Egypt’s Foreign Minister: Terrorism by any side should be part of Syria discussion

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Montreux, Switzerland: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told Al-Monitor that “the maximum” the plenary session of the Geneva II conference on Syria can achieve here January 22 is for the “international community and the parties to express their support for a political resolution to this conflict.”

Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999-2008, spoke to Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti and Laura Rozen on Tuesday night at his hotel in Montreaux on the eve of the international conference.

Fahmy expanded on his ideas for a political process that leads to a “new Syria which should be open, inclusive to all of its different affiliations in Syria, and that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

“Who stays how long, when, and who leaves, when, that is for the Syrians to decide,” Fahmy said.

Asked whether discussions of Syria should address the rise of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Fahmy said that “the issue of terrorism–violence by any side, by the way, not only by one side–is obviously going to be in the mix. But, as part of the discussion on creating a new Syria, not in place of the discussion, on creating a new Syria.”

Fahmy, whose father also served as foreign minister of Egypt, from 1973-1977, supported confidence building measures such as localized cease fires, prisoner exchanges, and humanitarian corridors. But he warned the conference should not be solely focused on either such humanitarian, confidence -building steps, or counterterrorism, but on launching a process towards a political transition as well.

“We offered the Russians and the Americans starting a month ago, first the Russians and then the Americans, a list of confidence building measures (CBMs), including partial cease-fires, exchange of detainees, different kinds of detainees, because there are some purely civilian detainees, a lot of different things,” Fahmy said.

“I actually would recommend highly that, as they start the political process of building this new Syria, they should in parallel with that, always continue to try to deal with, how can we facilitate the situation on the ground, how can you reduce the suffering,” he added

That will create a different confidence level, but it shouldn’t become a confidence building conference, but if you ignore it, how can you simply negotiate for the next 6 months, and people are getting killed mindlessly, and you assume that you have all the time in the world.”

The interview follows, below the jump:

Al-Monitor: What do you expect from the Geneva II talks, and how to reconcile this issue of the political transition by mutual consent, given that the Syrian opposition is coming to the conference believing that the transition should not include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Assad says he staying?

Fahmy: Point one of the Geneva II conference is a meeting of the international community and the parties to express their support for a political resolution to this conflict.

That is the maximum of what we can do tomorrow. The expression of that support will be that in a day or two, the opposition, the parties and the Syrian government should start sitting down with Brahimi, whatever format they want, to see how they do this political resolution.

Now the invitation is based on some of this politically, using the Geneva 1 declaration as the essence of it, which means to start a process which creates an interim government that is fully mandated by mutual consent.

That is where we are. This is going to take time. We have to keep focused on the objective, which is creating a new Syria, through the process of creating an interim government.

The new Syria is probably more difficult to change conceptually how Syria has been managed, than whether or not one changes a person here or there. So when you are talking about new Syria, you are talking about a substantive change in Syria.

Who stays how long, when, and who leaves, when, that is for the Syrians to decide. But there should be no misunderstanding here. This is not about recreating the past; this is not about preserving the status quo. And it is not about dividing Syria de facto or de jure, or creating further instability.

It is about supporting a political process that leads to a new Syria, which should be open, inclusive to all of its different affiliations in Syria, and that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people.
So that is where we are. People are focused about who is there, who leaves and who doesn’t. Well if you are not going to create a new Syria, we are going to fail.

If we create a new Syria, people will change and that is to me the more fundamental part of it. But at the end of the day, we’ve always, as Egypt, we’re in support of change, we are in support of reform.
Having had two revolutions in three years, we are obviously in support of peoples’ aspirations, but it is not for me to say who is going to govern Syria, it has to be the Syrians now.

But I don’t want to be misunderstood, if those in government think they are not going to see change, we are really talking about a new Syria, but the shape of this new Syria is not for an Egyptian to decide, it is for a Syrian to decide.

Al-Monitor: The Syrian delegation, it is clear from what we have seen from President’s Assad’s comments the other day and what has been stated, will make the case that any discussion of Syria should also deal with terrorism in the region. Iraq obviously has great troubles, Lebanon and Egypt have been victim to terrorism. Should the conversation on Syria also deal with the issue of regional terrorism?

Fahmy: If we are building a new Syria, and, like I said, I am looking for preservation of the Syrian state, as a state, I am not concerned with individuals per se, but as a state, and persevering its territory if you are try to create an inclusive Syria, then it has to have political, if not consensus, but at least compatibility, even with different views. You are obviously looking for law and order. You are obviously looking to create a system where you can build, agree and disagree peacefully.

So the issue of terrorism, violence by any side, by the way, not only by one side, is obviously going to be in the mix. But, as part of the discussion on creating a new Syria, not in place of the discussion on creating a new Syria.

Al-Monitor: Should Iran have been invited to Geneva II?

Fahmy: Look, anybody who was ready to accept in letter and in spirit, their invitation, which means implementing Geneva I and trying to create a new Syria for the Syrians without interference from certain parties, and can play a role, should have found a place at the table. There are requirements for that. We have now 37 countries, a lot of countries there from all over the world, so there is no reason to exclude anyone as long as X country agrees that this is the objective of the conference. Now again, I said in letter and in spirit, also by your actions.

Al-Monitor: We were hearing from Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns last week speak of localized ceasefires and pragmatic humanitarian [steps] being more achievable as concrete results of the next few days of meetings beyond launching the larger political process.

Fahmy: Look, we offered the Russians and the Americans starting a month ago, first the Russians and then the Americans, a list of confidence building measures (CBM), including partial cease-fires, exchange of detainees, different kinds of detainees, because there are some purely civilian detainees, a lot of different things.

It doesn’t go in place of a political process, but there has been so much human suffering, and therefore so much bitterness, that if you can, in parallel to that, also start a process where you create some confidence, it is always useful.

I actually would recommend highly that, as they start the political process of building this new Syria, they should in parallel with that, always continue to try to deal with, how can we facilitate the situation on the ground, how can you reduce the suffering.

That will create a different confidence level, but it shouldn’t become a confidence building conference, but if you ignore it, how can you simply negotiate for the next 6 months, and people are getting killed mindlessly, and you assume that you have all the time in the world.
So do I agree that certain confidence building measures should be done?

Yes I do, I am sure we are not the only proponents of these ideas but we actually, as Egypt put some on the table.

By Andrew Parasiliti and Laura Rozen.

(Photo of Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy by AFP. )