Jeffrey to Asharq Al-Awsat: Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria

Jeffrey to Asharq Al-Awsat: Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria
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Jeffrey to Asharq Al-Awsat: Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria

Jeffrey to Asharq Al-Awsat: Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria

US Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for the Syrian war and the fight against ISIS, said the US supports "in every possible way", diplomatically and logistically, Israeli raids on Iranian sites in Syria.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeffrey said that "Iran has very established footholds in the Syrian state and within Syrian society, "noting that many Arab countries" will never be in harmony with a man like (President Bashar) Assad. They can claim that they can distance him from the Iranian orbit, but I see that this is absolutely not possible."

The American envoy emphasized that his country will continue to impose sanctions on Damascus, and "we support the entry into force of sanctions on the Syrian regime until its acceptance of a political solution," explaining: "Economic sanctions make the situation worse for the circle of people very close to the head of the regime, and this is what we are always trying to reach."

And we want to make it clear to these figures that there is no clear future for them if they continue to support Assad. They should rather press for political transition. ” He pointed out that the recent Russian media campaign against Damascus is evidence that Moscow is also aware of “what kind of ally” they have in Syria today. He said that Idlib is "the citadel of opposition” and will not return to Damascus soon.

Here is the text of the exclusive interview that Asharq Al-Awsat did by Phone Thursday:

· Let’s start with Covid-19. Could you give me your assessment? Also, yesterday in the Security Council the Russians once again rejected reopening Yarobiyeh, the crossing between Iraq and Syria. What is your assessment on that as well?

First of all, we’re following the situation of the coronavirus throughout Syria. We have to look at it in three different areas; the northeast where we have the best eyes on, the northwest where we rely on Turkish information, and of course the regime areas which are totally under-reported and under-represented. We have only notional information from the regime areas. We think that there’s a considerable amount of cases there, but we can’t measure it. We do not see at the moment a significant outbreak of the virus in the northwest, but of course with so many people jammed together and with such bad medical support, particularly as the Russians and Syrians have bombed most of the hospitals and other medical facilities there, that would be of great concern.

In the northeast, there have been one or two reports of infections but we are yet to see a significant outbreak.

To some degree the few reported cases are due to the limit on travel in and out of the country, other than for the Iranians who we think spread it initially in regime areas. So the effects of it have been limited but that can change at any time. The UN is worried about this, the WHO is worried about this, and we are as well.

The Russians and the regime by blocking the transfer of medical supplies to those areas where Assad does not hold sway of course have made the situation worse. It’s Assad’s fault. It’s his fault in his own areas for having devastated his own country and not caring about its people. He is even more at fault in those areas not under his control that he denies assistance to, even though that is his responsibility as the sovereign entity in Syria.

*Do you think being in this pandemic paves the way for renewal or updating of the UN Security Council resolution regarding the humanitarian border crossing? Because I think we’re supposed to be in June/July, and directions in December?

In July, UNSC 2504 has to be renewed. It is our hope that Russia will renew at a minimum the two crossings in the northwest. We are very, very insistent on that, and we would also like to see a new crossing to service the northeast. As you know the crossing there, the Rabia crossing, was blocked from being included in the new resolution by the Russians and Chinese so that is where we are.

· As you may know in the last few weeks, even months, since the beginning of the pandemic the Russians and the regime twisted the whole argument. They’re saying now that they’re blaming the US and the European sanctions. What is your reaction to that?

The collapse of the Lebanon monetary and financial system has nothing to do with our sanctions, and that is perhaps the biggest impact on Assad. Frankly his own bad management is the second reason he is in such dire economic shape, and then thirdly, it’s the fact that this country is still at war and important areas, including agriculture and energy-producing areas, are not under his control, nor should they be until he accepts a compromise political settlement. That is why he is faced with great economic difficulties that are impacting all of the people. Our sanctions do not include sanctions on humanitarian or medical goods, those items can flow freely. And the sanctions are carefully selected and packaged to target regime figures and not the average person.

· In May/June I think the Europeans, the EU are supposed to renew their sanctions, so what is your view on that?

We are very much in favor of these sanctions staying in place until the Regime accepts a political solution. We see the glimmer of hope in the longer-term ceasefire in Idlib and the regime’s acquiescence in a common agenda for the constitutional committee in Geneva. These things would not have happened without the tough position of the international community, be it the Turks in Idlib or all of our efforts maintaining our sanctions. So we are really happy that the EU is maintaining them.

· What would you tell some Syrians who buy the narrative of the regime and blame the US for their suffering?

I cannot help anyone if after almost a decade of Assad’s terror, they still believe Assad over the international community.

· In this regard, we saw some new developments by some Arab countries who reconnected with Damascus and they took the pandemic as a pretext. Did you speak with those Arab countries? And if you did, what did you tell them?

That’s kind of vague without identifying which Arab countries. The Arab countries I am thinking of, and I do not want to disclose them publicly but we know who they are, we are talking to them constantly.

We think two things. First of all they will have no impact. They will not win any prizes from Assad. We saw when one of them, and this one I can name because it has been discussed in the media, the UAE extended diplomatic recognition and they got nothing from Assad. I think they barely got a thank you. We know as well that they’re not going to change his policies nor are they going to undercut our policy.

We think that some people in the region have the mistaken idea, even though I am in media all the time, and Secretary Pompeo and President Trump speak out frequently on Syria, that maybe there is another American policy that allows us to be friends with Assad. There is no such American policy. There will never be such an American policy. There wasn’t even such a policy under the Obama administration.

· In this regard what do you expect from the Arab Summit that is due in June but might be delayed a little bit. The Algerians are now working hard to bring the Syrians back to the Arab League.

Our question to the Arab League is: What has changed from when you took the decision (to freeze Syria membership in 2012)? Have fewer people died now had died then? We think the number now is almost 500,000 Arab citizens of Syria. That is not a very encouraging thing to invite them back. Has the Regime complied with any of the UN calls for reconciliation? No.

What percent of the population has been ridden from their homes or fled their homes due to the regime in 2012 when the Arab League took the decision? Perhaps 5-10 percent of the population. What percentage of that population today? 50 percent.

The Arab League has to ask itself: Does it just have as an interlocutor states or does it also have as an interlocutor people of those states? Because the people of this state, Syria, have shown repeatedly their courage and their commitment by half the population fleeing Assad’s rule.

· Some Arab countries believe that by bringing the regime back to the League, maybe they would distance it away from Iran. What do you think?

It’s a crazy idea. First of all, Iran is deeply embedded in the Syrian state and society. It’s not as bad as Hezbullah in Lebanon or with the Militias in Iraq, and I know both situations, particularly Iraq, very well. But it is very concerning, not just to us, we know it is also concerning to the regime and the Russians. You have militias that are created and paid for by the Iranian government and reports to the Iranian government.

But the other thing is, and people really need to think about this, Syria is a state where Assad’s brutality to his own people is unique in the world, even faced with Venezuela or North Korea. Assad only knows one tool, butchering his population, particularly the Sunni Arab population.

Now, does anybody think he’s going to change his ways? It is one thing to think he is going to change his alliance with Iran, I don’t think he can but at least theoretically it is possible. But does anyone think he is going to change the way he rules and the population is going to accept this mass murderer, this uber torturer as leader? No. He has to run an absolutely horrific brutal totalitarian state.

What country is willing to accept a partnership with a brute like that? We only know of two, Russia and Iran. We do not think the decent countries of the Gulf and the Arab World would be in the same bed with someone like him. They can claim they can wean him away from Iran, I doubt that very much. Will these countries provide the ground forces, the Hizbullah troops, and the Shia from Afghanistan and other countries to keep the Sunni Arab and many other ethnic groups in the opposition from attacking Assad? No, they won't go that far and I don’t think they will sign up to support a government as terrible as Assad’s. They won’t bear the responsibility. That is something Iran and Russia will have to do.

· Recently, there were a lot of Israeli airstrikes around Damascus, Damascus - Beirut highway, and in Palmyra. What is your view on this?

The US supports Israel’s efforts to secure its self-defense. Israel is facing an existential threat from Iran, as they have said a thousand times that their mission is to destroy Israel. The Iranians are in Syria in large numbers, passing on long-range weapon systems to Hezbullah that threaten Israel. We know probably two elements associated with the Iranians, also in Syria, and Israel has the right to take whatever action it needs, being careful about Syrian casualties which the Israelis are, for the goal of saving Israel. Therefore, we are supportive of them in any way we can.

· What kind of support? Political or Logistical? Through the Tanf military base?

We give the support that is needed for effective Israeli actions to protect itself, and in protecting itself it is protecting all neighbors of Assad: Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon.

· The Israeli Minister of Defense said recently that this is to finish, not limit, the Iranian influence on Syria. Do you think that is possible?

Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States, if all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks.

· And the Russians?

The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt. Everyone else came after the war had begun. If there is a political solution to the war, and neighbors such as Israel and Turkey no longer feel threatened by the situation in Syria, we think they would be willing to let the country return to normal. As far as we are concerned, returning to normal is our goal and that means, among others, all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave.

· You said earlier that the sanctions are working, and that there are indications proving that. What are they?

Given the incompetence of the Assad administration, who is good at sucking the blood, literally and figuratively, in terms of money, goods, and property from its own people and in running a corrupt financial and economic system, but are not good at holding the country together and attracting foreign investments, they have done much of the damage themselves. Who would invest in a country Assad runs? They have also destroyed much of their own infrastructure, driven away a large percentage of the country’s doctors, and on and on.

It’s hard to say if you look at the unlimited fall of the Syrian pound (now 1300 to the US dollar) and the claims by people who are trying to support the regime that they have lost $244 billion, four times the GDP of the country, in the last few years because of the war, it is very hard to say what is due to the Regime’s own actions and what part of it is due to the sanctions. I would say that in general, in terms of the economy, it is mainly what the Regime has done to itself. Sanctions make life hard for those people in the inner circle, and that is what we are trying to get at. To make it clear to them that they don’t have an economic future by supporting Assad. They need to push for a political transition in Syria.

· You say the sanctions will push the regime to change its behavior?

We think it is a combination of everything. The 50 percent of the population that’s fled, stripping the country of most of its demographic resources, or much of it. The major swaths of territory that are not under Assad’s hand and unlikely to come into his hands because significant outside powers, including the US, who are on the ground. The pummeling (attacks) that the Iranians and the Syrians are getting from the air (Israeli Strikes) with ever more aggressive and effective airstrikes. The lack of reconstruction assistance. The ostracism of the Regime by the Arab League and by the Europeans.

We think that at the end of the day this formula will push the regime to eventually seek a negotiated settlement rather than claim a military victory and no compromise, which is what they have been doing up until now.

· You just said that keeping regime out of Idlib is a strategic thing. Right?

Yes. That is correct

· And you said that you want Turkey to fight extremists in Idlib?

Yes, we do. And we see signs that they are, more effectively.

How can you combine those two goals, keep Idlib out of the regime’s control and fight terrorism? And what do you think of the Turkish Russian deal over Idlib?

I think the deal will maintain as long as Turkey continues pressure on HTS. We do not see HTS as a serious threat to Russian forces, as they claim. It is a threat to all of us because it is a terrorist organization, and it is a threat to the more moderate and armed opposition in Idlib, which is of concern to us.

We see no reason, no excuse, no justification for this offensive (regime in Idlib) to start up again. By the same token, we are happy that the Turks are dealing independently with HTS. They committed to that in September 2018 and in the most recent agreement and that is a good thing.

· And you think that deal is holding?

I think that it will hold for the next few months, at least.

· Let move to North East of Syria which is where the American forces are. Recently we have noticed the Russians sending more military enforcement and they took a Qamshli military base and are getting closer and closer to the Americans. What is your assessment of the situation?

The Russians have some lightly armed military police units, they travel around in three, four, five vehicles, and sometimes they’re here, sometimes they’re there, but there is no Russian significant military force on the ground. There is no Russian occupation. Frankly, the Syrian government, other than in a few bases in Qamishli and the city of Deir El Zoor, has no real presence either. There are a few outposts and a few patrols. The people with the large, tens of thousands forces on the ground is the SDF, our partner against ISIS.

· In December, President Trump spoke of withdrawing from the North East of Syria and the Americans are there now. How long will they remain?

We will remain there until we have completed our military mission of the enduring the defeat of ISIS.

· Can we say it is an open-ended presence there?

I would never say the word open-ended. I would say only what I have just said.

· What would you tell your allies, the SDF, in advance before pulling out?

Pulling out of northeast Syria is not on the agenda, as we have not seen yet the enduring defeat of ISIS.

· Back to the current relationship between Washington and Moscow. There were some talks between some American officials and Russian officials in Washington, Moscow, and Vienna. Where are we in that regard? Is the step-by-step approach still valid?

As you know, we have various levels of talks with the Russians. We maintain generally our radio silence on these talks. One exception was when Mike Pompeo traveled to Sochi to meet with FM Lavrov and President Putin to talk about Syria and to talk about our efforts to get a compromised solution. We laid the whole thing out to both Putin and Lavrov and we did a joint press conference with Lavrov. It’s all on the record.

What do you make of the Russian media criticism of Assad?

We think that Russia knows very well what’s going on in the country. We think Russia knows what sort of ally they have in the Syrian President. And we think those articles speak for themselves.

· Do you think the Russians are upset with Damascus?

I think the articles speak for themselves. You are a journalist and when you write your articles, you want us to read what you write. Right? Then, believe what is printed in the papers.

· Did the Russians convey the same thing with you?

We do not share the details of diplomatic exchanges with our valued Russian interlocutors.

· We Know the OPCW report blamed Damascus for Ltamneh (Hamah) chemical attack in 2017 and we know that Damascus dined that. What is the next step?

The OPCW is reporting its findings to the UN Security Council, which were dramatic, and talk not just about Regime forces using chemical weapons but that the decisions were taken at the highest levels of the government to do so.

Meanwhile, the Security Council is also dealing with the UN Board of inquiry that found the regime, and to some degree the Russians, culpable for exploiting the UN’s passing of coordinates of humanitarian installations that should be on a no strike list, but in fact were deliberately struck.

We see the UN, from OCHA Chief Mark Lowcock to Secretary-General Guterres himself, speaking out in very clear and tough terms of the humanitarian risks of closing these border crossings from Iraq and eventually Turkey and the failure of the regime to allow crossline transfers of humanitarian goods to those areas. We see German courts pursuing Assad’s torturers who had gone after Syrian citizens. These citizens and their torturers now find themselves in Germany with cases open against them.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of all of the accountability efforts that we, the UN, the international community, and the media are doing to expose, that’s the word I would use, expose the absolute moral bankruptcy of that regime and those who are associated with it.

· What about the UN peace process? We hear UN special Envoy Mr. Gier Pederson saying that he made a deal between regime and opposition about agenda of the constitutional committee?

Pederson has this account and we support him 150 percent, including his call for a nationwide ceasefire. We support his efforts to build on the agreement on the agenda. That is a small, but important step forward.

· Do you think that it is realistic to talk about presidential elections under UN auspices in 2021?

We think the elections are the right way to go. If Assad holds his elections, this year or next year, they will have none, zero international credibility. They will be dismissed by the international community. The international community will redouble its efforts to pursue real elections monitored by the UN. That is the way forward. That is what the US supports.

The policy that we are pursuing is not going to change. We look very much forward to working with the media and the voices and people of the entire Middle East in speaking as one to call for a political solution and an end to the fighting.

· It this realistic?

Some people think it is not realistic. I don’t know but two years ago people thought that it was unrealistic to think that the last citadel of the armed opposition in Idlib would hold out for very long. Two years later there it is. Some people thought it was impossible for the Syrian Opposition and representatives of the Syrian government could meet together in Geneva, they have done so. Trust us that we are not only pursuing this policy, we think it has had some limited success and we think it has the potential to have a great deal more success.



Pakistan FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Eastern Neighbor’s Ambitions Fueled by Dominance Desire

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar
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Pakistan FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Eastern Neighbor’s Ambitions Fueled by Dominance Desire

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a special relationship with close cooperation on many issues. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar described this bond as deep and long-standing, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s crucial support for Pakistan’s growth and prosperity.

Saudi Arabia hosts 28% of Pakistani expatriates, reflecting the strong ties between the two nations.

Pakistan’s top diplomat, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, emphasized the importance of Saudi investments in strengthening the relationship between the two countries.

Dar highlighted shared priorities in promoting stability and addressing security threats in the Middle East, noting that recent security collaborations have further enhanced their ties.

The minister accused India of having expansionist ambitions in South Asia, particularly targeting Pakistan. He expressed concern over India’s growing military imports and its use of military power to intimidate neighboring countries.

Dar also stated that Pakistan will not recognize Israel until a fair resolution for the Palestinians is achieved. He highlighted that recent escalations show the consequences of Israel’s actions and ongoing violations of international law.

The minister stressed the enduring support between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, driven by geographical proximity, religious and cultural ties. Both countries are focused on boosting bilateral trade, surpassing $2.5 billion, and sealing investment deals.

The Saudi Crown Prince had reiterated the Kingdom’s commitment to accelerating investment initiatives.

Dar pointed out the regular exchanges between business, civilian, and military leaders of both countries, showing the deep fraternal bond. He stressed the robust economic, political, and defense relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, noting their shared interests.

He emphasized the vital role of Saudi support in Pakistan’s development, saying it strengthens the partnership.

Dar also noted an unprecedented level of bilateral exchanges and hoped the ongoing meetings between Pakistani and Saudi businessmen would benefit Pakistan economically.

The minister emphasized the vital role of Saudi investments in boosting fraternal relations. He expressed Pakistan’s interest in turning this connection into a mutually beneficial economic partnership.

Pakistan sees itself as an attractive market with untapped potential, offering significant benefits to partners.

Both Pakistan and India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017.

When asked about the SCO’s role in reducing tension, Dar explained that while SCO forums allow member states to discuss common interests, they focus on enhancing multilateral cooperation and don't address bilateral issues.

He mentioned Pakistan’s organization of practical cooperation events as the current chair of the SCO Council of Heads of Government, with participation from India and other member states during 2023-2024.

Dar expressed concerns about India’s expansionist mindset, especially towards Pakistan, and its military buildup to assert dominance in South Asia. He highlighted worries about India’s increasing military imports, which could destabilize the region and upset strategic balance.


Al-Alimi to the Houthis: Lift the Siege on Yemenis First

Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi during his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Yemeni Presidency)
Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi during his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Yemeni Presidency)
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Al-Alimi to the Houthis: Lift the Siege on Yemenis First

Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi during his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Yemeni Presidency)
Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi during his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Yemeni Presidency)

Recalling a history of mediations and support, the head of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, Dr. Rashad Al-Alimi, is counting on “the experience of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” to achieve peace between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from the Maashiq presidential palace, which is located on the waterfront of the Indian Ocean in the temporary Yemeni capital of Aden, Al-Alimi addressed the Houthis, saying: “Lift the siege on Taiz first.”

According to Al-Alimi, Houthi attacks in the Red Sea benefited Iran and not Gaza.

He stressed that Saudi Arabia has made great efforts to establish peace in Yemen during the past two years, noting that the Kingdom “tried to persuade [the Houthi militias] to engage in the peace process [with the government].”

Throughout the two years that Al-Alimi spent at the head of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, he was keen to respond to calls for peace.

He said: “We announced it explicitly after the formation of the council, that it is a peace council and not a war council, and we blessed Saudi Arabia’s efforts, because peace is a Yemeni, regional and international interest.”

Al-Alimi heads a council that includes seven members from various anti-Houthi political forces and military formations. He succeeded former President Abed Rabbuh Mansour Hadi on April 7, 2022, in an attempt to form a “legitimate government” to administer the country and resolve the conflict.

Saudi mediation efforts, with Omani participation, resulted in what Al-Alimi described as “a roadmap on which a basis for the peace process can be built.”

The head of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council told Asharq Al-Awsat he expected the Saudi roadmap to push towards a comprehensive peace process, based on the Gulf Initiative, the outcomes of the national dialogue, and the resolutions of international legitimacy represented in Security Council Resolution 2216.

The Resolution calls on all Yemeni parties, especially the Houthis, to fully implement Resolutions 2201 and 2015 and to refrain from taking further unilateral measures that could undermine the political transition process in Yemen.

War in Gaza

Al-Alimi stated that Yemen was affected by the war in Gaza, stressing that establishing “an independent Palestinian state within the framework of a solution in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative is the only way to end the conflict.”

He also held Iran “responsible for the region’s crises,” noting that militias affiliated with Tehran in Yemen, Syria, and other countries were seeking to fulfill Iranian interests.

Militarization of the sea

The Houthis are trying to “evade” their international obligations, for the sake of “supporting Gaza,” according to Al-Alimi, who compared Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip to the Houthis’ siege of the Yemeni city of Taiz.

He said, addressing the Houthis: “Evading will not help... Lift the siege on the Yemenis first.”

He added that Houthi attacks on ships led to the militarization of the Red Sea and the formation of broad alliances to counter these threats, causing a deterioration in the livelihoods of Yemeni citizens and an increase in prices and shipping costs.

Restoring state authority

Although Al-Alimi considered the US and British strikes on Houthi bases a means to “weaken the Iranian-backed militia,” he expressed belief that the “final solution is not through airstrikes.”

“The threat comes from the ground... and to confront it, state authority must be restored in all regions, with the support of the international community.”

“This is the only way to secure the Red Sea,” he emphasized.

Commenting on the Houthis’ recent announcement of minting a 100 Yemeni riyal coin, Al-Alimi stressed that this currency was illegal, noting the Central Bank in Aden has taken several decisions to confront it, with the support of the legitimate government.

The head of the Leadership Council confirmed his intention to “face this action by the Houthis.” He noted that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have communicated with the legitimate government, pointing to upcoming meetings to discuss the measures that the international community will take to support the Central Bank in Aden.


Austrian FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi Arabia Is a Key Strategic Partner

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Austrian FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi Arabia Is a Key Strategic Partner

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg underscored joint efforts between Riyadh and Vienna to ease tensions in the Middle East and highlighted the urgent humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“The region can’t handle more escalation. In my meetings with Arab partners, like Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, whom I’ve met twice in recent weeks, our aim has been clear: to stop this cycle of violence,” said Schallenberg.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the top diplomat voiced serious concern about the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is getting worse by the day.

“The suffering there demands action. We must do all we can to help and protect Palestinian civilians,” affirmed Schallenberg, adding that while Israel has the “right to defend itself against Hamas, it must avoid harming innocent people.”

“Israel must do more, and its army must clearly distinguish between military and civilian targets,” stressed the minister.

“Calls to expel Palestinians from Gaza are not the answer. What's urgently needed is a humanitarian ceasefire to deliver essential aid—food, water, and medical supplies,” he explained.

“The Israeli government needs to come up with a credible plan to protect civilians in southern Gaza. I'll push for this during my visit to the region,” said Schallenberg.

He faulted Israel’s double standard when it comes to Palestinians and emphasized that Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law.

“I see no justification for applying double standards to the suffering of civilians. There is no hierarchy of humanitarian suffering, and we must not forget that over 130 hostages remain held in Gaza for nearly five months, including an Austrian father of two,” said Schallenberg.

He also held the Palestinian group Hamas responsible for recent escalations.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization, aiming for destruction, fear, suffering, and misery in both Israel and Gaza itself. Their trade is death, including their trade with innocent Palestinians, men, women, and children,” said Schallenberg.

As for condemning violence by Israeli settlers, the minister said: “Settlements in the West Bank are in violation of international law. The violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers is unacceptable, and those responsible must be held accountable.”

“In fact, I strongly support imposing sanctions on extremist Israeli settlers, and I've made this clear from the outset,” he added.

Regarding Austria’s pause in funding for UNRWA, Schallenberg insisted on a thorough investigation into the allegations against the agency.

“Allegations about UNRWA staff involvement in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 are deeply troubling,” he stated.

“We’re urging full transparency from UNRWA and the UN. As Austrians, we have a special tie to the UN, hosting one of its headquarters in Vienna. However, we need an independent investigation into these allegations.”

While Austria temporarily stopped funding the relief agency, it hasn’t withdrawn funds entirely and has provided additional humanitarian aid to Gaza and the region since October, he clarified.

“Austria continues to support civilians in Gaza through other international relief organizations such as the World Food Program and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,” reassured Schallenberg.

“To alleviate humanitarian suffering, Austria has provided an additional 13 million euros in humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza and the region since Oct. 7,” he affirmed.

Turning to bilateral ties, Schallenberg underscored Saudi Arabia’s importance as a partner for Austria, citing economic opportunities, especially in renewable energy.

“Saudi Arabia is a key partner for Austria, and I value our strong relations, especially in politics and economics,” said Schallenberg.

“Economically, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 offers intriguing opportunities for Austrian institutions and companies, particularly in renewable energy.”

“Austria brings years of experience and boasts several reputable companies in this field, strengthening the ties between our nations.”

“In 2023, Austria welcomed nearly 200,000 Saudi tourists, while the Austrian Embassy in Riyadh actively promotes bilateral cultural exchange through various projects with Saudi and European partners in the Kingdom.”

Schallenberg also welcomed the resumption of archaeological missions from Vienna University in Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk region.

When asked about recent meetings between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the European Union (EU), Schallenberg noted: “These regular ministerial meetings aim to strengthen, coordinate, and expand strategic cooperation between the European Union and the Gulf countries.”

“Our partnership covers various areas of mutual interest such as trade, energy, and green transition. Last year’s meeting in Muscat, immediately after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, was particularly noteworthy, given the exceptional circumstances.”

“However, both the Gulf states and Europe demonstrated a commitment to reviving the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

“We all want a stable and prosperous Middle East, which also includes the continuation of normalization between Arab countries and Israel, of course,” noted the minister.

Schallenberg also criticized the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea, warning of their impact on global trade. He emphasized the need for all stakeholders to engage in dialogue, including Saudi Arabia, to counter Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Regarding Donald Trump’s comments on NATO aid to EU countries, Schallenberg stressed the importance of strong partnerships for the US to address Russian aggression.


Zebari to Asharq Al-Awsat : Iraq's Sunnis Feel Marginalized, Security Agencies Compromised

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak (Getty Images)
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak (Getty Images)
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Zebari to Asharq Al-Awsat : Iraq's Sunnis Feel Marginalized, Security Agencies Compromised

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak (Getty Images)
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak (Getty Images)

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s ex-Foreign Minister, was deeply involved in key domestic and international matters. In a recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he discussed security, corruption, inter-group relations, and Arab leaders’ feedback on Iraq's current regime.
Below is a summary of Zebari’s thoughts during the second and final part of his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat :
Was Joe Biden in favor of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki staying in power?
I’ve met Biden many times since 1992 when we were lobbying in the US Congress. He supported change in Iraq and visited the region frequently during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Yes, he supported al-Maliki. Let me explain. One mistake we made after the 2010 elections was not backing Dr. Ayad Allawi’s clear victory. Both Iran and the US supported al-Maliki to maintain stability, despite sacrificing Allawi's success.
At that time, all leaders were united in this direction to keep moving forward. But looking back, I admit that this decision was the biggest strategic error.
Was Iyad Allawi treated unfairly?
Yes, he was.
Some argue that excluding Allawi in Iraq and the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Beirut weakened moderate forces in both countries...
There’s a connection here, not far-fetched. In dealing with Middle Eastern politics, I've learned that things are interconnected. You can't separate Lebanon’s situation from the wider region, including Iran, the Arab Gulf, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. These issues are intertwined. But whether it was planned, I can't confirm.
Do you think Jordan is at risk?
Yes, very much so. The future of international or US coalition forces in Iraq involves more than one party. I believe their withdrawal from Iraq marks their last stronghold for influence in the Middle East.
Jordan's security is also under threat. Gulf security will be at risk too. Our friends in some Gulf countries express more concern than what’s reported. Currently, Jordan faces challenges from drugs and hostile forces targeting its lands. For the first time, Jordan has been targeted by Iraqi drones. The US base ‘Tower 22’ is in Jordan. Forces are there with Jordan’s approval. They genuinely feel threatened by this.
Could we see a clash between the Peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) someday?
It's unlikely. The Kurdish leadership doesn’t seem interested in that, and neither do they. But back in 2017, there were violent clashes. After a referendum, the PMF tried to attack from Kirkuk to Erbil, but the Peshmerga stopped them. There were also clashes aimed at a vital crossing linking Türkiye and Iraq. We had to defend ourselves.
Are factions now essentially saying you have no rights in Kirkuk except to cry over it, as Tariq Aziz once said?
No, definitely not. In the recent elections, it seemed like changes might have affected things, but the results confirmed Kurdish presence in Kirkuk is still strong. The voting showed a balance between Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen blocs. This remains a constitutional matter for resolving internal border disputes.
Massive Corruption in Iraq
Where did hundreds of billions of dollars disappear in Iraq? Was it just corruption or funding conflicts?
Unfortunately, there's been huge corruption. Even in the past, corruption wasn't as widespread as it is now, with millions and billions being stolen. This money could be used to finance wars and regional conflicts. It's highly likely.
There's talk of $400 billion.
Yes, that's true. Dr. Ahmed al-Jalabi mentioned this figure. Despite being involved in corruption cases, I can attest he was morally exemplary. He had issues with Petra Bank in Jordan during the Iran-Iraq war, but after his death, he left nothing to his family.
When I was finance minister, we worked on corruption cases together, like one bank where $6 billion was embezzled. We traced the money to Oman and Beirut.
Was it transferred to Beirut for what purpose?
That's the question. After years, the US Treasury Department discovered this theft and sanctioned the bank.
One of Iraq’s major threats is rampant corruption in government projects, provincial councils, and explosive budgets. Marginalizing others and failing to achieve reconciliation worsen the situation. The oil sector, crucial for Iraq’s economy, has been abandoned by Western companies due to instability and lack of confidence.
Were you surprised by Iraqi society? Several elections ended with what some call a state of factions.
The problem isn't with our democratic system. I think it’s fine. It’s just poorly executed. In elections, there’s a winner, then the Federal Court sometimes changes it. Other groups emerged, similar to Lebanon’s system. Last time, Sunni Arabs weren't keen on voting, but recent elections showed strong Sunni participation. People want change through voting.
As for factions operating outside the law, it’s the government's job to stop them. Leaders talked about state control of weapons, but they haven’t succeeded. The factions have too much power. That’s the real issue in Iraq.
Do Sunnis feel the future is tough in Iraq?
Yes, they do. Many Sunnis feel excluded and displaced in their own areas. Some still can’t return home in Jurf al-Sakhr, the Baghdad Belt, Diyala, and elsewhere.
Sectarian tensions have risen due to poor governance.
Some Sunnis even call for their own region, allowed by the constitution. However, there are fears that it threatens Shiite rule. They feel the current government is Shiite-dominated and sense discrimination for sectarian reasons.
Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh
What did Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak say about the Americans?

He said: “Don’t trust them. Those who ally with them are left exposed.”
I replied: “But who else is there?”
He had a playful manner. Whenever I visited Egypt for university meetings, I’d request a meeting through Omar Suleiman or Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and he'd promptly oblige. He had a strong affinity for Iraq, having served in Iraq’s Anbar during the 1967 war.
Did you interact with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad?
He respected me, and there was mutual respect. I met him several times, including once at the palace on Mount Qasioun. He welcomed me alongside former Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa. I raised concerns about extremists entering Syria, and he acknowledged the security challenges.
I also told him that we have proof showing that many extremists were coming through Syria.
Assad then said: “We're an Arab nation and don’t require visas for Arabs. They exploit that.”
How was the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh?
He was very friendly. We had a good relationship during summit meetings. He was welcoming. I visited him multiple times, and once he seemed upset. He mentioned our arrival on American tanks and questioned the country’s independence. I reminded him that during our conflict with Saddam Hussein, there were no US forces aiding us. For example, in the 1991 uprising, many provinces rebelled against Saddam without American support.


Zebari to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Heard Tehran’s Frank Explanation on Militia Roles

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receiving Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Tehran in April 2007 (Getty)
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receiving Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Tehran in April 2007 (Getty)
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Zebari to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Heard Tehran’s Frank Explanation on Militia Roles

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receiving Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Tehran in April 2007 (Getty)
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receiving Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Tehran in April 2007 (Getty)

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari doesn't believe that Iraqi-US relations will completely fall apart, but he’s worried about security and economic consequences.

Zebari, who served as foreign minister for 11 years, also expressed concern about interference, monopolistic policies, and attempts to undermine the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which was established based on the current constitution.

Additionally, Zebari revealed that key Iranian leaders had invited Iraq to join the so-called Axis of Resistance, an informal Iran-led political and militant coalition in West Asia and North Africa.

Below is a summary of Zebrari’s thoughts on some questions posed by Asharq Al-Awsat:

Are you worried about Iraq's future?

Yes, I'm concerned. Sadly, despite our efforts, Iraq hasn't stabilized since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. It lacks the needed stability in politics, security, and society to rebuild after years of war. I'm worried because we still don't have a good government in place.

Is what we’re witnessing now a battle to kick US soldiers out of Iraq?

It's a power struggle between regional players, like Iran, and the US due to conflicts in Gaza and the Middle East. Removing US troops has become a focus, but they’re still needed for regional security.

I was involved in negotiating agreements to withdraw US troops. While there's still some Iraqi security need for them, the issue has become politicized.

The parliament's attempt to expel them on Feb. 10 failed due to lack of support. This issue is up to the government, not just lawmakers.

The exit or stay of US forces is related to Iraqi international obligations, which in turn are related to the Iraqi national economy.

Therefore, this issue cannot be viewed unilaterally.

Many countries in the region host foreign military bases, including those of Britain and France, not just the US.

However, this happened with the consent of these governments. These governments are still sovereign, and the relationship is organized.

We in Iraq also have a regulation for this relationship. But the issue is primarily politicized.

Is Iraq able to handle a breakup with the US?

It's very tough because the US-Iraq relationship is tied to international, regional, and economic issues.

So, breaking away is hard. Every country needs support.

In the strategic framework agreement we negotiated with them, they offered many opportunities to help Iraq’s economy, security, and capabilities. But unfortunately, Iraqi governments haven’t taken full advantage of these opportunities.

You were Iraq’s top diplomat for 11 years. Did the US ask for permanent military bases in Iraq?

The discussion happened during the transition between the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

The main question was: What’s the future of these forces?

The idea was that Washington completed its mission, toppled the regime, and laid the groundwork for a new system. It helped Iraq have a constitution, so let Iraqis handle their own issues.

But the US saw the need to keep a limited presence, which was the basis of negotiation.

We started talks in 2007 and finalized the agreement for their withdrawal in 2011 under the Obama administration.

At the same time, Iraq signed a Strategic Framework Agreement for Friendship, Development, and Economic Cooperation with the US.

There was heated debate among military leaders who had served in Iraq, with many of the current US military leaders having experience there. They feared that a sudden withdrawal without leaving some forces for assistance would endanger US interests, whether against terrorism or other aspiring powers in Iraq.

However, Obama chose to withdraw without heeding this advice. I spoke with him for about 45 minutes.

What did you discuss?

He was in the midst of his election campaign, and Iraq was a major issue then. John McCain was the Republican candidate, and both camps were deeply concerned about Iraq.

Obama called me while campaigning in one of the states. I told him that we believed Iraq hadn’t fully recovered; it wasn’t stable yet due to terrorist threats and security challenges. So, we didn't support a sudden full withdrawal of forces.

We needed their assistance and help in training our military, but Obama took it as a no, and stressed that he came to end America’s involvement in foreign wars.

There was also a financial crisis in the global market at that time.

During that period, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saw the withdrawal as inevitable. He began leaning towards more dominance and control, straying from the constitution, democracy, and freedoms, and targeting Sunni leaders.

This led to significant discontent among the Sunni community. Meanwhile, ISIS was growing in Syria and then moved into Iraq.

At a time when the government claimed it had sufficient forces and didn’t need foreign help, we saw their collapse when ISIS seized Mosul and advanced towards other cities.

This prompted us to seek assistance from the US, which also helped in Erbil and Samarra.

The presence of US forces, along with the formation of an international coalition against terrorism, was based on our agreement.

Any change to this understanding requires the agreement of signatories and a notice period of at least a year. With the upcoming US elections and regional instability, it’s unlikely Iraq can end this relationship now.

Iran’s Narrative of Proxy Making

Can we say that the wars in the Red Sea, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon after the Oct.7 Al-Aqsa Flood attack confirm Iranian control over this part of the Arab world?

Iran holds significant influence in our region, from Yemen to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They openly support the Axis of Resistance.

I’ve had discussions with Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, as well as with Ali Larijani, former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, and Ali Akbar Velayati, former Foreign Minister.

We visited Tehran and discussed matters with the President and Prime Minister there.

One of their requests was: “Since Kurds and Shiites have overcome dictatorship, you shouldn’t trust the global powers or the Americans. You should join the Axis of Resistance.”

Who said this?

These were the words of the three leaders I mentioned. I replied that we don’t want to join new conflicts or wars. We’re tired of fighting and want to rebuild our country. They want us to resist those who liberated us, which doesn’t make sense.

But when ISIS expanded, Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for defending Iraq, leading to the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

However, the Iranians intervened, forming militias aligned with them. Now, these forces are a reality, possibly even stronger than the army.

The discussion delved into the Axis of Resistance narrative. They argued that Iran’s system faced threats from global powers and insisted on the need to defend it by fighting external enemies and forming unconventional forces.

Soleimani proposed relying on locally trained forces for unconventional warfare. This approach is evident in the region, with Iran and its allied non-state groups playing a significant role.

There are differing views on how to handle these groups, with some advocating for targeting the leadership while others suggest containing their activities. This debate persists.

In my view, recent events may reshape the political landscape of the Middle East, similar to how the 9/11 attacks transformed international politics.

I anticipated that conflicts would spread beyond Gaza and the West Bank, and indeed, they have, extending across various regions from the Red Sea to northeastern Syria.

Concerns for the Future of Iraqi Kurdistan

Are you worried about Iraqi Kurdistan’s future?

Yes, very worried. Kurdistan has been built with sacrifice, but now faces major threats from Iraqi Federal Court rulings. These decisions challenge the region’s constitutional recognition and its autonomy.

There’s a serious onslaught from various angles. Security-wise, we see threats through attacks on refineries, air traffic, and foreign companies. Also, the halt in oil exports has cost Iraq billions, including Kurdistan’s share.

Interference is pervasive, affecting elections and the region’s budget. While Kurdistan can make its own decisions, our independence means we can say no. This may not sit well with those used to obedience.

Kurdistan faces internal issues, but our goal is to restore legitimacy through regional elections. Originally set for February, they’ve been pushed to May due to court decisions. We’re pushing to hold these elections soon.


Hamdok to Asharq Al-Awsat: Manama Agreement Complements Jeddah Platform

Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok
Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok
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Hamdok to Asharq Al-Awsat: Manama Agreement Complements Jeddah Platform

Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok
Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok

Former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok described the agreement between the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Shams al-Din al-Kabbashi, and Deputy Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Lieutenant General Abdul Rahim Dagalo in Manama last month as a positive step in the right direction.

He said the agreement complements the Jeddah Platform talks, which are greatly relied upon to stop the devastating war in Sudan.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat and a limited number of journalists, on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Hamdok demanded that these efforts go hand in hand with a political process in Africa, under the supervision of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union.

He said he stressed to AU leaders that a military solution would not solve the Sudanese war unless there is support for a political process to address the crisis through negotiations.

Hamdok also discussed the “catastrophic humanitarian situation” in his country, saying that 25 million people were facing hunger because of war.

“We have called on the international community for the necessity of allowing access of humanitarian aid through the Sudanese borders with Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan, to alleviate the suffering of the people,” he underlined.

The former prime minister talked about political and security chaos in the region, saying: “In addition to war in Gaza, there are tensions in the Red Sea... A direct intervention in this conflict would further increase this polarization.”

On the internal situation in Sudan, Hamdok told the journalists that he maintained communication with the Army leadership to hold a meeting between the two sides of the conflict.

“We have not yet reached a final decision about the date of the meeting, but we hope that it will take place in an imminent and urgent manner. We have also stressed the need to limit the hostile rhetoric ... to create the appropriate environment for the talks,” he said.

The Sudanese official reiterated that the goal of the talks was to end the war and the suffering of the Sudanese people.

“We hope that formalities would not be an obstacle,” he stated.

Asked about the implementation of the clauses stipulated in the Addis Ababa declaration, Hamdok said that he emphasized the need to execute the practical aspects of the agreement, in particular the pledge to release 451 war prisoners.

He noted that the RSF leadership has expressed willingness to release the detainees but has claimed that it was encountering a problem with the departure of the Red Cross teams from the country.

The former Sudanese prime minister asserted that most political parties in the country have voiced their keenness on the unity of the democratic forces, but that work within alliances required patience and perseverance in order to be sustainable.


Military Analyst to Asharq Al-Awsat: Ukrainian Frontline Is Vulnerable, Army Struggles with Reserve Shortage

British military expert Glen Grant.
British military expert Glen Grant.
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Military Analyst to Asharq Al-Awsat: Ukrainian Frontline Is Vulnerable, Army Struggles with Reserve Shortage

British military expert Glen Grant.
British military expert Glen Grant.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, British military expert Glen Grant discussed the ongoing situation on the Ukrainian-Russian front as the second year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches. Grant highlighted the challenges confronting the Ukrainian army, emphasizing that Russia is poised to gradually annex Ukrainian territories, capitalizing on its numerical superiority and learning from past military mistakes.

Regarding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's recent appointment of Oleksandr Syrsky as the new commander of the Ukrainian army, replacing Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Grant expressed skepticism about the potential field outcomes. He noted the diminishing military support for Ukraine, Zelensky's failure to initiate a recruitment campaign, and Syrsky's affiliation with the Old Soviet military school, similar to his predecessor. Despite these concerns, Grant acknowledged the possibility of Syrsky exceeding expectations and achieving positive results.

British military expert Glen Grant lectures to cadets on improving defense management and training of soldiers, Kiev, Ukraine, January 25th, 2024 (Glen Grant's Facebook)

Grant warned against political interference in the Ukrainian army's decisions, asserting that the Ukrainian political leadership's lack of understanding of military matters, coupled with his perception of Syrsky's appointment as a primarily political decision, could adversely affect the army's performance.

Grant strongly criticized a recent statement by Donald Trump, the former US president and Republican Party candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. Trump suggested that if elected president in November, he would encourage Russia to attack NATO allies falling short of the alliance's agreed-upon defense spending goals.

Grant viewed Trump's statement as a favorable gesture towards Putin, potentially inciting Russian attacks on multiple countries. He expressed the belief that Trump's election as president would pose a significant threat to the security of the world order and Western civilization.

Proudly acknowledging the assistance extended by Britain to Ukraine, Grant acknowledged the existing challenges in British support, highlighting a shortage of stocks. Nevertheless, he assured that London is actively engaged in securing additional aid for the Ukrainian army.

- As the second year of the war draws to a close, could you provide insight into the state of the Ukrainian army on the frontline?

The frontline is currently in a critical state, and the supply situation goes beyond urgency; it's critical. The Ukrainian frontline is notably thin, and the scarcity of manpower has become acute due to a continuous loss of soldiers for a year without adequate replenishment. This stands out as a significant governmental issue.

President Zelensky has not taken steps to support or enact the necessary laws in parliament for mobilizing people. It appears that this hesitancy is driven by his reluctance to upset the country, particularly with an upcoming election that he is poised to win.

Soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard's "Khartia" Brigade stand guard at a position in the Kupiansk-Lyman area, eastern Ukraine, 10 February 2024 (EPA)

 

- What is the current state of the Russian army from your perspective?

On the Russian side of the frontline, military corruption remains a severe issue. However, the Russians are actively learning and adapting their strategies. Notably, they are quick to adapt to emerging technologies, such as drones, showcasing a level of adaptability that should not be underestimated.

Russia is persistently pushing the frontline back piece by piece, taking advantage of its numerical superiority. This ongoing strategy allows the Russians to attack lightly defended areas, exemplified by the current attack in places like Avdiivka. This approach forces the Ukrainians to deploy reserves to maintain control over villages and towns, as seen previously in Bakhmut, where the Ukrainians incurred significant losses holding a position that was unsustainable, a fact apparent to any solid military analyst.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky shake hands after a meeting with newly appointed top military commanders, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 10, 2024 (Reuters)

 

- How do you assess Zelensky's decision to replace the former Ukrainian Army Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi with Oleksandr Syrsky?

Syrsky shares an old-school approach with his predecessor, reminiscent of the Russian military's Soviet School. With Syrsky now in charge, will there be a notable difference? Some of his staff believe he will be more open to allowing the Ukrainian commanders to fight in the way that is best for them. However, being a political appointee raises questions about whether Zelensky's demands for him to hold the frontline will prove exceptionally challenging. We might not witness the best of him, given the potential for Syrsky to follow political orders.

Nevertheless, people often exhibit different behaviors when in charge. Syrsky should be given the opportunity to showcase more than currently understood. In my extensive military experience, I've witnessed individuals taking charge and blossoming into a different person than expected. Yet, as a product of the Russian military system, Syrsky has primarily displayed an attitude and manner very closely aligned with the traditional Russian military approach.

- Can the new Ukrainian commander in chief effectively maintain the frontline and initiate a counter-offensive against the Russians?

The burn rate on the Ukrainian battlefield is excessively high, indicating that Ukrainians should have consistently considered this issue, anticipating a slowdown and depletion in supply, which has now been ongoing for three months. Swift replenishment of supplies is unlikely; the Ukrainians cannot suddenly acquire fighter jets or more tanks.

The Ukrainian persistence in holding the line and incurring losses without a sustainable supply strategy is essentially jeopardizing the future, as deceased soldiers cannot contribute to tomorrow's battles. This situation necessitates a shift in the Ukrainian approach to warfare.

Instead of relying solely on a conventional counter-attack, the Ukrainians may need to adopt a more nuanced and strategic military strategy, especially given the apparent political nature of the situation. Effectively navigating these challenges requires a subtle and strategic military game plan in the absence of immediate resource reinforcements.

Photograph released on February 14, 2024, shows Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Oleksandr Syrsky (2nd L) and Ukraine's Defence Minister Rustem Umerov (L) visiting the frontline positions at an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine (AFP)

 

- As a military expert in a NATO member state, what is your perspective on the possibility of Trump winning the presidential election in wake of his comments that he intends to encourage Russia to attack NATO allies that fail to meet agreed-upon defense spending goals?

If Trump secures the election, I anticipate Ukraine becoming a secondary concern. The potential danger extends beyond Ukraine to encompass the entire Western world. Trump's comments essentially provide a green light to Putin, enabling him (in the future) to attack certain countries. These comments are not only incredibly stupid, but also pose an extraordinary threat to Western civilization, affecting not only the West, but also Japan, Taiwan, and possibly Australia. Trump is dismantling the Western system without instituting any substantive alternatives, doing so for his own power and ego.

What is urgently needed is a US president who promptly defends NATO against aggression from Iran, North Korea, and any other potential threats, while sending a clear message to China that provocations will not be tolerated. However, Trump's recent comments risk dangerously unraveling the entire world order.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, right, look at a map during their visit to the frontline city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Nov. 30, 2023 (AP)

 

- How significant is the proposed $60 billion US aid in Congress for Ukraine, and can it help halt the Russian advancement on the frontline?

The $60 billion US aid would be immensely beneficial for Ukraine and addresses a critical need at the moment. This assistance could indeed help Ukraine maintain its frontline. Putin has already initiated World War III, and the key question is whether the Russians can be restrained from extensive conflict or if the situation is irreversibly sliding downhill. The only entity capable of preventing this descent is the United States. If Russia continues unchecked, the global consequences will be severe, with China likely drawing lessons from the situation.

British military expert Glen Grant lectures in Ukraine, January 2024 (Glen Grant's Facebook)

 

- As a British citizen and expert, how do you evaluate the stance of the UK government, army, and intelligence in assisting the Ukrainian army?

I take great pride in what the UK has accomplished so far. The challenge lies in our limited remaining army resources, although we are still actively seeking supplies from other countries to help Ukraine. Until now, I have been genuinely proud of the stance demonstrated by Britain, including the government and parliament, as they have exhibited considerable strength and resilience.

I previously asserted that the United States was the sole country capable of effectively aiding Ukraine. However, I must now acknowledge that India also possesses the necessary equipment, ammunition, and the capacity to significantly support Ukraine's victory. With its substantial numbers and mass, India has the potential to contribute substantially to this cause and provide considerable assistance.

Glen Grant

Who is the Military Expert Glen Grant?

Glen Grant, a 37-year veteran of the British Army, served as a defense attaché in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Following his retirement from the military, he has dedicated himself to defense reform efforts. Currently, he is actively engaged in projects spanning over 10 countries in Eastern Europe and Chile. Additionally, Glen imparts his expertise by lecturing at the Riga Business School, primarily focusing on strategy, human resource management, and crisis management. Moreover, he delivers lectures for the Ukrainian military.


Abbas to Asharq Al-Awsat : Gaza is PA Responsibility, Will Act Upon Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)
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Abbas to Asharq Al-Awsat : Gaza is PA Responsibility, Will Act Upon Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for the Gaza Strip and ready to act once Israeli attacks stop.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Abbas said that the PA is prepared to fulfill its duties “immediately upon cessation of aggression against our people.”

“We have been and continue to be responsible for Gaza, and we will remain so,” he reaffirmed.

The Palestinian leader emphasized the need to work with Arab, regional, and international partners to avoid further harm to Palestinians.

Abbas praised Saudi Arabia’s supportive stance on Palestine as “historic, honorable, authentic, and steadfast.”

He further commended a recent Saudi statement that emphasized the priority of recognizing a Palestinian state over any comprehensive peace and normalization, “especially in these critical circumstances facing the region and the world.”

As for the US, Abbas criticized the Biden administration for not pressuring Israel enough for a peaceful solution. He spoke of the absence of an “Israeli partner” after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became a “hindrance” to the peace process.

He also noted the internal Palestinian issue of forming a new government, asserting his people’s independence in decision-making.

When asked about whether Palestinians were headed towards statehood or another “Nakba”, Abbas reaffirmed Palestine’s “commitment to establishing an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital, a long-standing national objective supported by Palestinian national councils.”

Despite global recognition, he stressed the ongoing efforts to gain full international recognition and elevate Palestine's status in the UN.

He warned against attempts to uproot Palestinians from their land, pledging to collaborate with Arab, regional, and international partners to prevent another Nakba.

Abbas emphasized the dire consequences of destabilizing the region, particularly amid ongoing tensions.

Israeli Error, A Roadmap to Cease Gaza Tragedy

“The unfolding tragedy in Gaza and Palestinian territories is unparalleled, marked by systematic destruction perpetrated by Israeli forces, aimed at dismantling Palestinian infrastructure under the guise of security,” said Abbas.

He highlighted the grave Israeli miscalculation, stressing that peace and security can only be achieved by immediately halting hostilities.

Abbas called for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza without territorial annexations and swift delivery of humanitarian aid.

He reiterated Palestine’s steadfastness against forced displacement and advocated for a political solution based on international legitimacy and the Arab Peace Initiative.

“It starts with recognizing Palestine as a state and securing full UN membership through a Security Council resolution,” said Abbas, adding that this, followed by an international peace conference with guarantees and a clear timeline, can help end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

“This paves the way for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital, based on 1967 borders,” said the PA head.

Abbas underscored the failure of Israel’s security and military strategies against Palestinians, urging the international community, particularly the US, to uphold international law and resolutions.

As for whether US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed a commitment to officially recognize the Palestinian state or not, Abbas said: “We've had several meetings with top US officials, including Blinken, Sullivan, and Burns, and they've assured us of their commitment to the two-state solution and supporting peace efforts based on international law.”

“However, despite these talks, there hasn't been any tangible progress on the ground,” he argued, lambasting the Biden administration for not having pressured the right-wing Israeli government enough to see real change.

“Israel continues to undermine the political process, rejecting international resolutions, and escalating violence against Palestinians, especially in Gaza, along with discrimination in the West Bank and East Jerusalem,” said Abbas.

The president noted that the US keeps backing Israeli occupation.

“What matters most is action on the ground, not just words,” he said about statements by the Biden administration.

“We’re calling on the US to implement what’s needed for a genuine political process based on international law, ensuring security and stability for all,” affirmed Abbas.

The Solution Requires "Genuine American Will"

Regarding plans for a mechanism to open up the political horizon through a Security Council resolution or another format, Abbas said: “The mechanism is clear—it's about implementing a Security Council resolution granting Palestine full UN membership and organizing an international peace conference under UN auspices.”

“This would establish a supported action plan with clear guarantees and a timeline, based on international law and legitimacy. It only needs sincere international will, especially from the US.”

Vis-à-vis the establishment of the Palestinian state being conditional on its recognition of Israel and international security guarantees for the Israeli state, Abbas affirmed that Palestinians were committed to their international obligations.

“According to the Oslo Accords, recognition was exchanged between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel,” he reminded.

“We’re committed to our obligations despite Israeli resistance. What's needed now is Israel’s recognition of Palestine,” added Abbas.

With regard to Hamas joining the PLO, Abbas stressed that the group needs to respect the PLO’s commitments.

“The PLO is the sole representative of Palestinians. Joining requires commitment to its unity and agreements. All Palestinian factions can join, but they must respect the PLO’s decisions,” said Abbas.

Saudi Position: Proud, Historic

According to Abbas, Saudi Arabia’s stance, from the era of the founder King Abdulaziz Al Saud, to King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been “historically honorable, authentic, and steadfast towards the Palestinian people and their just cause.”

“The recent Saudi statement reaffirming its unwavering support for Palestine is a continuation of its longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause.”

“Saudi Arabia remains dedicated to securing Palestinian rights, including freedom, independence, and the establishment of their state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

“We appreciate Saudi Arabia’s steadfast support, especially during these challenging times.”

“This support aligns with international legitimacy and reflects ongoing coordination between Saudi Arabia and Palestine.”

Netanyahu: Obstacle to Peace

Abbas stressed that he does not believe in Netanyahu being fit to play a role in seeking peace.

“Frankly, there's currently no Israeli partner for achieving lasting peace,” he said.

“Netanyahu is clearly a stumbling block to a political solution based on international legitimacy and law.”

“He lacks the belief in achieving peace and ending the occupation for Palestinians and Israelis to live in security and stability instead of the repeated failures of wars and security solutions.”

“I think the world now understands well our assertion that Netanyahu obstructs current international efforts to stop Israel's war and pursue a political path based on international legitimacy.”

“His rejection of the two-state solution and his announcement of continuing the war on Gaza are clear evidence of his public refusal of the peace process and achieving security and stability.”

“He believes only in the logic of occupation, power, and settlement.”

Attempts to Ignite the West Bank

Israel’s actions in Gaza are fueling tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This, according to Abbas, risks another uprising.

The palestinian leader accused Israel of killing, arresting, and raiding Palestinian areas while protecting settler extremists.

“We've warned world leaders, including the US, that if this continues, things could spiral out of control,” he cautioned, adding that there’s not enough pressure on Israel to stop.

“Despite this, we're working to keep things calm and prevent further escalation,” said Abbas about the PA’s efforts to stabilize the West Bank and Palestinian territories.

“Israel wants to avoid a political solution that ends its occupation, so it's trying to stir up trouble,” explained Abbas.


Al-Biyari to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Promote Military Industries through Localization to Maximize Economic Impact

Dr. Khaled Al-Biyari, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs. (Saudi Ministry of Defense)
Dr. Khaled Al-Biyari, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs. (Saudi Ministry of Defense)
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Al-Biyari to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Promote Military Industries through Localization to Maximize Economic Impact

Dr. Khaled Al-Biyari, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs. (Saudi Ministry of Defense)
Dr. Khaled Al-Biyari, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs. (Saudi Ministry of Defense)

Dr. Khaled Al-Biyari, Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs, said the localization of the military industries maximizes the economic impact, noting that the ministry was witnessing rapid development, through the implementation of an ambitious transformation program.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Biyari stressed that the Saudi Defense Ministry has made important strides in its institutional transformation through more than 300 initiatives that aim to attain five main objectives of the development program.

They include achieving operational excellence, boosting individual performance, modernizing equipment and weapons, developing the ministry’s organizational performance, improving spending efficiency and supporting the localization of military manufacturing.

Al-Biyari noted that the ministry’s organizational structure was designed in three specialized bodies that carry out the functions of guidance, empowerment, and acquisition, namely, the Directorate for Strategic Affairs, the Directorate of Procurement and Armaments, and the Excellence Services Directorate.

Evolution

The official explained that the ministry’s work is based on an integrated development program, which was designed under the supervision of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister, when he assumed the defense portfolio.

He noted that the ministry’s Directorate for Strategic Affairs works to develop policies and strategies through short, medium and long-term plans, while the Directorate of Excellence Services supports the centralization of administrative, technical, financial and technical services across the ministry’s sectors, and the Directorate of Procurement and Armaments focuses on all matters related to procurement.

Al-Biyari told Asharq Al-Awsat that the ministry of Defense has begun restructuring various forces, which include the ground, naval, and air defense forces, following the restructuring of the presidency of the General Staff and the establishment of the joint forces.

“The three directorates include 19 public departments, most of which were established by attracting capabilities from inside and outside the ministry, and all sectors now operate with great integration and through a separation of powers and balance between sectors, which makes the ministry’s organizational structure unique in terms of governance and decision-making,” he stated.

The official continued: “The Ministry works through multiple councils, including a Defense Council headed by Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Minister of Defense, and five main specialized bodies, in addition to 37 specialized operational councils.”

Al-Biyari explained that these steps replaced the concept of committees, as work in the ministry became completely institutional.

Localization of military industries

With the launch the ministry’s development program, efforts were focused on the localization of military industries, Al-Biyari said, pointing to the establishment of the General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI), the General Authority for Defense Development, and the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).

He emphasized that all work was aimed at achieving the highest level of efficiency and spending within the structure of the national defense system and strengthening national military industries.

He stressed that an important part of the strategy, which was built on specific goals, and which was led by Crown Prince Mohammed, focuses on the importance of exploiting the purchasing capabilities of the Ministry of Defense and other military and security ministries in localizing this industry.

He said: “For this purpose came the establishment of GAMI, SAMI and the General Authority for Defense Development (GADD), at a time when the Ministry and the military and security sectors were a major driver of this system.”

Manufacturing

Consolidating the military industries sector is one of the ministry’s strategic goals, Al-Biyari went on to say.

He revealed that the ministry was working with colleagues in GAMI to localize the production of systems and employ Saudi cadres.

“The contracts signed at the World Defense Show, for example, all include industrial participation, whether in manufacturing or local support,” he said of the exhibition that concluded in Riyadh last week.

Al-Biyari explained: “There are two basic goals for this step. The first is to rely on an industry that supports raising the military readiness of our armed forces, and the second goal is the economic impact, as these projects generate jobs and contribute to increasing economic mobility.”

He stressed that the ministry has achieved great successes, especially in current and past projects that focused on industrial participation and localization.

Infrastructure

The assistant minister revealed that Saudi industrial companies have started to invest in the military sector.

“We always focus on ensuring that these companies are close to us, so that their work ultimately meets the requirements of the armed forces,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Al-Biyari continued: “We seek to promote the image of the high-quality Saudi product. There are many successful experiences that we saw at the World Defense Show that prove that our Saudi products are comparable to what are manufactured in developed countries.”

Development program

The official sees the journey of the development program in the Ministry of Defense as a complete structure, while the ministry proceeds with the construction process.

He stated that with the support of the Saudi leadership, the Ministry of Defense worked on drafting its ten-year plans and budgets, which gives the ministry and the military industry the ability to have clear visions for the future.

He pointed to the importance of the think tanks, which study defense affairs that concern the Kingdom and the region.

“We live in an unstable region, and therefore anticipating the future, with regard to the defense and geopolitical situation, is very important. This has prompted us to establish a center for strategic studies in the field of defense, as an investment by the ministry, because we believe that it is important that plans stem from anticipating the future,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Localization of cadres

Al-Biyari stressed that the success of any system depends on its human resources.

He explained: “The Ministry of Defense is one of the ministries that has invested the most in the human aspect, whether in the military or civil sector.”

He revealed that the ministry boasts the second largest health system in the country, which employs around 65,000 male and female workers.

Al-Biyari added: “In the military system, the ministry has invested a lot in national human cadres, whether in our air, naval, air defense and land forces,” noting that the human element is the basis of success for any system.

Saudi capabilities

Al-Biyari touched on the achievements of the Saudi cadres, saying: “I am proud of the team that is working with us now. There is creativity in every aspect of our work, and we have begun investing in new graduates through the ‘Fakhour’ (Proud) program, with the aim to protect the security of the nation.”

He said around 200 young Saudi men and women were qualified through training and on-the-job programs.

“These young recruits impressed everyone. Two hundred young men and women were chosen from among 140,000 applicants... They are the sons and daughters of the nation. They passed extensive interview procedures, part of which was through artificial intelligence technology, and now they have become an important part of the Ministry of Defense system,” he underlined.


Djibouti President: We Are Monitoring Red Sea Developments, Reject Targeting of Our Land

Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Djibouti President: We Are Monitoring Red Sea Developments, Reject Targeting of Our Land

Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh stated that his country is closely following recent developments in the Bab el-Mandeb region and the Gulf of Aden.

He emphasized his country’s commitment to securing the Red Sea and the strategic strait, and to facilitating international trade.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Guelleh mentioned cooperation with major powers like the US, France, and Britain, as well as with Red Sea coastal states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to ensure maritime security, fight terrorism, and tackle regional and global security challenges.

Guelleh stressed Djibouti’s refusal to allow any party to be targeted from its soil. He pointed out that international military bases in the country are there to maintain global security, fight terrorism and piracy, and safeguard navigation in this crucial area.

He also discussed various topics, including the impact of China's Belt and Road Initiative on the Horn of Africa region and Djibouti’s neutral stance despite hosting military bases.

Djibouti-Saudi Relations

In assessing the current Djibouti-Saudi relations and their coordination, particularly in economic and political cooperation, Guelleh began the interview by praising Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper for its informative role in the Arab world.

He then highlighted that the ties between Djibouti and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are robust and have deep historical roots since Djibouti gained independence in 1977.

“Cooperation is ongoing across various sectors, including security, military, and business,” said Guelleh.

“Since 2008, both countries have signed around 30 agreements covering diverse areas,” he revealed.

“Looking ahead, we aim to further strengthen collaboration, particularly in maritime transport, logistics, and port services, building on our significant progress in port development,” added the president.

According to Guelleh, efforts are underway to develop joint maritime and air transport projects, along with establishing a free zone and warehouses for Saudi exports within Djibouti’s International Free Trade Zone, aiming to boost Saudi exports to Africa.

As for how Djibouti can contribute to Arab-African relations, Guelleh said: “Geographically located on the southwestern shore of the Red Sea, Djibouti serves as a crucial link between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”

“This geographic advantage positions Djibouti to enhance Arab-African relations and play a key role in ensuring Arab national security,” he added.

Economically, Djibouti acts as a gateway for countries in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) on the Red Sea.

Guelleh argued that Djibouti’s advanced port infrastructure significantly supports the development of Arab-African economic relations.

Following recent developments in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, the president affirmed that his administration was keeping a close eye on events taking place near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to ensure the security of these waters and facilitate global trade.

“It’s crucial to resolve regional crises and work together to keep navigation safe in the Red Sea,” stressed Guelleh, adding that Djibouti’s strategic position makes it vital for global trade.

“We collaborate with major powers like the US, France, Britain, and Red Sea nations, especially Saudi Arabia, to safeguard maritime navigation and combat security threats,” he revealed.

Regarding easing tensions, Guelleh said: “Our focus is on regional and global cooperation to maintain security and smooth navigation in the Red Sea, crucial for international maritime transport.”

Moreover, Guelleh reminded that Djibouti was among the first countries to endorse the establishment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden littoral states forum, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, and Eritrea.

“Recognizing the significance of such a forum, we proposed early on that its headquarters be in Saudi Arabia due to its pioneering initiatives in the Red Sea security system since 1956,” said Guelleh.

Djibouti and Saudi Arabia’s Role in Red Sea Stability

When asked to shed light on how Djibouti and Saudi Arabia contribute to stability in the Red Sea region, and if there are joint efforts present in security, trade, and energy, Guelleh said: “Djibouti, given its strategic location at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, plays a pivotal role in safeguarding Red Sea security.”

“With balanced relationships and a strong reputation for stability and peacekeeping in a tumultuous region, Djibouti stands as a key player.”

“Saudi Arabia, being a fraternal state, holds significant religious, political, and economic influence,” he added.

“The two brotherly nations cooperate in various fields, including security, trade, and energy.”

“Undoubtedly, this bilateral cooperation plays a vital role in achieving stability in this critical region,” asserted Guelleh.

The Sudan Crisis

Djibouti, as an IGAD member, is actively working to end the conflict in Sudan, stressed Guelleh, highlighting that Sudan, also a key IGAD member, is crucial for regional stability.

“Since the conflict erupted in April 2023, Djibouti has been urging an immediate ceasefire and negotiations between the parties involved,” said the president.

“As the current head of IGAD, Djibouti is working closely with member states and the global community to find a solution to Sudan’s crisis,” he added.

“We've hosted talks with representatives from all sides of the Sudanese conflict, all expressing a strong desire to end the war due to its severe impact on the country and its people.”

“We're hopeful that our efforts will lead to a lasting ceasefire and solutions to Sudan's challenges.”

“It's essential to prevent Sudan from descending into civil war, given its significant regional influence. We urge everyone to support international calls for peace in Sudan,” reaffirmed Guelleh.

Military Bases in Djibouti

While Djibouti maintains a neutral policy in the Horn of Africa, it hosts several military bases.

According to Guelleh, these bases aid his country’s efforts to fight terrorism and piracy.

When asked how Djibouti manages hosting both US and Chinese bases nearby, Guelleh said: “We maintain balanced relations with major powers, cooperating or making agreements with any party within the framework of national sovereignty and interests.”

“This approach demonstrates that coexistence is possible if there's a willingness to do so,” noted Guelleh.

“International military bases in Djibouti primarily aim to cooperate in maintaining security in the Red Sea region, the Gulf of Aden, and Africa as a whole.”

“Many countries with military bases in Djibouti emphasize protecting their commercial and investment interests.”

Considering Djibouti’s stance on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the president reaffirmed that his country supports Chinese investments, seeing them as boosting economic growth in the region.

“China's Belt and Road Initiative is primarily commercial in nature, and Djibouti’s strategic location places it at the heart of this massive project,” he explained.

“We appreciate Chinese investments in our country, including the high-speed train linking Djibouti City and Addis Ababa, and Beijing’s contribution to Djibouti’s International Free Trade Zone, the largest in Africa.”