Iran and Turkey Will Leave Syria, Russia’s UN Ambassador Tells Asharq Al-Awsat

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya. UN media office
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya. UN media office
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Iran and Turkey Will Leave Syria, Russia’s UN Ambassador Tells Asharq Al-Awsat

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya. UN media office
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya. UN media office

In his first ever interview with an Arab media outlet, Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya said that the world order "has been the same" since its inception following the Second World War despite the emergence of "new centers of power." However, he acknowledged "new challenges and threats" such as terrorism, drug trafficking and uncontrolled migration.

While defending the "legitimacy" of the Russian presence in Syria, he stressed that everyone, including the Iranians, Turks and others, should eventually leave that country. He asserted that the current situation in Idlib "cannot be held frozen forever," adding that the Astana process is "the only effective mechanism to achieve stability" in Syria, and expecting that the UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen will "soon" announce the composition of the Constitutional Committee.

He said that Moscow had called for a "platform" to discuss regional problems in the Middle East and North Africa, and that will happen "sooner or later". He noted that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been advocating an idea similar to the "Helsinki process."

He revealed that intensive political contacts between the Russian and Saudi leaderships show that both Moscow and Riyadh consider that "the potential of conflict... has a very negative impact, not only on regional security, but also on global security and stability." He asserted the Russian Federation's appreciation to the role played by Saudi Arabia "as one of the most influential countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region" in many issues, particularly in Yemen, Syria and other countries in the region, pointing out that the Kingdom has a "very constructive role" in the Yemeni crisis.

In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat about the return of Russia in the last ten years as a superpower, the Russian diplomat, whose country has veto power, has spoken about other issues such as Libya, Venezuela and other crises in the world.

* Russia has reemerged in the past 10 years as a global superpower, including in the Middle East. We hear people talking about going back to the Cold War. Others may say: we’re heading towards a new world order. What are your insights?

- The central element of the system of global relations that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War is the UN and its Charter.

A new world order was born every time after devastating wars. That was the case with the Peace of Westphalia, the Vienna Congress and the Concert of Nations or the United Nations. I would hate even to contemplate another similar reason for a new world order. As Albert Einstein once said: I don’t know what the weapons of a Third World War will be, but in the Fourth they will fight with sticks and stones.

We had tectonic events in the past, like crumbling down of a colonial system, the end of the Cold War and associated ideological divide. Yet nobody was saying that we entered a new world order then. And history didn’t end as Francis Fukuyama claimed.

Of course, things change. Balances of power shift. New centers of power emerge.

This is reflected in the debate on the reform of the UN Security Council where we advocate its manageable expansion with the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which are clearly underrepresented. However, there is another troubling trend. The art of compromise has been severely compromised in recent years. The unwillingness and inability to recognize that the world is not unipolar anymore, that it is not one-bloc dominated lead to attempts to create various “coalitions of the willing”, alliances of like-minded that pay lip service to international law while acting with total disregard to it. A new concept has been invented – “a rules-based order” which provides for the establishment of some “rules” cherished in a like-minded group, but unaccepted by a large part of the international community, let alone adopted anywhere.

Besides, new challenges and threats emerge, like terrorism, drug trafficking, uncontrolled migration. New political technologies are employed, like naming and shaming states whereby the accusation itself becomes the verdict. We live in what many call a “post-truth” world.

Still, regardless of this, the world order remains the same as it was created after World War II.

* Syria probably has been the clearer manifestation on Russia’s rise in today’s world. Have you accomplished your mission in Syria’s war? Do you expect Iran, Turkey, the US and others to leave Syria?

- Russia’s presence in Syria is legal. It is there on the request of the legitimate government to assist it in countering the terrorist threat. Iran, by the way, is present there legally too. No one else was invited, as we all know. All those who are present in Syria without invitation, should eventually leave the country.

Despite severe damage caused to ISIS in Syria, the terrorist threat is not completely eradicated and remains significant. Another terrorist group, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (aka Nusra), has strengthened its positions in the North of Syria. It is now enclaved in Idlib, where Nusra militants established their rules and basically assumed the functions of local authorities. The situation cannot be held frozen forever. It should be addressed. That is why recently we have intensified contacts with our Turkish partners on the Idlib de-escalation zone. We fully realize that Idlib is home to a large civilian population, including IDPs from other parts of Syria. We know that they suffer under the rule of terrorists and dream to be spared of their “authority”. But of course, civilians should not become “collateral damage” of the legitimate fight against terrorists.

Our partners are urging the Syrian authorities and Astana guarantors to honor their agreements and spare civilians, alarming of a humanitarian disaster in case of large-scale hostilities. At the same time, they are not as consistent when they conduct military operations against terrorists in the Northeast of Syria where, as you know, a large number of civilians fell victim to aerial bombing of the Coalition.

* What do you expect specifically from the new UN special Envoy Geir Pedersen?

- We maintain dialogue with Special Envoy Geir Pedersen on the political settlement in Syria both bilaterally and through the Astana process. Astana format turned out to be the only effective mechanism to achieve stabilization “on the ground” in Syria. We stand ready to further assist the Special Envoy in making the political settlement sustainable. We expect that soon he will be able to announce the conclusion of the composition of the Constitutional Committee and to start its work. We count on the Special Envoy and hope he will establish trust with all the stakeholders while remaining impartial. This is the key to success for any mediator.

* You said that the Astana Process turned out to be the only effective mechanism on the ground. Do you want the Special Envoy to embrace the Astana Process?

- The Astana Process is part of a larger settlement, starting with UNSC resolution 2254 and through the Congress of National Dialogue, which gave birth to the Constitutional Committee. Special Envoy Pedersen is willing to participate in Astana, because this process discusses important issues, which he in particular is interested in, like prisoners exchange for example. As far as I know, he is planning to participate in the upcoming meeting in Astana, Nur Sultan now, on the 25-26 of this month.

* Mentioning the name of Kazakhstan capital, is the name of the process going to be changed?

- No, they are keeping the name as the Astana Process.

* You also mentioned that the Constitutional Committee will be formed soon, when should we expect that?

- There is no exact timeline, but the Special Envoy himself said there are a few little brush strokes that have to be applied before he can announce that the issue is closed, and start the work of the Committee.

* What would you say about what happened recently regarding the US recognition of Golan as part of Israel? Are you in Russia trying not to touch anything in relation with Israel, including when they hit targets deep in Syria? The Russian army is there but not protecting Syria’s sovereignty when it comes to Israel. You are asking all the uninvited to leave Syria except the Russians, the Iranians and the Israelis.

- I think we will eventually go too when time is right and when the conditions are ripe, and we will do this in consultation with the Syrian government. Iranians are there legitimately too because they were invited. They will go when the Syrian government decides their assistance is no longer necessary.

* They will leave?

- I think eventually all should leave when Syria is stabilized. But there are parties in Syria who were never invited there, like the US, the French and some others. Israel’s presence in the Golan began before the Syrian conflict. It is a long story. We never recognized Golan as part of Israel. It is part of Syria. We supported all the resolutions that say so. And indeed we condemned the US decision. But we are having good relations with Israel. Israel is our partner in the Middle East, as much as all the Arab states. We are lucky and proud that we are one of the major powers that enjoys good relations with anyone and everybody in the region without exception.

* What about Turkey?

- Yes, Turkey also was not invited. That’s true. But Turkey is an important partner in the Astana Process, in the process of the Syrian settlement. Turkey has its own concerns regarding its security. But, of course, we believe that eventually they will have to leave Syria as any other foreign presence in the country.

* What can you tell us about the remains of the Israeli soldier who what killed in Lebanon in 1982? What happened?

I don’t know the details but as President (Vladimir) Putin said openly; that was a Russian Special forces operation that made it possible to locate and excavate the remains…

* From Lebanon?

- Frankly, I don’t know where from. That was a great humanitarian gesture which was really much appreciated by the Israelis.

* How do you describe the situation of the Arab countries with Russia? How would Russia address the concerns regarding Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries?

- As I said Russia is in a privileged position among major powers to maintain close friendly relations with all Arab countries without exception. We interact both bilaterally and within such formats as “Russia-LAS” and “Russia- GCC”. We have established an effective political dialogue and exchange of views regarding the settlement of regional crises. Our commercial and economic ties are developing fast.

We are interested in the unity of the Arab world, which we advocate relentlessly. Power grows from unity. Regional problems can be effectively solved only on the basis of common approaches.

* There are a lot of questions about Iran’s role in the region. The US administration is raising its voice about Iran’s threats to other countries including Israel. Are you worried about any serious confrontations?

- Iran is a part of the region, not an alien entity. Iran has legitimate interests that go beyond its national borders and are aimed, among other things, at ensuring their national security. Arab States, Israel or Turkey – they all have such interests. The reason is in the transnational nature of global threats today.

You talk about threats that Iran poses. But don’t forget about the threats that Iran faces. Today they are clear and imminent. They are announced and proclaimed openly. Do you think Iran should not take them seriously? Unfortunately, recent steps and rhetoric from Washington, including withdrawal from the JCPOA and the initiation of large-scale sanction pressure only increase risks of escalating tensions and making further developments of the situation totally unpredictable.

As for the concerns about interference of Iran in the internal affairs of States in the Middle East, there are diverging views on this, even among the Arabs themselves.

Our approach can be described as very simple, even standard. All the countries of the region have their own interests. They should be taken into consideration. The only requirement is that those interests should be legitimate. If there are any concerns, they should be resolved by political and diplomatic means. For this, we need a convenient platform to discuss the whole range of existing problems.

Several years ago Russia proposed a security concept for the ... Gulf that envisages a dialogue platform for all the countries of the region, which would be eventually joined by other States of the Middle East and North Africa. This could be the first step towards establishing a regional security architecture that would help maintain peace and security in this part of the globe.

We are discussing this idea with our Arab friends. It has not been put into life yet, but it is going to happen sooner or later.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been advocating a similar idea of a “Helsinki-type process” for the Middle East.

* Would you kindly describe the relations between Russia and Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia? How can the two countries cooperate to solve the current crises and strengthen the relationship politically and economically?

- Russia maintains friendly relations with all Arab States, including in the Gulf. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated our commitment to step up interaction with these countries during his recent trip to KSA, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE.

Over recent years, we considerably increased our economic and political cooperation with Saudi Arabia. We coordinate our position on the situation on the world oil market through the “OPEC plus” process. Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed prospects of fostering cooperation during his visit to Saudi Arabia on March 4-5, where he was received by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, met with Saudi colleagues (Ibrahim) Al-Assaf and (Adel) Al-Jubeir.

Intense political contacts between the Russian and Saudi leaderships show that both Moscow and Riyadh proceed from the assumption that the remaining conflict potential in the Middle East and North Africa has an extremely negative impact not only on regional, but also on global security and stability. Both of us are firmly committed to combat terrorism in all of its manifestations and to eradicate terrorist ideology.

Russian and Saudi views on the Middle East settlement coincide, which lays the groundwork for further interaction. We support the two-State solution of the Palestinian issue that would rest on the international legal basis and the Arab peace initiative.

We coordinate activities on regional crisis settlement. We appreciate efforts of Riyadh to facilitate political settlement in Syria, specifically with regard to unifying the Syrian opposition. We share the understanding that the Syrian political process should be based on UN Security Council resolution 2254. We respect the views of Saudi Arabia and keep our friends updated about the work of the guarantors to the Astana process, including activities to establish the Constitutional Committee.

From the very beginning of the crisis in Yemen, we have maintained constructive dialogue with KSA and other members of the Arab coalition. We have unleashed and continuously use the potential of working contacts that the Russian side established with the stakeholders of the conflict, including “Ansar Allah”, in order to bring peace back to the country. Both Moscow and Riyadh support efforts of Special Envoy of the Secretary-General Martin Griffiths. We hope he will manage to achieve progress soon.

We will be enhancing our cooperation on all tracks. Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential States of the Middle East and the Gulf region.

* Are you avoiding a condemnation to sending arms to the Houthis in Yemen, or even mentioning resolution 2216, or targeting Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles by the Houthis?

- We condemn targeting Saudi Arabia with missiles. We say it every time it happens, as it is inadmissible. On 2216, if you remember, we abstained because we were not in total agreement with some parts of the resolution but the resolution was adopted. We did not block it. On the arms procurement, Yemen is a country which was full of arms since before the conflict started and nobody yet gave a hundred percent proof that they still continue to obtain weapons directly from Iran. They have other means to equip themselves. They are armed beyond their needs. Yemen is a country which was a market for arms even in the old times. Everybody was competing to procure arms to Yemen, including the Soviet Union. So they are not in dire need of arms.

* Are you hopeful the situation will be solved?

- It is all very difficult there, of course. But what plays favorably is the unity of the UN Security Council on it, the strong push from the Security Council to resolve the conflict politically. The way the coalition approached it, especially recently. We know that the coalition, Saudi Arabia in particular, plays a very constructive role. We support what Martin Griffiths is doing. It is a job next to impossible, mission impossible, but he is trying to navigate in those very difficult circumstances aggravated by complete and total mistrust by the parties, which is one of the reasons why the Stockholm agreements were not realized till the present day on Hodeidah and the other ports. Of course, it is very important to continue steps towards the political settlement. These steps should not be hostage to reach the implementation of the agreement on Hodeidah. But implementing Hodeidah is very important. We are working to make it happen.

* We saw media reports that Russia is supporting General (Khalifa) Haftar in Libya. Is that the case?

- Don’t believe the media (laughter). Russia supports Libya’s reconciliation and the national unity. Haftar is a very important player, but there are other parties in that country that play an important role. We are not siding with any particular party in Libya. We hope that recent developments will not lead to violence and be resolved peacefully through political dialogue.

* Russia has bitter memories in Libya because of how the Gaddafi regime was deposed by the west in 2011. There is this rift…

- There is not much rift between us and the West on Libya. There is a lot of uncertainty and lack of understanding on how to put the country back together. It was broken like a piece of glass, and now we have to put back together all those small pieces which were scattered. We do not have major contradictions on Libya with our colleagues in the Security Council today. But we have been saying continuously and consistently that what happens in Libya is a result of the policies that they implemented in 2011 when they basically cheated on us in the Security Council and bombed the country and let it be destroyed. Not only Libya suffered in the aftermath but the whole region south of it. What happened in Sahel and many countries in western and central Africa is a product of the intervention in Libya. Those jihadists went down south from Libya. That is openly recognized by the African leaders themselves.

* What are the Russian military advisers and experts doing in Venezuela?

- We have an agreement on military cooperation. They went to serve what we procured for them before. They are military specialists that came for the service of equipment that we earlier provided to the Venezuelans.

* The international multilateral system is being seriously challenged. Are the United Nations and the Security Council still relevant today? Why?

- There is no alternative to the UN and its Security Council that is the main body responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It is relevant today as before. We cannot always find solutions in the Council (although on majority of issues we can). But that is not because the Security Council is ineffective or irrelevant, but because this inability reflects the divides that the world is facing. However, there is no alternative to this mechanism. We should learn again the art of compromise and account of mutual interests, somewhat forgotten today.

We should base our work on the UN Charter and international law. All should realize and accept that the world is not unipolar anymore. It is multipolar with new centers of power willing to be recognized, heard and respected. This understanding will help bring multilateralism back to the center of international cooperation.

* What is your expectation from the new US ambassador to the UN?

- I never met her. But we are ready to work with any US ambassador who will be appointed to the UN. I am sure we will be able to work together to solve issues of common concern.

* You had tough moments with Nikki Haley…

- Tough moments with Nikki Haley in the Security Council. But we had our sweet moments outside the Security Council (Laughter).



Allawi Recounts Assassination Attempt, Says They Sneaked into Morgue to Check his Body

 The trial of Saddam and the senior officers of his regime (Getty)
The trial of Saddam and the senior officers of his regime (Getty)
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Allawi Recounts Assassination Attempt, Says They Sneaked into Morgue to Check his Body

 The trial of Saddam and the senior officers of his regime (Getty)
The trial of Saddam and the senior officers of his regime (Getty)

In the seventies, two young men left Iraq to escape from then-deputy Saddam Hussein and his murderous security machine. The first is Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the Dawa Party, which Saddam had decided to uproot. The second is Iyad Allawi, a member of the Baath, who was appalled by Saddam’s forceful control over the party, under the mantle of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. The two men will face each other later in Iraq after the American invasion.

In 2010, I entered the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, and his name was Nouri al-Maliki. The conversation was valuable. As I left, I had the feeling that post-Saddam Iraq had produced a strong man who would not easily leave his new position.

Al-Maliki, who had signed the decision to execute Saddam, said in the interview: “My wish was not to execute Saddam, as this would be his salvation. The death penalty is nothing compared to the crimes he committed. He should have remained a humiliated prisoner, as a model for dictators. But it was the desire of the people and the families of the martyrs...”

During that year, Iraq experienced a long, open crisis over the formation of the new government. Al-Maliki was demanding a second term, while Allawi - a former prime minister - considered himself entitled to lead the new cabinet in light of the results of the parliamentary elections.

Eight months later, Al-Maliki won the duel, and the reasons were many, including Iran’s evident support and the US administration’s keenness to appease Tehran.

Arab secularism

Allawi adhered to his “secular Iraqi Arabist” approach, refusing to acknowledge Iran’s right to shape the political scene, as he considered that Tehran participated along with Washington in sabotaging the country. Thus, the years passed, and Allawi did not visit Iran even once, despite assuming the position of Prime Minister and Vice President of the Republic and heading a large parliamentary bloc. He also did not hesitate to voice explicit criticism of foreign interventions in Iraqi affairs, including those of America and Iran.

All these questions would not have been asked if things had gone the way the master of Baghdad had wanted at dawn on Feb. 4, 1978 in London. That night, Iraqi intelligence executed an order by Saddam to “smash the head” of Iyad Allawi, who resigned from the party and began looking for change in Iraq from abroad.

The assassination attempt

I asked Allawi about that assassination attempt, he replied: “The attempt was preceded by many threats. I left the Baath Party completely in 1975. That year, we formed the “National Accord” secretly, without giving it a name. We saw that things began to deviate from their course, whether on the Arab, Iraqi, or national levels. The threats and inducements continued from 1975 to 1978, when they played a very dirty game.”

He recounted that was contacted in London by a person who identified himself as “Jihad Al-Dulaimi.”

“He called me and said he wanted to meet urgently. We had received information, through our group, that 13 people would be assassinated. “

Allawi recounted that during the encounter, the man told him that he was sent by people “who care about you, know you, and respect you.” He added that they were looking for Baathists who have an interest in the party and want to cooperate with it.

Allawi replied: “Is this something you would say to a stranger like me? Go and fix things from within the party... I have nothing to offer, and I am not ready to conspire. I am now working full-time in the medical field.”

Exactly a month later, the assassination attempt took place.

The senior Iraqi official recounted that at the time, he was staying with his late wife in an area called Epsom in Surrey, southwest of London. On the night of Feb. 3-4, 1978, he was at work in the hospital and then accepted an invitation from Kurdish friends for dinner.

Allawi described the attack in detail, saying: “I came home around midnight, and I was tired. I used to keep the curtains slightly raised, to allow some light to enter the room. At about 3 a.m., I heard a sound, so I opened my eyes and saw a ghost near my bed. I thought I was dreaming. But I saw something shining, heading towards me... The ghost immediately hit me in the leg, and I felt as if fire had entered it. I could no longer move my left knee, and I received blows and bites in my hand, nails smashed my chest, and I felt hot water on my head.”

He continued: “When my wife turned on the light, she immediately became hysterical, and attacked the person, who was tall and trained. (Allawi mentioned the full name of the attacker.) The attacker knocked out two of my wife’s teeth with his hand. We continued to fight while I was holding the axe and preventing him from using it.

But the hot water I was feeling turned out to be blood from a blow to my head, and the bones came out of my right leg, while I was on this [left] knee. This ultimately saved my life...”

“I was afraid for my wife. After he managed to take the axe, he hit her on the hand... so I told her to jump and cling to his neck with her other hand, knowing that he was tall, while I was sitting on the knee, and the axe was facing my head... My wife was able to hold on to his neck and pull it back, so I seized the axe by its handle, took it from him, and hit him in the leg with it... He turned his head and left because he thought I would not survive. I noticed that he was with another person who had a gun on his waist...”

A journey of suffering and treatment

Allawi went on to say: “After he left, I crawled to the phone, called the hospital, and told them that my wife and I - were seriously injured, and we don’t know whether we will live or die. I asked them to report this attack on us to the police... In less than 5 minutes, the police and ambulance arrived, rushed us immediately to the hospital, and put us in two separate rooms.

“They transferred me to an intensive care unit, and cut off any communication with me... They kept me under surveillance for three days, as they feared a brain hemorrhage. Thank God, there was no bleeding. After that, they took me to a regular room, and I saw all the sad faces. My family and friends were worried and afraid.

“Meanwhile, a policeman who was present told me that my case was political, and the head of the counter-terrorism department at Scotland Yard, Jim Nevill, would come to investigate it. He added that someone had penetrated the hospital morgue and inspected the bodies there to make sure I was killed. At dawn, while workers were bringing a body to the morgue, they heard footsteps heading towards them, so they fled.”

Allawi said that he underwent treatments and operations for a month in the hospital, under armed protection from anti-terrorism police.

“A month later, the police came to me with a number of civilians and asked me if I was conspiring against the rule in Iraq. The police conducted terrible investigations. They found the assailant’s watch and traces of his blood. They found his watch, which was made in Japan, specially for the Iraqi Republican Palace. They were meticulous. They took his fingerprints.”

The British police told Allawi that they would not be able to protect him permanently.

“You must leave for another hospital, and only the hospital director and the treating doctor would know your true identity... They took me to a hospital in Gloucestershire... Only the treating doctor and the hospital director knew my identity. I told the rest that I was from Lebanon and was injured in the war.”

Allawi said that his wife had a nervous breakdown during the first period after the attack. Then she got cancer and passed away.

The attacker falls into the trap

Allawi said that after the fall of the regime and his return to Baghdad, he received information that the assailant was in Türkiye.

“An Iraqi intelligence officer... showed me his picture and I recognized him... He said that the man was in Türkiye and was assigned by Iraqi intelligence to follow up on Iraqi opposition figures who travel through Kurdistan, to assassinate them, with your name at the forefront.”

Allawi said that when they informed the Turkish authorities of his presence on their land, they replied: “You are executing and killing us, we will not hand him over to you.

He added that the Americans asked the Turkish government to hand him over and set a trap to arrest him.

“They approached the Turkish government, asking it to tell the attacker to return to obtain another visa. He only had to enter Iraq and leave it via the Ibrahim Al-Khalil Bridge at the Zakho crossing in Kurdistan. They told him that he just had to cross the border and return to Türkiye to receive a 5-year visa. Masoud Barzani’s group, the Asayish, are present at the crossing. They received a signal from the Americans, so they immediately arrested him and sent him to detention in Baghdad.

“The Americans asked me to see him, but I refused so as not to do anything to him under the influence of anger. I also said that I am waiving my personal right; But the general right remains, which I cannot waive,” Allawi stated.


Allawi: I Refused to See Saddam Detained by the Occupation

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during his interview with Editor-in-Chief Ghassan Charbel (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during his interview with Editor-in-Chief Ghassan Charbel (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Allawi: I Refused to See Saddam Detained by the Occupation

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during his interview with Editor-in-Chief Ghassan Charbel (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during his interview with Editor-in-Chief Ghassan Charbel (Asharq Al-Awsat)

How difficult it is to talk about Saddam Hussein, despite the distance that separates us from the date of his execution, on Dec. 30, 2006. The truth is that the man is a provocateur, whether he resided in the palace or lied in the grave. His victims and enemies are many. His supporters are not few.

In Iraq, time does not heal wounds, but rather rubs salt into them. It is not easy for those who paid the price for Saddam’s injustice to read that he was leading resistance against the American occupation or that he was honest in his dealings with public money. Similarly, it is difficult for his supporters to accept that his image is limited to that of a cruel ruler, who bloodied his country and the region.

A few months ago, I met an Iraqi in an Arab capital, who had “working and friendly relations” with Saddam Hussein, paving the way for hundreds of meetings between them. The man asked that his identity remain anonymous for security reasons. He told me that he met Saddam Hussein twice after his ousting. The first was on the outskirts of Fallujah on April 11, 2003, two days after the fall of the regime, and the second was on July 19 in Baghdad, which was then under the control of the US forces.

He narrated that Saddam was close to the Firdos Square, when a US armored vehicle shot down his statue. He added that on the same night, from a nearby secret headquarters, Saddam led the first “resistance” operation against the Americans, which targeted positions of their forces in the vicinity of the Abu Hanifa al-Numan Mosque in Adhamiya, and that he almost personally participated in the attack, but his companions prevented him out of fear for his life.

He stated that Saddam had warned during a meeting in Baghdad in July that the “fall of Iraq will mean the extension of Iran’s influence to the Maghreb.”

The media profession taught us to deal with narrations with the necessary degree of reservation, and to search for more of them. For this purpose, I also met a man who worked in the palace alongside Saddam and asked him about his thoughts. The man criticized the decision to invade Kuwait, but he was keen to point out “the integrity of Saddam, who was accused by the media to have accumulated billions in secret accounts abroad or in his headquarters.”

He stressed that the real corruption occurred after the fall of the regime.

“You could say that he was cruel or even excessively cruel, but he considered plundering public money a kind of treason,” the former Iraqi official said.

He also asserted that Saddam was leading part of the resistance against the American occupation.

Governing Council member and later Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had the opportunity to visit the largest prison camp in modern Iraqi history, but he refused to do so. He recounted that two people abstained from this visit:

“I refrained from going because rejoicing is not our habit, especially when your opponent is not in a position to respond to you. Then, Saddam, despite everything he did to the country and to me personally, was the president of Iraq, and I did not want to see the president of Iraq held captive in an American prison,” Allawi stated.

Allawi was not against bringing Saddam to trial and imposing the necessary punishment on him. He said: “On the day of Saddam’s execution, I felt great pain. I had suggested to the Americans that a dialogue be held with the man, so that he might tell us the story of Iraq over the long years, during which he was the decision maker. I wanted the Iraqis to know what happened in the words of the man himself. Why did he fight Iran, and what were the circumstances of the war? Why did he invade Kuwait and how was the decision made? Why did he execute large numbers of opposition citizens and Baathists as well? Why did he launch terrible wars against the Kurds? Why did he assassinate opponents abroad or attempt to kill them, including me?”

He continued: “A conversation of this kind would have revealed the facts, showed responsibilities, and prompted those who admired Saddam to think about the fruits of his works. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The timing of the execution also increased Iraqis’ sympathy for him. Was it necessary to execute him at dawn on the day of Eid?”

Dismantling the army and the de-Baathification

I asked Allawi about the resistance and terrorism. He said: “The dissolution of the Iraqi army, the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and the de-Baathification measures pushed thousands of military personnel, employees, and partisans into the unknown. It is known that terrorism and terrorists tried to cover up with the resistance. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sought to create one or more rifts in Iraqi society. They found nothing better than to reinforce the sectarian approach through killings, bombings, and assassinations, and sometimes laying accusations against the Shiites, and at other times against the Sunnis.”

He went on to say: “Terrorism also benefited greatly from the de-Baathification... as at least five million Baathists and their families were isolated, uprooted from political and professional life, and deprived of their livelihoods, just as terrorism benefited from the dissolution of the security services and the Iraqi army. All of these were gifts from the occupation to terrorism, which found the appropriate environment to spread its poison in Iraq and work to destroy its social fabric.”

Saddam’s arrest

I asked Allawi again about Saddam, specifically about his relationship with the resistance, he replied: “I was visiting London and heard the news of Saddam Hussein’s arrest. I wasn’t surprised. He is not the type to run away, but rather confront, and he was leading the resistance.”

He recounted a conversation he had with some members of the resistance in Bustan in Abu Ghraib.

“I told a group of them: “It is shameful for you to fall into the hands of Al-Zarqawi when you are members of important tribes and senior military personnel? Why did you hand over your affairs to Al-Zarqawi and become terrorists?” They answered: “We are not terrorists, we are against the Americans.””

“In fact, they all loved Saddam and they still do. You ask me why Saddam remained popular in some circles despite everything he did. The main reason for this popularity is the misbehavior of the current rulers,” he stated.

I had to ask Allawi about Saddam’s involvement in squandering of public money.

Before the US invasion of Iraq, much was written in the international and Arab media about the amazing wealth possessed by Saddam. Some scenarios talked about billions of dollars that he deposited under pseudonyms in distant banks. It was also said that he stored huge amounts of currency, in addition to gold, in his palaces.

Many expected that the US soldiers who raided Saddam’s palaces and residences would succeed in uncovering the amazing wealth. Nothing of this kind happened. It was believed that Saddam, who squandered Iraq’s wealth in wars abroad and internally, must have bought large areas of land or placed his hand on them.

It was natural for the Iraqi opposition, after assuming power, to seek to open Saddam’s financial books. I asked Allawi and he replied: “After the fall of Saddam Hussein, we conducted investigations and did not find anything against him (on the financial issue). We did not find a property registered in his name. Everything is registered in the name of the Iraqi government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Revolutionary Command Council... Even his private plane belonged to a company owned by an Iraqi intelligence group. I mean the private plane that flies long distances.”

“He did neither like money and nor was he looking for it. He aimed for power and influence. This is Saddam. He was conservative on a personal level...very conservative,” Allawi said.


Lebanon Caretaker PM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Berri’s Dialogue Call is in Everyone’s Interest

Mikati attends the UN General Assembly sessions in New York. (The Lebanese government’s X page)
Mikati attends the UN General Assembly sessions in New York. (The Lebanese government’s X page)
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Lebanon Caretaker PM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Berri’s Dialogue Call is in Everyone’s Interest

Mikati attends the UN General Assembly sessions in New York. (The Lebanese government’s X page)
Mikati attends the UN General Assembly sessions in New York. (The Lebanese government’s X page)

Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, has blamed the Christian political parties for the delay in implementing the reforms required by the international community and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

He stressed that his government has completed draft reform laws and referred them to Parliament for endorsement, but the Christian factions refuse to convene, in light of the failure to elect a new president for the country.

Mikati acknowledged that electing a president constitutes “the beginning of the solution to the crises.” He said that Speaker Nabih Berri’s call on the various political blocs to hold a national dialogue was in everyone’s interest.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the caretaker Prime Minister said that Lebanon was a founding member of the UN and remained present and active, even if Lebanon’s crises are no longer a priority in light of other international events.

Mikati said he was confident that the main problem today in Lebanon was the election of a president. In this context, he expressed his belief that the “path drawn by Speaker Nabih Berri in his recent speech, which is based on a seven-day dialogue followed by continuous sessions to elect a president, is the best solution.”

“When the presidency remains vacant for a year, and all means have been exhausted to elect a president, the solution proposed by Berri becomes logical,” he stated.

In response to the opposition’s claim that Iran’s influence was preventing the election of a president, Mikati did not deny that Tehran-backed Hezbollah had a role in Lebanon, but asked: “Did the Lebanese meet and make a decision and the party oppose it?”

He pointed to the meetings of the Quintet committee on Lebanon, which includes representatives from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt, saying: “I hope that in their next session, they will call on [the Lebanese blocs] to respond to the dialogue initiative in order to end the presidential vacuum.”

Mikati said that the election of the president “will not completely solve Lebanon’s crisis, but will be the door or a window to form a new government and carry out the required reforms.”

He pointed to the decision of the Christian parties, led by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces (LF), to boycott Parliament’s legislative sessions in light of the presidential vacuum, stressing that electing a president was their priority.

The premier emphasized that his government could not be blamed for the delay of reforms, saying that it had sent draft laws to Parliament for approval.

“How can the crisis be resolved in light of this [parliamentary] boycott?,” he asked.

On Hezbollah, he said the party was “cooperative and positive in terms of supporting most of the required reforms, but the Christian team does not see the need to address any urgent files before electing a president.”

Mikati criticized those who say that Saudi Arabia does not consider Lebanon as a priority. He said: “For me, Saudi Arabia remains, in all cases, the mother, father, and brother for Lebanon.”

“When you want to anticipate the future, you have to look to the past. [Saudi Arabia] has always supported the country. I am certain that the Kingdom will not abandon Lebanon,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.


Tokyo to Enhance Security Coordination, Strengthen Strategic Saudi-Japanese Dialogue

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (Reuters)
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (Reuters)
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Tokyo to Enhance Security Coordination, Strengthen Strategic Saudi-Japanese Dialogue

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (Reuters)
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (Reuters)

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who is currently visiting the region, emphasized the strategic nature of the relationship between Riyadh and Tokyo, citing significant potential to deepen bilateral ties.

Hayashi disclosed that his discussions with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, aim to enhance the longstanding friendly relations between Japan and the Kingdom, explore new areas of cooperation, and increase coordination regarding regional and global security challenges within the framework of bilateral strategic dialogue.

The meeting between the Japanese top diplomat and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ foreign ministers presents a significant opportunity for the exchange of strategic perspectives on regional and global affairs.

According to Hayashi, the meeting sheds light on the expanding economic relations between Japan and the region, where trade volumes exceeded $100 billion in 2022.

“I am confident that this meeting will be an important opportunity to exchange strategic perspectives on regional and global affairs, as well as to highlight the growing economic relations between Japan and the GCC countries, with trade volumes exceeding $100 billion last year,” Hayashi told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Moreover, the Japanese foreign minister said he looks forward to exchanging viewpoints on matters of mutual interest.

Hayashi pointed out that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and GCC Secretary-General Jassim Mohammed Al-Budaiwi reached an agreement in July to resume negotiations on a free trade agreement.

The foreign minister anticipates that the agreement will serve as a legal framework for enhancing trade and investment between Japan and the GCC countries, with hopes of concluding the negotiations within a short timeframe.

“It is worth noting that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Jassim Mohammed Al-Budaiwi, the GCC Secretary-General, agreed during their meeting in July to resume negotiations on a free trade agreement between Japan and the GCC countries in 2024, with preliminary discussions set to begin,” highlighted Hayashi.

“It is expected that this agreement will serve as a legal framework to enhance trade and investment between Japan and the GCC countries,” he added.

In his capacity as Japanese Foreign Minister, Hayashi hoped that he could work together with GCC top diplomats to conclude negotiations in a brief amount of time.

“I will closely follow the outcomes of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the Middle East in July last year, during which he held a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where they agreed to establish a strategic dialogue between the two foreign ministers to enhance political and economic cooperation and coordinate efforts on the international stage,” said Hayashi.

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia is a vital partner for Japan in the energy sector and that bilateral cooperation has rapidly expanded beyond this sector, encompassing new areas such as finance, tourism, human resource development, sports, culture, and entertainment.

“One of the most important areas of new bilateral cooperation is promoting the shift towards a green economy and carbon emissions reduction,” revealed the top diplomat in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.

“This is under a new initiative aimed at transforming the Middle East into a global hub for clean energy and vital minerals,” he added.

“Through the Saudi-Japanese ‘Manar’ initiative launched during Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit, Japan seeks to develop joint projects related to the safe use of hydrogen and ammonia technologies and efficient energy transportation and distribution,” explained Hayashi.

When asked to assess Japan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Hayashi said: “Japan attaches great importance to its strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, considering the leading role that the Kingdom plays in the Arab and Islamic world.”

“Based on the friendly relationship that has evolved over many years between the two countries, the partnership has expanded significantly, particularly in recent years within the framework of the Saudi-Japan Vision 2030,” he added.

“Through discussions I have had with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Kingdom’s Foreign Minister, in several meetings or via telephone conversations, I can confirm that Japan and Saudi Arabia have substantial potential to deepen and broaden their bilateral relations,” affirmed Hayashi.

Regarding the nature of Saudi-Japanese ties, Hayashi said: “First and foremost, Saudi Arabia has been and continues to be a significant partner for Japan in the energy sector, especially given its longstanding role in ensuring energy security by providing stable oil supplies to Japan over many years.”

“However, this is not the sole aspect of the partnership between the two nations,” he added.

“At present, the Kingdom is actively pursuing industrial diversification and carbon emissions reduction under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as both the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister, within the framework of Saudi Vision 2030,” elaborated Hayashi.

It is worth noting that Japan has fully supported social and economic reforms adopted by Saudi Arabia since 2017.

“I am pleased to note that cooperation between the two countries has rapidly expanded beyond the energy sector in recent years, encompassing new areas such as finance, tourism, human resource development, sports, culture, and entertainment,” said Hayashi.

Japan is actively supporting the vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and both Tokyo and Riyadh share a common perspective on the rule of law, stressed Hayashi, adding that he looks forward to working more closely with Saudi Arabia on the international stage to achieve this goal.

“Undoubtedly, the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Japan contributes to the preservation of peace and stability in the region and the world,” noted Hayashi.

“Despite the improved relations among Middle Eastern nations and enhanced cooperation among them, the open and rules-based international system remains threatened worldwide.”

“To safeguard and empower this international system, and to achieve peace, stability, and prosperity both regionally and globally, Japan vigorously supports the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

“Given that Saudi Arabia and Japan share a common perspective on the importance of the rule of law, I look forward to working more closely with the Kingdom on the international stage to achieve this objective,” said Hayashi.

As for developments on the international level, Hayashi underlined Saudi Arabia’s efforts to address the Ukrainian crisis through a recent Jeddah meeting, which involved advisors from more than 42 countries worldwide, providing an important opportunity to discuss how to achieve a just and lasting peace in Ukraine.

“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine not only poses a threat to the security of the European continent but also represents a shameful act that violates the principles of the United Nations Charter, including sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Hayashi.

“It has had a negative impact on the international community as a whole, including in weaker countries, due to the rising prices of food, fertilizers, and energy resulting from this aggression,” he added.

“I take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the leadership of Saudi Arabia and its efforts in holding the Jeddah meeting on Ukraine, which included more than 40 countries, including nations from the Global South such as India, Brazil, and South Africa, as well as China, participating for the first time.”

As per Hayashi, the meeting provided a significant opportunity to discuss how to stop Russian aggression as soon as possible and achieve a just and lasting peace in Ukraine.

“Adherence to international law and the preservation of the international system based on the rule of law are the responsibility of all nations and serve the interests of everyone,” stressed Hayashi.

Following the fruitful outcomes of the Jeddah meeting, Japan continues to support the free and open international system based on the rule of law in cooperation with its partners in the international community, including Saudi Arabia.


Raytheon: Saudi Prowess in Supplying Defense Industries Globally

Tom Laliberty, President of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Tom Laliberty, President of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Raytheon: Saudi Prowess in Supplying Defense Industries Globally

Tom Laliberty, President of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Tom Laliberty, President of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Tom Laliberty, President of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon, unveiled that the company was collaborating with the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces to explore the potential of introducing new capabilities within the Kingdom, as part of its plans to act as a reliable partner for the Air Defense Forces, as well as its continuous initiatives to modernize and sustain the Patriot air and missile defense system.

These capabilities could include the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) and the Fixed Site-Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System (FS-LIDS).

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Laliberty said that Raytheon was looking forward to integrating these capabilities with the existing Patriot systems.

He pointed to long-range concepts available in the Patriot system, medium-range systems with the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), in addition to short-range systems for countering unmanned aircraft such as the Fixed Site-Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System (LIDS).

“We seek to provide integration through all of these,” he underlined, adding that his company was working with the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces on these types of concepts.

- A trusted partner

As part of its plans in Saudi Arabia, Raytheon’s priorities revolve around continuing to serve as a reliable partner for the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces, and to modernize and maintain the Patriot air and missile defense system, Laliberty remarked.

He stressed his company’s ongoing participation in Saudi Arabia’s plans to localize the military industries sector, referring to the announcement of the manufacture of major parts of the enhanced guidance missiles for the advanced Patriot system, during the works of the World Defense Show in Riyadh last year.

- Localization of the military industry

Regarding the factors that help Saudi Arabia to localize the industry, Laliberty emphasized the importance of Vision 2030, which he said opened the way for a long-term plan that focuses on a wide range of industrial sectors.

“The Kingdom put in place an infrastructure to achieve this vision. For example, the General Authority for Military Industries is one of the agencies that we work closely with to provide opportunities for localization,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Laliberty noted that Raytheon places great importance on resources, as well as companies that possess technical capabilities within their existing operations or wish to invest in capital and knowledge transfer to develop competences in the country.

“There is no doubt that leadership, commitment and desire will ultimately lead to the success of this work,” he stated.

- The Jeddah Factory and the Patriot System

According to Laliberty, the dedicated factory in Jeddah for the local production of Prime Power Units (PPUs) used to power Raytheon’s AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar, which was inaugurated in cooperation with the Zahid Industries, would be a global supplier for Raytheon, not only for Saudi Arabia, stressing that the country has extensive capabilities to become part of the supply chain for defense industries.

“Our experience so far with Zahid Industries in the manufacture of main power units is very positive, as they will work on manufacturing a product that will not only be used in Saudi Arabia, but in our global supply chain,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

- Threats to the region

In light of the regional threats observed over the past years, , Raytheon’s senior executive pointed to the “opponent’s use of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, as well as a large number of drones or unmanned systems”, adding that Saudi Arabia possesses the THAAD system, which provides the outer layer of defense for long-range ballistic missiles, in addition to the Patriot missile system, which is a combination of air and missile defense capabilities to counter tactical ballistic missiles, all types of hostile aircraft, cruise missiles, and large drones.

He added that Raytheon has the advanced national surface-to-air missile system (NASAMS), which is characterized by its ability to confront cruise missiles, aircraft and large drones, in addition to the Fixed Site-Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System (LIDS).

“The ability of commanders on the battlefield to detect threats as quickly as possible gives them the greatest amount of time to identify the threats and the means to counter them,” the president of Land Warfare and Air Defense at Raytheon told Asharq Al-Awsat.

- Artificial Intelligence

Asked about artificial intelligence, Laliberty replied that it was an industry that had been around for decades. He explained that some Raytheon products have AI algorithms, and are often designed for a specific purpose.

“I think this is where the future lies, where you use AI as a true decision-making assistant to better help commanders organize battles,” he remarked.

- Riyadh’s World Defense Show

Laliberty confirmed that Raytheon would participate in the World Defense Show next year, through the new brand RTX, which was recently announced through its three subsidiaries, Raytheon, Collins Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney.

“We are looking forward to participating in the exhibition, as we had a wide turnout last year,” he stated.

Regarding coordination between the GCC countries in defense systems, Laliberty said that it was great to see the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council having a dialogue about the systems and capabilities that they need.

He added, however, that it was in the Gulf Sates’ interests not to focus on interoperability, the concept of exchanging systems when needed, which can only happen if countries had the same systems.

He concluded by saying: “There is no doubt that we see strong cooperation between the Gulf countries today, and I believe that there is an urgent need for that.”


Lebanese Internal Security Chief Warns of Political Impact on Stability

Maj. Gen. Imad Othman honors officers retiring (ISF Website)
Maj. Gen. Imad Othman honors officers retiring (ISF Website)
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Lebanese Internal Security Chief Warns of Political Impact on Stability

Maj. Gen. Imad Othman honors officers retiring (ISF Website)
Maj. Gen. Imad Othman honors officers retiring (ISF Website)

In less than nine months, if the current political deadlock in Lebanon persists, the management of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), a pivotal sector in the country's security, will transition to interim management. This pattern follows that of many other affected official institutions due to the presidential vacancy.

Fundamental Christian factions have declined to make appointments in the absence of a president.

Nine months from now, give or take a week, the General Director of Lebanon’s ISF, Maj. Gen. Imad Othman, will reach the retirement age.

The notion of a vacuum doesn't exist in the realm of security; instead, there are makeshift measures that institutions resort to in order to fill the void.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that things will return to complete normalcy after this date, despite Othman’s attempt to instill a sense of reassurance.

“The institution is capable of continuing its duties; it is brimming with competencies,” Othman assured Asharq Al-Awsat.

Othman believes that Lebanon’s security forces are capable of persisting due to the mentality guiding its members and the discipline on which they are raised.

“There is a strong sense of responsibility, and that alone justifies the continued operation of the security forces despite all the challenges that Lebanon has faced since 2019, referring to the financial crisis that has hit the country and pushed the national currency’s exchange rate to unprecedented levels, consequently affecting the purchasing power of military salaries in general,” explained Othman.

The most compelling motivation for their continuity, however, lies in “the security forces’ understanding that there are those who desire to take their place and those who seek chaos instead of stability.”

“Our lives are built on caution against the unknown,” added Othman.

Moreover, the security forces had established a centralized administration for security decisions.

They formed mobile units to counter rioting, military forces for security intervention, and an information division for combined technical and military intervention.

Meanwhile, the small precincts dispersed throughout the country serve as vigilant eyes and ears, receiving complaints and preparing to address them.

Othman also expressed significant concern regarding the situation of the security forces due to “clear targeting.”

He doesn’t provide extensive details, but he said: “I sense a threat to the institution.”

“There are those who target it because it upholds security in the country.”

“I don't want to go into specifics, but there is a direct and unjustifiable targeting of the security forces.”

“However, this is an institution that has been around for over 160 years, and ending its role is not an easy task,” affirmed Othman.

Othman asserted that the security situation is under control.

He goes even further, affirming that the security situation is “stable.”

“We are pursuing crime and are capable of managing it,” he said.

“However, there are other diverse issues, such as security hotspots emerging in certain areas, taking on a military character, like the Palestinian camps where sporadic fighting occurs,” noted Othman.

Additionally, Othman points to another significant security concern, which is the Syrian displacement, with apprehensions that “security concerns might escalate due to it.”

“There are many crimes linked to the Syrian presence. This places pressure on the security forces and the prison infrastructure in Lebanon, as the number of Syrian prisoners is now approaching a third of the total prison population,” he explained.

“About 17.8% of convicts are Syrian and 43% of detainees are Syrian,” revealed Othman.

In short, Othman affirmed that crime control is very effective, but the danger lies in the political impact on security.

It’s usually difficult for a security figure to openly discuss politics, but the impression left by visitors to Othman suggests a profound dissatisfaction with the “casualness” with which some politicians approach security matters and their lack of concern for avoiding “red lines” as long as it benefits them.


Al-Sheikh to Asharq Al-Awsat: We are Working Gradually to Eliminate Destructive Ideas

Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Al-Sheikh to Asharq Al-Awsat: We are Working Gradually to Eliminate Destructive Ideas

Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Dawah, and Guidance Dr. Abdullatif Al-Sheikh said that the ministry was gradually applying a strategy to save the country from destructive ideas that nurture divisions in the homeland.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Sheikh noted that the ministry has been monitoring mosques and has exempted a small number of preachers from their duty, due to their deviant ideology.

A number of preachers have used social media platforms to spread extremist ideas that contradict the values of moderation, the minister said, adding: “We do not care about those... They talk about ignorance and hatred and few people listen to them...”

Al-Sheikh stressed that Saudi Arabia has long suffered from extremist ideas, which resulted in the killing of innocent people in mosques and others.

“These actions used to take place in the name of religion, preaching and guidance. [Preachers] used these means to reach their goals, either to destroy the country or to steal donations and zakat... This was in the past, but now the citizens have become aware and conscious... The state is strong and the regulations are applied,” he remarked.

There are about 90,000 mosques in Saudi Arabia, and this number is increasing day by day.

With this expansion, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs assumed an important role, Al-Sheikh said, beginning with examining the situation in mosques and studying the conditions of all preachers without exception.

He added that more than 95 percent of preachers maintained their duties, while the rest of them were exempted due to their deviant ideology and teachings.

“All mosques are subject to follow-up and support, including the small ones,” the minister underlined.

In this context, Al-Sheikh confirmed that the ministry did a very great job and had a well-thought-out strategy that was gradually applied to save Saudi Arabia from those with destructive ideas that were feeding divisions and seeking to drag the country into hotbeds of strife.

In a step to end the exploitation of platforms and mosques, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has developed a special program that does not allow any association or imam to employ any preacher or lecturer, except by referring to the regulations of program, which seeks to eliminate all ideas that contradict the Qur’an and the Islamic teachings.

He clarified that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has worked to uproot elements he described as “noxious and malignant.”

“We continue to monitor, and these matters will hold no sway,” the minister told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Al-Sheikh’s remarks came in the wake of the conclusion of the international Islamic conference, which was held under the patronage of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The conference, organized by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Makkah, saw the participation of 150 scholars and muftis from the heads of Islamic centers and associations in 85 countries around the globe.

According to Al-Sheikh, this international gathering had many goals, which could be summarized in “strengthening links of communication and integration between the departments of religious affairs, ifta’s, and sheikhdoms in the world.”

“This is an important and powerful factor in changing the conceived ideas about Islam, in addition to demonstrating the efforts of these sheikhdoms to achieve the principles of moderation and to promote the values of tolerance and coexistence among peoples,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The minister also emphasized that the conference served noble objectives, by spreading true Islamic values grounded in the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings.

These values promote moderation, compassion, and reject violence, extremism, fanaticism, and terrorism, he emphasized.

Al-Sheikh added that the conference sought to promote Islamic unity among Muslims, while fighting extremist ideas, and protecting societies from atheism and dissolution. He pointed out that all scholars unanimously agreed to unite in combating terrorism and spreading moderation and tolerance.

He went on to say that there was a collective awareness at the level of nations and societies to combat such extremism.

The Minister of Islamic Affairs affirmed that Saudi Arabia paid great attention to the affairs of Islam and Muslims around the world, by addressing their needs and aspirations, and providing them with support in various fields.

“Saudi Arabia is steadfast in its faith, proud of its values, and calls upon the entire world to embrace this approach that embodies goodness, mercy, advocacy, moderation, and the rejection of extremism, radicalism, and atheism,” he added.


AANES Utilizes Half of Syrian Oil Wells, Traders Sell to Damascus at Symbolic Rates

File photo from the Al-Omar oil field in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The image was captured after the conclusion of military operations and the expulsion of ISIS elements (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo from the Al-Omar oil field in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The image was captured after the conclusion of military operations and the expulsion of ISIS elements (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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AANES Utilizes Half of Syrian Oil Wells, Traders Sell to Damascus at Symbolic Rates

File photo from the Al-Omar oil field in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The image was captured after the conclusion of military operations and the expulsion of ISIS elements (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo from the Al-Omar oil field in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The image was captured after the conclusion of military operations and the expulsion of ISIS elements (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Over the course of twelve years of ongoing conflict in Syria, the dossier of oil and energy has remained an enigmatic puzzle. Ever since oil and gas fields slipped from the grip of government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad at the close of 2012, control over these resources has shifted among various entities.

It wasn't until 2016 that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by an international coalition led by Washington, managed to wrest control of the oil-rich and natural gas-abundant towns and settlements of Shaddadi, Al-Hol, and Al-Jabsa, southeast of the city of Al-Hasakah, from the clutches of the terrorist group ISIS.

Later in 2017, ISIS terrorists were expelled by the SDF from oil fields in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, located in eastern Syria. These fields used to yield a daily production of 120,000 barrels of heavy oil prior to the outbreak of the 2011 conflict.

Hassan Kocher, deputy co-chair of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the administration invests in less than half of the wells and fields in its areas of influence, approximately 150,000 barrels per day, noting that production was around 385,000 barrels per day before the 2011 war.

Kocher refuted accusations directed at the AANES and US forces of plundering Syrian oil or monopolizing these resources, citing evidence of a portion of the production being sold to regime-affiliated traders at nominal prices compared to global rates.

Since the onset of the Syrian war, the regions encompassing oil fields and their wells have come under the control of various military factions.

Following 2014, especially in the outskirts of the cities of Deir Ezzor and Al-Hasakah, these fields faced military assaults from armed radical groups and extremist Islamic organizations.

These attacks significantly impacted these fields and wells, with some being destroyed and others subjected to vandalism, leading to a decline in production.

With limited resources, the AANES managed to harness a portion equivalent to less than half of the pre-2011 production from these wells to meet the energy and fuel needs of the region’s inhabitants, disclosed Kocher.

When asked about the status of oil and gas fields post their liberation of ISIS, Kocher said: “After SDF forces liberated fields in the outskirts of Deir Ezzor (2019) and Al-Hasakah (2016), they encountered logistical obstacles that hindered the production of many wells.”

“Some of the equipment was stolen, and another portion was deliberately vandalized, aiming to undermine the region’s economy,” added Kocher.

According to the deputy co-chair, remaining wells require maintenance, restoration, experts, technicians, and significant resources that the AANES does not possess.

“Additionally, the siege imposed on our areas from all sides has significantly contributed to the decline of the oil sector,” added Kocher.

As for revenues collected from oil and gas production under the AANES, Kocher said they flow back to the structures of the administration and local councils that oversee the regions, aimed at covering the expenses of the military and security forces safeguarding their geographical borders.

“These revenues also contribute to the overall budget, enabling the provision of essential services for the region’s residents and supporting the payment of salaries for workers and employees,” clarified Kocher.

Talking about the buying and selling operations conducted with Damascus and other areas of influence, Kocher said there are “no official contracts or established methods due to the fact that all borders are besieged and closed.”

“There is also no agreement for the sale and purchase of crude oil, neither with the Syrian government nor with other entities,” added Kocher.

“Here, it is crucial to emphasize the necessity of establishing a mechanism to regulate these operations, as it would be a positive development in serving all Syrians, regardless of their geographical location, as we are a part of Syria and these resources belong to all Syrians,” he affirmed.

Buying and selling operations are conducted through traders affiliated with the regime, and the quantities extracted nowadays barely suffice for the region’s population needs.

“Despite this, a portion of the extracted oil is sold through these traders to Damascus, while another portion is bought by traders for resale to other areas,” said Kocher, asserting that the AANES does not monopolize these resources, contrary to the claims of both the government and opposing factions.

“It has become widely known that the administration’s own regions are grappling with severe crises in the distribution of household gas and diesel fuel,” noted Kocher.

As for accusations of plundering Syrian oil leveled by the Syrian regime and international parties against the SDF and US forces, Kocher asserted that those allegations are utterly false.

“These claims are entirely baseless, both in their entirety and in their details,” said Kocher.

“The international coalition and US forces have not intervened in the oil issue.”

“Officially, they state that their tasks are limited to combating and defeating the terrorist organization ISIS and eliminating its sleeper cells in eastern Syria.”

Regarding the AANES presenting the US-led international coalition with a project for building an oil refinery, Kocher admits the administration had submitted such a proposal.

“Given that our regions are surrounded on all sides and lack official crossings, these efforts have not succeeded in establishing such a facility,” revealed Kocher.

“To this day, oil refining continues to be carried out using primitive methods that negatively impact environmental safety, as well as the overall economic cycle of northeastern Syria due to the absence of oil investments,” he added.


Azerbaijan Presidential Advisor: We Are Establishing a Strong Strategic Relationship with Saudi Arabia

Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan. Photo: Yazeed Al-Samrani
Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan. Photo: Yazeed Al-Samrani
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Azerbaijan Presidential Advisor: We Are Establishing a Strong Strategic Relationship with Saudi Arabia

Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan. Photo: Yazeed Al-Samrani
Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan. Photo: Yazeed Al-Samrani

Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan, has affirmed that his country is in the process of establishing a robust strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat published Wednesday, Hajiyev revealed that his recent visit to the Kingdom is part of the effort to discuss the merits of enhancing bilateral relations and fostering comprehensive cooperation between the two nations across various domains, notably in the realm of renewable energy projects.

“My visit comes within the framework of enhancing the deep bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, and furthering cooperation across various fields and exploring new opportunities,” said Hajiyev.

“These two nations share a history of traditional friendship and camaraderie,” he affirmed.

“The relationship between our two countries can aptly be described as one of friendship, brotherhood, and partnership.”

“The Azerbaijani people deeply appreciate and hold in high esteem the unwavering stance of our sister nation, Saudi Arabia, in condemning the military aggression by Armenia against Azerbaijan.”

Saudi Arabia’s principled stand, in alignment with international justice, United Nations Security Council resolutions, principles of international law, and Islamic solidarity, serves as a living example to the world, asserted Hajiyev.

“Our nations support each other within the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and other international institutions.”

“We hold in high regard Saudi Arabia’s role in fostering Azerbaijan's ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the League of Arab States.”

He wished Saudi Arabia success in hosting Expo 2030 and said he highly values the Kingdom’s efforts in maintaining peace and security in the region and the world.

Furthermore, Hajiyev affirmed that Azerbaijan unequivocally condemns missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, viewing them as unacceptable acts.

As for relations between Baku and Riyadh, the presidential advisor said they were “evolving day by day.”

“Tourism is one of the crucial sectors for us, with the number of direct flights between Azerbaijan and the Kingdom on the rise,” revealed Hajiyev.

In 2022, around 100,000 Saudi nationals visited Azerbaijan.

“We anticipate further progress, as a matter of fact, we aspire to advance our relations with Saudi Arabia in economic and trade sectors, increase investments, and collaborate in areas such as agriculture and food security,” Hajiyev told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He expected Saudi companies to actively participate in the reconstruction process of the liberated lands in Azerbaijan.

As for Azerbaijan having any plans to develop and bolster ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Hajiyev said: “Azerbaijan has historical relations with members of the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia.”

“We believe that establishing institutional cooperation between Gulf states and Azerbaijan is of paramount importance.”

There exists an MoU outlining a consultation mechanism between the General Secretariat of the GCC and the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, he said.

“We can engage in a security dialogue between the Gulf states and Azerbaijan to address regional and international security matters.”

“Furthermore, we require further collaboration in the realm of economic and trade relations, as well as expanding humanitarian cooperation,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat

He affirmed that there is significant potential for cooperation between Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and Gulf states, especially the Kingdom.

Additionally, Hajiyev expressed anticipation for collaboration with Riyadh in the renewable energy sector, citing Saudi company “ACWA Power” investing in Azerbaijan.

When asked about his country’s relations with Iran, Hajiyev said: “Iran is Azerbaijan’s neighbor.”

“Azerbaijan maintains relations with its neighbors based on principles of mutual respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty, and non-interference in internal affairs,” he asserted.

“Azerbaijan and Iran share a historical neighborhood, but the recent attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Iran and the killing of an embassy member have led to tension and misunderstanding in our relations,” he noted.

“Diplomatic channels are currently engaged, and relevant Iranian officials are also visiting Azerbaijan.”

“Dialogue continues at the foreign ministerial level to mitigate these tensions and misunderstandings,” he added.

Regarding future energy security, Hajiyev remarked: “Azerbaijan is a traditional exporter of carbon hydrogen energy.”

“However, as announced by the President of Azerbaijan, the country is now transitioning to producing and exporting green energy.”

This is part of the country’s economic diversification strategy, explained Hajiyev.

“Azerbaijan holds immense potential in green energy,” he said, adding that his country is currently advancing international cooperation in this field.

According to an agreement between Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania, and Hungary, an undersea cable line will be established beneath the Black Sea, with a focus on transmitting green energy.

On whether Azerbaijan is seeking to join OPEC, Hajiyev noted that his country has the OPEC formula which has provided an opportunity for cooperation between both Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia to contribute to the stability of oil prices, ensuring the proper balance between supply and demand.

“We actively collaborate and contribute to matters related to the OPEC format,” he said.

“In this regard, frequent reciprocal visits, meetings, and consultations between our energy ministers are of great significance,” clarified Hajiyev.


Shukria Barakzai to Asharq Al-Awsat: I was on Taliban’s Hated List

Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Shukria Barakzai to Asharq Al-Awsat: I was on Taliban’s Hated List

Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)

Shukria Barakzai, the former Afghan ambassador to Norway and a human rights activist, said she was on the Taliban's wanted list after the fall of Kabul in 2021, and attributed her successful escape from the Afghan capital to the assistance provided by the British.

“I was on the (Taliban’s) hated list, and they were looking for me after the fall of Kabul, in August 2021, until I was able to leave the Afghan capital thanks to the help of the British,” Shukria Barakzai, who is also ethnic Pashtun parliamentarian, told Asharq Al-Awsat in an exclusive interview.

In November 2014, Barakzai survived a suicide car bombing during the tenure of former President Ashraf Ghani, who condemned the terrorist attack.

The explosion, which took place a few meters away from the parliament headquarters in Kabul, failed to achieve its goal of killing the Afghan parliamentarian and journalist, but led to the death of three civilians and the injury of 22 others, most of whom were university students.

Answering Asharq Al-Awsat’s questions via voice messages on WhatsApp from London, Barakzai said: “It was not only the Taliban that threatened me, but also the corruption mafia and businessmen whom I exposed under the dome of parliament... They hate me, and I always knew that, but I didn’t pay much attention to their criticism.”

Commenting on the current situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, she stated: “This group does not have any kind of definition of the type of state they pursue, the type of rights and duties that citizens enjoy, and what the (Taliban) as an actual government can offer (to the people).”

“In addition, the (Taliban) regime has not gained any kind of recognition from the international community and neighboring countries. As for the women of Afghanistan, they have been erased from (public) life, from work, education, social space and politics. Unfortunately, the dramatic change reveals to us the deep challenges facing our country,” the former diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Barakzai recounted that she was in the country when the Taliban seized power. She stayed at Kabul Airport during the evacuations in August 2021, until she was able to get out via a military plane to Brize Norton Airport in Britain.

“I was not someone who could hide his name, face, or voice. I was very familiar to the Afghan people, including members of the Taliban. It was a big challenge for me, and the (Taliban) members were chasing me. I was on their hatred list... Fortunately, the United Kingdom made a lot of efforts for me inside Afghanistan, and (eventually) I was evacuated to London with the help of the British and Americans,” she said.

Barakzai has five children, who all live in Europe. She noted that her eldest daughter was married and working in medicine, while her second daughter was a university student and the third was preparing to join the university.

She said in this regard: “Fortunately, none of my children decided to work in the political field, because they probably know what the life of a politician would be like. However, they are all women’s rights and human rights activists. They also show more concern for the environment. Therefore, they understand what it means to be a responsible citizen.”

Recalling the day when she was attacked and injured in Kabul before she left Afghanistan, Barakzai told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I remember that moment, November 16, 2014... It was in the morning, exactly at 10, and I remember how one was paying a heavy price for raising his voice against warlords and tycoons, drugs and the Taliban, that is, against all forms of extremism. This wasn’t the first attack against me, but it was a wake-up call for other women inside Afghanistan.”

She concluded: “The truth is that accepting women in a male dominated society like Afghanistan is not an easy task, but I will never give up. We will not concede, not only me, but I am talking about the women of Afghanistan. Of course, we will have more women in parliament if fair elections are held.”