cannot write history from today. We know some history what we know from past. We had experience in Balkans, good and – bad and good experience. We were against the military operation of NATO in Yugoslavia. But when we – everybody – for different reasons, I repeat – understood after 78 or 75 (deals on bombing ?) that it was unnecessary exercise – military exercise; we said it together and started to work on that resolution, which stopped the war and started to create new political situation, new dynamic with our support – strong support.
The same thing: If (they ?) voted in the Security Council in favor of that resolution, it means we take the same responsibility as other 14 members of the Security Council for what is happening on the ground. That’s why I think that we fully understand that elimination – control and elimination of chemical weapons, it’s not the final story. It’s only the – maybe the first but in parallel, not waiting the – (inaudible) – 14 and after. (That’s not ?) a political settlement. It’s necessary to have everything in parallel, because without stopping military operations on the ground, you cannot successfully realize the elimination of the chemical weapons because it’s necessary to take the control and it’s necessary to eliminate some of the – on the ground some of the chemical weapons. It will be necessary to take maybe out from outside to – (inaudible). It’s very difficult. How do you transport, for example, chemical weapons by the – on the ground if there is – every day you don’t know from there, and who can (provoke ?) you with military operations? It means – you need to do – it’s everything, and that why I think that the big responsibility of Russian and American diplomats today is not to be happy only with the resolution and with them, but to seek together and to prepare a whole road map, including not only chemical weapon but also political situation, also how to prepare Geneva II, how to stop violence, how to open the door for humanitarian aid, how to help to refugees – millions of refugees outside. It means a lot of – this is the whole picture. And if we have – if success in this – in this – (inaudible) – I think it will be very good signal not only for bilateral relations but also to work together in – (inaudible) – many crises, starting with Afghanistan and moving to the other regional problems.
LORD ROBERTSON: You know, I think that’s really good news because I don’t think that’s what the public perception of the Russian attitude at the moment is. But you know, perhaps that a perception that we’ve got wrong.

MR. IVANOV: Because we don’t come here to speak to Atlantic Council. If we come frequently here to speak to the public opinion, we’ll understand better. (Laughter.)

MR. WILSON: It’s actually why we have –

MR. IVANOV: Thanks to Atlantic Council.

LORD ROBERTSON: I know. And when you look at the distinguished audience – (inaudible.) (Laughter.) People are hearing this for the first time, you know? But it is – there is – there is absolutely no doubt. You know, what you say is correct, you know, that if, you know, Russia joins in these enterprises, you know, to deal with problems in the future then, you know, it can only be for the good. It’s a heavy responsibility – an uncomfortable responsibility.

MR. IVANOV: (Inaudible) – join. Why join? We have not to join. We have to do together. We don’t – (inaudible) – to anybody. This is the – this is the Cold War mentality, to join. This is – you have to join me. No, we have to sit together to plan what we are doing and to implement together. This is the partnership. This is the partnership.

MR. WILSON: Well, let me ask from that because what we’re about to see are the two – potentially the two presidents are going to sit together. We’re hearing reports that if President Obama’s visit to Asia remains in intact, there’s a good opportunity for President Putin, President Obama meeting on the margins of the meetings in Indonesia. So if they do sit together, given this agenda you just laid out, this is the time when folks are figuring out what’s the next step. Let me come back to you, Ambassador Hof. What needs to happen if there is a bilateral meeting of the minds between our two presidents?

MR. HOF: I think – I think the specific challenge here – and Your Excellency, I agree with you a hundred percent – but the specific challenge is for the United States and Russia to agree in a highly detailed way what it is Geneva is actually saying. This has been the mission of U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi since he took over from Kofi Annan, to get the United States and Russia on the same page as to the meaning of Geneva.

The words I think – the words I think are very clear. But I think if you asked Special Representative Brahimi even today, he would say, no, there is – there is not really a hundred percent agreement on what frankly, from an American perspective, looks very clear – a very plain – plainly stated requirement for complete political transition in Syria on the basis of mutual agreement – mutual consent.

This statement, I think, is the thing that if the presidents can nail that down, and if they can nail down the idea of what needs to be done inside Syria to build a foundation for successful negotiations. Kofi Annan, when he had the job, recognized very clearly that unless some substantial concrete things happen on the ground, the prospect for a successful negotiation is nil.

He had five steps, basically – a six point plan, but the first step was the negotiations themselves – five steps that would need to be taken where the Syrian government, by virtue of the fact that it is the government, would actually have to take the initiative on several things. President Assad agreed to do it and nothing ever happened. So these are the challenges, I think: Get on the same page as to what it is Geneva is supposed to produce and get to work on creating the conditions to make it all possible.

MR. WILSON: So let me come back to you, Lord Robertson, because part of the – any of these meetings – how do you go into this with a – in a position of strength? What’s the leverage you bring to these talks and conversations? This hits directly at the fact you said we wouldn’t even have a resolution if it hadn’t been for the threat of the use of force. But what’s the dynamic now, where we’ve seen in your country – the U.K. – Parliament balk at the idea of using force, the prospect that if President Obama had gone forward with a vote in the U.S. Congress that it also would have been defeated.

What – two questions about that. How does that impact the leverage, the negotiating dynamic, the dynamic that’s in play now in the way forward, particularly as President Obama looks forward to sitting down with President Putin, perhaps, on this? And then I want to come back and parse a little bit, since you’re a – we all know you as an incredible politician in the United Kingdom, to help us understand a little bit more of the dynamics inside the parliamentary vote on this.

LORD ROBERTSON: I think that might be beyond my capabilities – (laughter) – as a politician to do that. I think the dynamic the present situation is that force was threatened, it’s still there, it’s still on the shelf and it’s still behind it. And I think, you know, one of the reasons in my view that Russia has become engaged – we’ll not say joining or whatever – but has become engaged is because that new factor was in play. And I think it was not something that Russia was in favor of, to put it mildly, and wanted to avoid.

So it was an incentive. As we’ve seen in the past, these things are required if anything is actually going to happen in the diplomatic game. I think it was Kofi Annan who once said diplomacy is good enough, but diplomacy backed up by the threat of force is much more effective. So that has to remain there.

I’m sure that President Obama is reluctant to do it. General Dempsey, on behalf of the – of the – of the military and the United States has cautioned about the consequences of doing it. But it’s still there. And it’s still – it’s quite potent. And it needs to be in the mind of President Assad and even of the opposition to what is going on.

MR. WILSON: Sure. So maybe without parsing all the politics of the vote, the parliamentary vote did spark some debate here. Is this a greater sign of a real questioning of the United Kingdom’s sense of its own political will to have a certain amount of global ambition, coupled with concern about its actually capability to sustain the military clout, to have that ambition. Would you read more – is it right or wrong to read into this parliamentary vote what it signals about perhaps the role that United States’ closest ally is willing to play in the coming years?

LORD ROBERTSON: Well, I hope not. I think that the United States Congress in many ways reflected a lot of the thinking. I don’t think that they took the lead from what the British Parliament said because they were thinking it through themselves. There is an exhaustion at the moment with international involvement, never mind international military activity.

And I think that people look at Syria without the expertise that some of us have, and as Ambassador Hof has illustrated. And it looks so complicated, so difficult. You know, what do you do about it? You know, where would the military action take place? What would it seek to achieve? And I think perhaps with that ill-thought through parliamentarians, reflecting a weariness by the electorate at home, sort of said: Not this time. You know, this is one step too far. But that’s actually what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s.

You know, nobody did anything after 1990 when the barriers went up in the – (inaudible). And it then became a horrifying sort of night after night, picture after picture, you know, horror story so close to our capitals, until it got to the point where action had to be taken. And actually, that was action taken with Russia, Ukraine and other countries at that time. And I think there will come a point where – you know, and this may well be the point, the chemical weapons point, where people start to rethink what their obligations and responsibilities are.

You know, I agree with Igor that there’s a lack of leadership, there’s a vacuum at the present moment. There’s an insufficiency of relevant institutions, an unmodernized United Nations and the rest of it. But actually, there is the responsibility to protect, a concept that was dreamt up and endorsed by all the nations in the United Nations. And we seem to have completely forgotten that that is there. For imploding states with consequence outside of their borders, we’ve actually got a policy. We’ve actually got a mechanism. And we seem to have ignored it completely.

MR. WILSON: I want to come to our audience to bring in some questions from the audience. Let me ask you one last question, Mr. Minster, and then catch my eye, I’ll turn to the audience. From Moscow’s perspective, how do you see – do you read implications into the way the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe has responded to the Syria crisis – the congressional – the lack of congressional action, the parliamentary vote? How does Russia see the United States and its allies? Do you read something more into how they see their role in the world by what’s playing out and what has played out in the past weeks on Syria?

MR. IVANOV: Three points. First point – and I want it to be very clear, this is my opinion – Russia is not against the use of force and is not against sanctions because this is – we have a U.N. charter. This is – we have a U.N. charter possibility to use of force.

What we think that it – the use of force cannot resolve by itself the problem, political problem. It can be used if – as part of big settlement assumptions. The old assumptions, for example, in the case of Iran nuclear program of Iran – it means when we see that it can help to go to political settlement, we – in many cases, took such a decision. But when it is only to do something without understanding consequences, we cannot support it.

I would. Yesterday, I spoke with Mr. Ekeus and – remembering the discussions here in United Nations, before the war in Iraq – ElBaradei and Blix asked some weeks or some months, I don’t remember, to present the report about the elimination of chemical weapons, of nuclear – everything – in Iraq. It was unnecessary to stop military operations. And we see consequences, and we don’t know what to do now in Iraq.

This is our opposition. That’s why – what we ask only, to have the dialogue, to seek together, to try to understand, and then he will agree, as partners, go ahead. And in case of Syria, or in case of other countries.

In Syria, some people present very simply. Today, again – I don’t remember what newspaper reading – something speaking that Assad is our guy, of Russia. It’s not true. It’s not true for many reasons. I was one of the first ministers visiting Assad when he took position of president. For five years, I tried to invite him to Russia with a visit and I failed. And – I will not tell you the whole story, but this is not true, saying – very simplifying the problem – this is your guy, this is my guy – this is our common responsibility. And we have to work together.

And I repeat, we – when we have agreements – and speaking about this – the Geneva I protocol – this is the diplomatic language of compromises, sometimes, after that, each side tries to present – for example, in the resolution about Kosovo, there is no word about independence of Kosovo as an independent state. And some people – after many years, they would say, no, this – it means that this is independent. It’s not – it’s not true, because I was one of the authors of that resolution, and we discussed and never mentioned the independence of Kosovo, and now, people are trying to explain to me what we wanted to say. And that’s why – (chuckles) – we have – if we have agreements, we have to have agreements and then work out with those agreements.

MR. WILSON: Mr. Minister, if I may, I want to bring in our audience.

I’m going to ask – I’ll come right here to the two gentlemen here. If you can identify yourself for our broader TV and Internet audience –

MR. IVANOV: Holbrooke – Ambassador Holbrooke once said, ah, because Igor speaks bad English, that’s why he didn’t understand. (Laughter.) Well, maybe, but this is paper; this is not what I am speaking. This is paper and voted by everybody.

MR. WILSON: Minister –

LORD ROBERTSON : It’s all right, Igor, I speak bad English too. (Laughter.)

MR. IVANOV: But never – nobody blames you.

LORD ROBERTSON : Oh I don’t know.

MR. WILSON: Well, I think you’ve both made the case you speak beautiful English.

Please identify yourself for our audience and ask a brief question, if you want to direct it to someone specific on the panels, I’m going to collect a couple of questions, and then we’ll come back to you.

Q: Fred Hof posited that an end to the bombardment of civilian areas was an important step at this point. Assad may not be Russia’s man, but Russia is the main supplier of the weapons with which Assad is attacking civilian areas. And Russia could stop it, if only by cutting off the supply of spare parts and other things.

Would you be prepared to do that in order to lay a proper basis for Geneva II?

MR. WILSON: Thanks.

Let me pick up the question right next to you.

Q: Thank you very much, Damon.

Damon, you made a very good run at Minister Ivanov on the question of Russia’s position. And Mr. Minister, you stated that you agreed with Ambassador Hof’s very bleak assessment of the situation there, and even now, you just stated that Russia is not even opposed to the use of force. And of course, you know, Secretary of State Kerry made a good-faith effort back in the spring and continuing over the summer with U.N. assistance to work with Russia on the situation in Syria, and yet, to no avail.

So my question is, where is the difference? You say there’s agreement on the assessment – there’s even agreement on the use of force. So where is the problem? What about getting to the viewpoint that the agreed concept that Ambassador Hof is talking about?

Thank you, Damon.

MR. WILSON: Let me pick up a third question here in the front row. Mic’s over here.

Q: Thank you.

My question has to do with the consequences of success and failure. If Assad is using his chemical weapons as a ploy to gain time, it seems to me that a strike will be inevitable. And I think the Obama administration will be embarked on a regime change policy.

But if this is real and Assad is determined to deal with his chemical weapons, it seems to me then Assad ain’t going anywhere, even though his term ends in 2014. How then do President Obama, David Cameron and President Hollande deal with having already set red lines and demand that Assad must go, live with the proposition that Assad must stay, if we are going to continue to get rid of chemical weapons and possibly turn this into a much broader arrangement that leads to some kind of settlement in the region?

MR. WILSON: Excellent question.

Mr. Minister, why don’t we start with you?

MR. IVANOV: This is – this is – this is for him, the question, not three questions all for me. (Laughs.)

MR. WILSON: You don’t have to take all three. (Scattered laughter.) You can see the interest in Russian voices in this debate, but we’ll start with you, Mr. Minister, and then come to – (inaudible) –

MR. IVANOV: OK, first of all, today, I will try to answer the first question, Professor.

Syria received weapons for many years. The Syrian government did not start to receive weapons now to struggle to use it during the war. It received for decades to be prepared for the war with Israel. That’s why they have a huge quantity of weapons, and that’s why what is – now sending its very small portions, which cannot change the military picture of the country. This is the first point.

Second point, about the civilian region, the problem is that when you have civil war, you cannot say – you cannot see where is the front line very clear, because sometimes, so-called people armed from the opposition, they use civilians to protect them during the war. That’s why you cannot say you cannot bomb here.

And then the other – and the third point, many times, we proposed it’s necessary to proclaim the fire stop by both sides at the same time. You cannot ask it only to the government, because the other side, it’s clear, will use that moment to gain position. That’s why you cannot ask Russia, please ask Assad to stop. We have to ask all parts to stop the fire.

And the fourth point, this is the general consideration: Unfortunately, today, the United States cannot give instructions to any country. Russia cannot do the same thing. If you think that we are in the previous period, when you can – Mr. Gromyko, my teacher, can take – or Mr. Kissinger take (fall ?), and say, stop fire and immediately, it will be done. This is not the case.

I personally went to – I was before we were with Milosevic, and I was in Iraq before the war with Hussein, asking them to do something to avoid military operation, and they didn’t listen to me. And it was not Ivanov; it was my country behind me. That’s why today, the situation is more complicated and it’s – we cannot simplify that you can call and – to do this. Nobody listens to you. We have to think about more complicated – we can – I think that the main tool, what we have as international community, to do it together, to have the same position and to be strong then to demonstrate to this or that guy that they cannot avoid possible consequences of what they are doing.

Now the second question, about Assad and what it’s necessary to do. The problem is what – one big but very simple difference before last agreements, that Americans – Americans’ partners, they concentrated all their attention to one main question, to change Assad, without telling us, how want you do it, who will be the next guy who take power, what’s – and only – we were saying, let us speak about – to see broader picture. Let us see how to go to elections or how to do the transition. And that’s why in Geneva, I think that it was reasonable agreement between all of us, signed by the United States and by Russia, that it’s necessary to create a transitional board with full power, with representatives of government and the opposition, et cetera, et cetera, you know, everything. That’s why when we reach such agreement, we sign the paper.

And now I will tell you, I’m – I think that we have to be very pragmatic in many things. In – after – when we stopped military operation and reached – and started to work on the political settlement in Yugoslavia, with whom we signed the agreement? With the same guy, Milosevic. We stopped the war with Milosevic. And he was unacceptable for our Western partners. But my question was it was necessary. I am ready to sign with anybody if I want to stop the war and to start the political settlement. At that moment it was Milosevic, and after that Milosevic – will know where he finished. He’s history.

MR. HOF: If I may, just a couple of quick comments on the questions. First of all, about the bombardment of civilian areas and the nature of civil war in Syria, for us Americans, when we think about civil war, certain images immediately come to mind: General Grant bearing down on Richmond and Petersburg and General Lee desperately trying to stop him, a war of fire and maneuver between combat units. Precious little of that is taking place in Syria now. Yes, occasionally there’s a city block that will be assaulted in Aleppo or someplace, but there’s very little going on in the way that most Americans would conceive of the civil war that took place in this country from 1861 to 1865.

What’s happening to civilian residential areas is quite different, helicopters deliberately hovering over hospitals and bakeries and dropping barrel bombs down on them. This sort of thing is entirely gratuitous. There is no pretense of military targeting in all of this. Yes, there are rebel elements in some of these neighborhoods, but there’s – there is no attempt whatsoever to seek out military targets, absolutely none. One thing – one thing Russia could do under these circumstances – I mean, it’s easy to decry the problem. You know, what can be done about it?

Very quietly, go to Assad, discuss the problem with him and say, look, until we hear from Lakhdar Brahimi that you are cooperating with his initiative 100 percent, you get nothing from us, whether it’s under contract or not; you get no political defense in the United Nations; we’re not going to make a press conference here; we’re not going to share this with the Americans or anybody else, but here is how things work. When we hear from Brahimi that you’re playing ball, then things can return to normal.

On the – on the chemical thing, is Assad using this to gain time? Of course, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he could comply with the provisions. If I were advising him, I’d advise him to comply 100 percent, take the air out of the ball, lengthen the clock.

The difficulty here, the objective difficulty – and it’s not just a matter of the United States saying Assad should step aside. The difficulty is if Bashar al-Assad becomes universally recognized as the party to a contract that now has to be implemented over a long period of time, this is the worst possible news for Syria and for the neighborhood surrounding Syria because the humanitarian crisis will deepen. The impact on neighbors will deepen. Syria will implode economically and otherwise because whether we – whether you like it or not, as long as this guy is on the scene, Syria is on a one-way trip to being North Korea in the Levant.

MR. WILSON: So Lord Robertson, how do you deal with that point there, building on Harlan’s question about the consequences of either success or failure, the potential of Assad’s continuing role in this in years to come, the parallel that the minister drew with Milosevic?

LORD ROBERTSON: Well, the deal was signed. The deal – agreement was signed with Milosevic, and that stopped the war in Bosnia, but it encouraged Milosevic to do what he did in Kosovo, and he went on to do that. So you’re pragmatic in one case –

MR. IVANOV: After Kosovo, it was signed also with Milosevic.

LORD ROBERTSON: Well, yeah. But that was in the – that – and had he remained in power, goodness knows where he would have – where he would have moved to next, maybe Montenegro.

But anyway, I think you can be pragmatic, but you also have got to be principled too, and you’ve got to face up to the reality that Ambassador Hof has actually put forward here as well, that the pragmatism has got to be – has got to involve looking forward. You know, what sort of process is it that we’re going to get? I think we’re going to hear a lot less of red lines in the future than we’ve heard up to now. (Laughter.) That’s my guess.

MR. WILSON: (Inaudible.)

LORD ROBERTSON: But I think we have now – we’re now into the tangled world of diplomacy, where Igor Ivanov is a great – has been always a great – a great practitioner. And lines will be blurred, and I think sort of statements about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable are going to go into the maelstrom of that. And that’s a good thing. You know, that’s absolutely – it’s absolutely right. And Russia is now very much part, very much engaged.

You know, Igor Ivanov and I were both together at Practica di Mare Air Base in Italy for the setting up of the NATO-Russia Council. And at a press conference that was held afterwards, President Putin, myself and Prime Minister Berlusconi did – well, let’s say Vladimir Putin and I tried desperately to get any attention away from Prime Minister – (laughter) – Prime Minister Berlusconi at the time.

But I remember – I mean, it was a very historic moment, that President Putin said – you know, in answer to a question, and showing frustration, he said, you know, this is a change in Russian policy – Russian foreign policy. He said for 50 years Russian foreign policy has been opposed to everything. We were against this. We were against that. Where has it got us? Answer: Absolutely nowhere. And that was a sort of breaking point. The ambassador of Russia to NATO is sitting in front of me here as well, and he remembers me going over the transcript of that day as well.

MR. IVANOV: It was true.

LORD ROBERTSON: Yeah, absolutely. Anything now we’re into that – we’re into that new game. And I think that the pessimistic prognosis that Ambassador Hof has rightly painted for us might well be changing because everybody’s engaged in it. But I was – I was sort of saying, Igor, you slipped away from this question about arming the Assad regime. Has Russia actually supplied the S-300 air defense system?

MR. IVANOV: No, no.



LORD ROBERTSON: Interesting.

MR. IVANOV: Conventional weapon, yes.

MR. WILSON: So, gentlemen, let me bring in some more questions from the audience in our last 15 minutes. I’ll start with these two gentlemen in the back here. Please introduce yourself. A brief question, please, and if you want to direct it to anyone in particular.

Q: Mr. Hof, I have a couple of questions – (inaudible). Basically, what I’m – I would like to represent here, the Syrian – how the Syrian look at United States, Russia and the NATO in a way or other. I cannot say I represent anyone. Mr. Hof, first of all, thank you for all the – (inaudible) – that support Syrian revolution. The point is that I think that most of the Syrian, they feel that the Security Council resolution on chemical weapons is as bad as Assad act on Syria, because they did the Syrian – the American and Russian, they did with very small specific issue, the chemicals, and they forget the hundred thousand people being killed.

We believe as Syrians that – here’s a question for Mr. Hof – that why United States agree on such a resolution, when it can ask more, demand more, like cease-fire, from the Russian part, because the Russians, they save Assad on this resolution.
And for Mr. Ivanov, since the revolution started, the Russians support Assad hundred percent. All the statements from Russia, they say all parties should constrain themselves. You would make equal between the civilian demonstration on daily basis and the machine killing of Assad on daily basis from day one.
It’s true that Russians have a contract to send weapons to Syria since long time, but in the last, let’s say, two years, the Russians, they used to send only spare parts, according to your own papers or – (inaudible) – papers, it’s only spare parts for helicopters, M-16 or whatever, M-18, Mi-15s, whatever it’s called. So according to all the Russian reports, you were sending spare parts. You were helping Assad to kill.
Unfortunately, the American administration, they are busy in its own domestic reason or domestic issue, so they are not too much worried about the Russian –
MR. WILSON: And sir, the question, the question, please?
Q: (Inaudible.) The Russians, they are just busy too humiliate the American administration in Syria. So I don’t know how this joined together or work together can work on Syria. Thank you.
MR. WILSON: All right. The gentleman, please.
Q: Hello. I would like to hear your assessment of the influx of foreign fighters and extremist groups in Syria. Obviously, this is an area of shared interest, but how to deal with it? Thanks.
MR. WILSON: Terrific. I’m going to pick up two more questions.
Q: Thank you. I just wanted to be very specific about something that Minister Ivanov talked about in terms of the Geneva 1 agreement. You said that there’s nothing specifically on Assad. So is that the sticking point that Fred Hof is talking about? Is there something deeper? I mean, you could certainly eliminate the name “Assad” and come up with an agreement. What exactly do you think is the sticking point, which seems to be there even though everyone says they agree on Geneva 1?
Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Thank you. And please, final question right here.
Q: Hi. Just two quick questions. Lord Robertson, do you see a role for NATO in this, given the wider implications in the region? And Minister Ivanov, you started your remarks saying that it wasn’t even clear that the Syrian government itself used the chemical weapons. I remind myself of the September 11th op-ed by President Putin, who said the same thing. And I think if you took out, you know, Vladimir Putin’s name in the op-ed, it could have been signed by Bashir al-Assad. I mean, so how do you square his op-ed with what’s going on now after everything regarding, you know, where we are today? And I realize that we have to move forward, but, I mean, how do you look at all these issues, given the op-ed, given what’s going on in the region? And do you consider Russia, you know, enabling, you know, the bad behavior and the violations of international law?
Thank you.
MR. WILSON: Thank you.
So we’ve got four diverse sets of questions in the last 10 minutes. I’m going to come back to you. Let’s start with Ambassador Hof, work our way down, and any sort of final comments you want to make as a wrap-up here as well. Ambassador Hof?
MR. HOF: Sure. Thank you, Damon. I’ll be very, very brief.
I agree entirely that the Syrian opposition sees the chemical weapons framework agreement and resolution as bad. That’s an objective fact. It’s well-published. I don’t see it that way. In and of itself, it can be a very useful tool. An Assad regime that is without chemical weapons is something that is much less of a threat to its own people and to the neighbors.
The real question, though, is, is it going to stand alone as a separate process while Syria continues to dissolve down the drain, while everything other than chemical weapons, including the kitchen sink, is thrown at populated areas in an entirely gratuitous, nonmilitary campaign of terror? That’s the real question. If it stands on its own – and I’ve written this – it’s like – it’s like having a successful operation removing an appendix from a – you know, from a patient that’s got – that’s got advanced cancer.
And I’ll just – the only other one I’ll comment on is the – is the question of Geneva and what’s the actual difference. The name Bashar al-Assad does not appear in the June 30th, 2012 final communique of the Action Group on Syria. A diplomatic way was found to try to convey the idea that the objective of Geneva is full political transition to something that looks democratic, pluralistic – I think those are the words from the – from the Security Council resolutions – but a full political transition.

I don’t know, I don’t pretend to know where things stand right now in discussions between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart on the meaning of Geneva. I know in the past there was a Russian position to the effect that somehow, you know, President Assad and perhaps the security services should be exempted in some way from the – from the transition process and that perhaps the emphasis should be on a government of national unity, meaning a prime minister, a council of ministers and so forth.

So even though the name Assad has not been mentioned, it’s sort of the ghost in the room, and I think the question of his status in the future has been the focus of some disagreement between the United States and Russia as to the meaning of the provisions in the agreement.

MR. WILSON: Thank you, Fred. Minister Ivanov?

MR. IVANOV: First of all, about your remark that that resolution, Security Council resolution saved Assad. Some people in this country say that it saved President Obama. Other people say that President Putin or interests of Russia.

We wanted, as Russia, not to save somebody or anybody, we wanted to find a solution for this problem. This is the first point, and please don’t speculate about this. Second point, for me, it’s clear – and if you are expert, you can understand – you cannot implement that resolution without political and many other measures of political settlement. You cannot do it physically.

That’s why if Russia and the United States really engaged to eliminate, to take under control in different places of the country and then to start a long and very difficult process of elimination, it means that in parallel – not waiting, but in parallel, you need to take many other measures, including political settlement. Without this, you cannot do it.

That’s why it’s not true that somebody wanted only to limit their action with chemical weapons. It’s not true. This is first, but it was necessary to start, and this is – it was – it was good point coinciding not only on Syria because – coincided because we want to eliminate – we are doing – now are countries eliminating chemical weapons and we wanted to eliminate in the world the chemical weapons. It’s – we coincide totally Russia and the United States.

That’s why this is only to start – and this is very important. The – and now about the weapons to Assad. The weapon – we signed order of – (inaudible) – before, and we, as Minister Lavrov said many times, we don’t violate any international agreements or any international rules doing what we are doing because you have on the other side also countries without any justification sending weapons to the armed group of the opposition. That’s why it has to be something comprehensive, if there is something comprehensive. It cannot be unilateral.

Now about G-1. I agree totally with Ambassador. The main thing is that we – you need to – we decided to open transitions that we – you need to – we decided to open transitional period, and during that transitional period, to create some body with representation of the government and of the opposition. That’s why it’s – we don’t know who will be from the – from the government, but it’s clear it will be not President Assad in that transitional board.

And that transitional board will have full power in the country – this is very important – for all the – I don’t know – six months, one year, but that transitional body will have full power in the country till elections or till something. And this is – this is the main thing.

This is not the problem – (inaudible) – this is, in general, the process which we can open if we do it. Now, about role – NATO – this is for you, not for me. I suggest not to use NATO, but this is not – (cross talk) – (laughter) –

LORD ROBERTSON : Helpful suggestion.

MR. IVANOV: This is – and the final point – not answering to – I am sure that I repeat, and I think that after that, we have the other meeting with Atlantic Council delegation. I think that this is really, from my point of view, very difficult but very good chance to start real dialogue – Russian-American dialogue about international security. This is not because one want to engage the other, but this is in our interest, (not ?) in the interest of Russia. It’s in our interest to have dialogue, to work on that issue, to give good example that we are (working ?) and to create new atmosphere trust and doing together what is in interest of – national interest of two countries. Thank you.

MR. WILSON: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Lord Robertson, the final word.

LORD ROBERTSON: I agree – I agree very strongly with that. And it comes back to the question the Danish colleague at the back said. You know, there are elements alive in Syria today who pose a threat to all of us, and if the jihadists and the al-Qaida elements get stronger and stronger, we’ve eventually got nobody to blame but ourselves. You know, we’re wringing our hands now, but this conflict has gone on for two and a half years – 200,000 people dead, huge displacements of populations, the overwhelming of Jordan and Lebanon by refugees.

So, you know, we sort of say, oh, this is terrible now; the jihadis appear to be getting an upper hand. So, you know, blaming in the past is useless. We need to look to the future. But there’s common ground. These people have got to be marginalized, and they’ve got to be eliminated. If you look back at the history of Bosnia, and I people should really – you know, we do great lessons learned exercises after every conflict – they look at them and we put them on a shelf and we forget them.

The Bosnian situation has got a lot of parallels with what is going on today. The jihadis were moving into Bosnia, exploiting the persecution of the Muslim population in Bosnia by Milosevic, and it was only the peace agreement that stopped it and marginalized them and eventually got them kicked out. So the urgency about a situation where you get a process has not just got to do with stopping the killing, it’s stopping the momentum that these guys have been able to achieve up to now.

Should NATO – should NATO be involved? Well, actually, NATO is involved. Turkey, which has been affected by the Syrian conflict, has invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Not many people know about Article 4 –know about Article 5, and I must say I didn’t really know about Article 4 until I became the Secretary-General.

MR. WILSON: (Laughs.)

LORD ROBERTSON: But article 4, by the wise people who laid down the charter at the beginning, allows a member nation to come to the Council – to the North Atlantic Council to say that they believe they are going to be threatened. It’s a prelude to Article 5. It was invoked by Turkey before the invasion of Iraq, because they believed that Saddam might do a diversionary attack on them, and it’s been invoked now because the Turks believe that they are affected by what’s happening in Syria, and air defense weapons have been put into Southern Turkey under Article 4 in order to give protection to that.

So there is an involvement, and I know in the Council, Turkey constantly reminds that there is a necessity for no-fly zones, for safe areas, et cetera, et cetera. Again, the parallel with Bosnia comes in, and we should learn from what happened – the bad things and the good things that happened in Bosnia before we sort of assume that the wheel has got to be reinvented.

But the thing about NATO is that NATO is not just made up of the 28 countries who are full members, it’s also the partnership for peace that extends beyond the NATO boundaries. It’s about the NATO-Russia Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission. It’s about the Mediterranean Dialogue that brings in all of those countries who are affected by Syria at the moment. It’s the ideal venue for actually having a discussion across a wider range, and I’m not sure whether it’s being used properly at the moment to do that. And it would be a useful experience if it actually was to get on to the agenda of all of these different parts because then that way you can start to look at the security situation, as Igor Ivanov says, in the round rather than focusing on individual little bits and pieces that are going on.

MR. WILSON: Thank you so much. We – I’ve – this has just been a terrific conversation. We started on a fairly bleak assessment this morning and we’re ending on a little bit of an – of an optimistic note of a potential opportunity.

Obviously, this is an incredibly complex situation. It’s why we had this conversation today, part of our programming of our Hariri Center for the Middle East, our Scowcroft Center on International Security. It’s meant to help provide a sense of clarity on these difficult issues in terms of understanding the reality, the choices, the decision that leaders face and really what’s at stake.

So I want to thank our panelists for just a terrific conversation. I want to take a word just to thank those of – those on our team that made this possible, Matt Hall (sp), Stephanie Roland, Laura Macedo (sp), as well as Samia Yakub and the team of interns from the Hariri Center. Thank you very much. But most of all to Ambassador Hof, Minister Ivanov and Lord Robertson, please join me in thanking them. (Applause.)


Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof and Damon Wilson