Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview published Saturday that his country does not want Syria to be a “failed state,” and that it decided to send a diplomat to Damascus “to help normalize the situation,” adding, however, that Athens is “not accrediting” him to the regime of Bashar Assad.
In response to a question, Dendias said that Greece remains committed to a European Union decision on seeing genuine steps from the Assad regime in order to provide funds for Syria’s reconstruction.
“We don’t accept the result of the elections,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, adding: “I am not bringing news to you saying that democratization, the full respect of human rights, and accountability for crimes of war is what the European Union would expect.”
“We are interested to see how the Assad regime sees the future,” Dendias told his interviewer, adding: “The Constitutional Committee is a great forum in which, if the Assad regime wishes, it could present some sort of steps. But I am not sure that we will see that happening.”
The Minister also lauded relations with Saudi Arabia, saying the Kingdom “is a very important country” for the world, European and Greek economies.
“Safety of the Saudi Kingdom is of the essence for us. That is why we have signed an agreement with them,” he added.
Dendias referred to the importance of consultations with the Arab League and said: “Telling me where we see eye to eye with Egypt, there are plenty of issues.
“International law of the sea, sovereignty, rule of law, good relations with the European Union, and migration issues. Egypt does not instrumentalize migration issues in an effort to blackmail Greece or blackmail the European Union.”
He also expressed satisfaction with the US decision to expand its naval military base in Greece, saying: “We are negotiating a new defense agreement with the United States. I hope we will be able to conclude these negotiations by the autumn of 2021.”
Here is the full text of the interview that was carried out with Asharq Al-Awsat by video link:
• Thank you so much for your time. I have been following up on your trips to the region for ages. I will start from your visit yesterday to Cairo. What can you tell me about your visit? Why did you make it, and what is your interpretation of the agreement that you have signed with the Head of the Arab League Ahmed Abul Gheit?
- Well, first of all, if I may be allowed to say so, it was long overdue. We have a historic relation with the Arab countries that goes back centuries. We tried to calculate it with the Secretary-General of the Arab League, we arrived to something like 25-26 centuries, something like that.
So, having an institutionalized relation with the Arab League was something absolutely important for us. We see that as one step towards coming to a closer understanding with most of the Arab countries, especially, if I may be allowed to say, the Arab countries that share our way of dealing with the international order, which means the rules-based order.
• What was interesting is that you have signed an agreement with Abul Gheit for consultations, I mean, between Greece and the Arab League.
So, what is the political meaning of this agreement?
- You consider consultations as diplomatic jargon, but in a way, Sir, it is not. If you want to come to a common understanding, you have to discuss things. You have to express your views, and also appreciate how the other side sees things.
If that does not happen, then it is just parallel monologues from one side or from the other side. And if by coincidence we have the same interest, fine, if not, we arrive to nothing; it is just parallel lines to nowhere.
So, for us, consultation is something very meaningful. We would like the Arab League and the Arab nations to understand our way of seeing things and the problems we are facing in the region, but also our dreams, our aspirations, our ambitions for the region.
And also, we would like to know theirs. It is a very complex region. History touches upon today’s challenges, so this needs a lot of understanding between us. But also, it is a huge opportunity.
• But, your Excellency, I am asking this question because there is this perception in the Arab world - amongst some analysts, some journalists like myself - that some other regional countries like Turkey or Iran, always try to undermine the Arab League and the Arab role, at the time you have decided to institutionalize this relationship between Athens and the Arab League.
- For Turkey, I have seen it happening, let me be frank, and I will not quote which country, but colleagues of mine, from a number of Arab countries, have given me solid proof of the way Turkey sees the Arab nations and also the dreams that Turkey has. Some sort of neo-Ottoman aspiration, believing that this caliphate could be recreated.
For Greece, we have no imperialistic aspirations in the region. The only thing we would like is to understand and align our interest with the interest of our friends.
And we believe that, in that context, and in the context of international law of the sea, with which most of the countries that we have close relations with, have subscribed to, could create a better future for all of us.
And, let me say, as a final touch on this, we would wish Turkey to become a part of this understanding, but unfortunately, I am afraid this has a long way to go.
• You have visited Cairo around 5 times in 18 months?
- I really cannot say. I am coming from Corfu, I have been more times to Cairo than I have been to Corfu while I am Minister of Foreign Affairs. I really step out of the car and I feel I am at home, I know the doors, I know where the elevator is, I know the corridors.
But, again, I have a personal relationship with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and I have to say, I have respect for President (Abdel Fattah) el-Sissi and what he is doing for Egypt and what he is trying to do with Egypt. They are trying hard.
• Could you please, Sir, name the mutual interest that you share with Egypt regarding bilateral issues, regional issues, and other relevant issues you might think of?
- It would be very difficult if you asked me to name our differences with Egypt. Then I would have to start thinking and scratching my head. But telling me where we see eye to eye with Egypt, there are plenty of issues.
International law of the sea, sovereignty, rule of law, good relations with the European Union, and migration issues. Egypt does not instrumentalize migration issues in an effort to blackmail Greece or blackmail the European Union.
After 2017, there are no migratory flows from Egypt towards Europe. The overall stability of the region, Libya, I mean, whatever I think, I see that with Egypt, we have a very, very good understanding.
• Yes, part of it, Sir, is the gas in the Mediterranean, or the maritime? If I’m not mistaken?
- You are not mistaken at all. Creating a corridor of energy supply from Egypt to the European Union, the Gas Forum, the pipelines, and also the interconnector, are part of our effort to create a common economic future.
And I have to say, energy in Greece - and I am taking Greece as an example - is rather expensive. The energy that we can bring from Egypt to Greece is much cheaper, which will help us create sustainable growth in our economy.
So, there is an endless catalogue of common interests with Egypt.
• But when it comes to the gas in the Mediterranean, you have established this block of the 6 nations, 6 countries. Could you please tell me more about what are the aims, what are the goals of this block? Is it just purely economic, or is it more geopolitical?
- Well, the only thing I would put in order is we do not consider ourselves a block. We consider ourselves an understanding because we share a common vision, a common future, and a common interest. And I am openly saying to you, if Turkey subscribes to the rules, Turkey is welcome to join in; or any other country, by the way, not just Turkey.
Now, no, it is not only an economic interest. It is clearly an economic interest. It is based on economic interest, it is based on the need to have energy sources at a reasonable cost, but it is more than that, it is sharing the acceptance of the rules-based society, and a rules-based international order.
That combined us against other approaches, which are clearly imperialistic, in the 19th or 18th-century sense of the word, and which have nothing to do with the 21st century, but it is easier said than done for some countries to understand that this is not a way forward.
• But in parallel to this platform that you have established, the 6 countries, there is another platform, I think with Cyprus and Israel about electricity, is that correct?
- Of course. With Cyprus, I am stating the obvious, with Israel, again, we have a very close relation. We started from a very low point. Greece was the last country probably in Europe that recognized the State of Israel in 1990.
But I have to say, we have worked very hard with our Israeli friends to arrive to a common understanding on the region, and I have to say that even the Israelis share our opinion that the stability of Egypt as a country is of cardinal importance for the stability and the prosperity of the region.
And of course, we cooperate with Israel in many fields, energy being one of them.
• I was wondering why we have two platforms, one for gas, another for electricity, and why Egypt is not part of this electricity platform.
- Well, it is not in my capacity to answer this, there is another Ministry that deals with that, but if I may be allowed to say so, in energy, I think all of us will come to a common understanding, and sharing our common vision for the future. It is something that will happen, and I have to say, sooner rather than later.
• A follow-up question on the relation with Turkey. I think the Prime Minister of Greece has met the President of Turkey in June, and I keep hearing some words that the 20th of July is the time when we will see where the relation between Ankara and Athens is heading. Why?
- Okay, I will start first from the meeting of my Prime Minister, Prime Minister (Kyriakos) Mitsotakis with President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. The meeting went quite well. In the sense that on a personal level, it was a good meeting, the ice has melted, but yet again, we have to see if Turkey has really changed its ways.
And on the 20th of July, President Erdogan will visit the occupied part of Cyprus and for us, it is very important to hear what he is going to say and see what he is going to do.
Because, if the rhetoric in the occupied part of Cyprus is contrary to international law, is contrary to United Nations Security Council Resolutions, then the behavior of President Erdogan makes no sense at all.
• Which means you are against a two-state solution?
- It is not me or Greece or Cyprus, it is the International Law and the United Nations Security Council that are against any idea of a "two-state solution".
And allow me to say, there is no "two-state solution". There is a two-state proposal by the Turks which does not constitute the solution to the Cyprus problem.
The solution to the Cyprus problem is to unify the island. Everything else is not a solution; it is something contrary to international law.
• Greece, and you personally, are very interested in keeping ties with the whole region, I mean part of it. I think in April you have visited Saudi Arabia, and you have signed an agreement with your Saudi counterpart.
So, what is your vision of relations between Greece and Saudi Arabia?
- First of all, Saudi Arabia is a very important country. It is of huge importance for the Muslim world, and they are the custodians of the two most sacred places of the Muslim religion. They are one of the biggest energy producers in the world.
Having said that, the fact that they are one of the biggest energy producers makes them very important for the world economy, and if I may say so, even for the European economy, and for the Greek economy.
So, safety of the Saudi Kingdom is of the essence for us. That is why we have signed an agreement with them, which is why we have dispatched a Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia, which is a defensive weapon, it is not an offensive weapon; we have given weapons to Saudi Arabia to defend itself against unnamed aggressors, not to attack anybody.
And, also, generally, with the Muslim world, we share a common past. I said to the Secretary-General of the Arab League - and I am always repeating - that ancient Greek writers would not be as known to us today if not for the Arab world, who copied their books and gave them back to the Christian world.
So, we owe the Arab world a lot. And on a person to person, level, we are getting along very well, and that you know it already. And it is not only Saudi Arabia.
We have an excellent strategic relation with the UAE, we have a great relation with Kuwait, we have a great relation with Bahrain, and we have a very good relation with Jordan. We are establishing a very cordial relation with Iraq.
And with all these countries I am mentioning, I cannot name even one difference between us. So, based on the fact that we don’t have any differences, based on our common interests and our common vision of prosperity and stability in the region, we try to build a common future.
We are looking to India, we would like to bring India, the biggest democracy in the world, a growing economic power, into this context.
The Indian Foreign Minister, Dr. (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar was in Athens just two weeks ago.
We are trying to build a bridge between India, the Arab world, and the European Union with Greece as the entry point.
• And, your Excellency, as you may know, the Saudis are very interested in the Yemen crisis. What is your vision regarding the best solution for the Yemen crisis?
- One thing is clear: unless there is a ceasefire there and as long as the Houthis continue trying to take over Maarib, the situation cannot continue like that.
First of all, we need to have a ceasefire, and having a ceasefire we will try to find a way out of this situation.
And if Greece can help in any way, we are there to help our friends. But that is as far as I can go. I cannot pretend that Greece has a very big institutional knowledge of Yemen as a country.
• Speaking about countries in crisis, one of them is Syria, and I am from Syria. In the last few weeks and months, as you may have heard, some Syrian officials, or some officials in Damascus, were saying that Greece has decided to reopen its embassy in Damascus.
What is your comment on that?
- First of all, Syria is our close neighbor. And a failed state in the Mediterranean is not in our interest.
Already there are huge migratory flows from Syria towards Europe and we are very sorry because, again with Syria we have historic relations, one of the Orthodox Patriarchates is in Syria, we are sorry to see Syria in such a state.
Having said that, it is not us who can forget and forgive the Assad regime. What we are doing is we recognize that there is a situation on the ground and the Greek Chargé d'affaires should be there to help normalize the situation on the ground, help the Greek citizens, and help the European citizens. But we are not accrediting our Chargé d'affaires to the Assad regime. On that, we have to consult with our European friends and partners, and the Council of the European Union will take a decision on how we will deal with the Assad regime. It is not us to decide alone.
• So, you have not already decided to reopen the Embassy and send an Ambassador to Damascus?
- No. We are having a Chargé d’Affaires in Damascus, not an Ambassador. It is a high-ranking and experienced personality because the situation on the ground needs experience, but he is not the Ambassador to the Assad regime.
• And how would the Embassy function?
- He is in Beirut now, trying to see how the Embassy could function.
• The EU Council on Foreign Relations decided, almost two to three years ago, the conditional re-engagement to the region. They said there is no contribution to the reconstruction unless there is “genuine” progress in the political process.
- You are right. We tried to combine these things. I am talking again to the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen very often, I see him in Geneva very often, and we have a good relation. I have offered him our good services in any way for the situation, but the decision in the European Union is just as you said.
We have to see steps from the Assad regime in order to provide funds for the reconstruction scheme. And I am very sorry that these steps are not there because, for example, we don’t accept the result of the elections, we don’t take them seriously; because the Syrian people really need our help and they need it urgently.
You know much better than I, 1/3 of the Syrian population is out of Syria. This is unacceptable. We live in the 21st century.
• What are the steps you are expecting from the regime in Damascus to engage or to normalize?
- Well, again, I am not bringing news to you saying that democratization, the full respect of human rights, and accountability for crimes of war is what the European Union would expect. These are the terms and the conditionality under which the European Union operates. The EU is a set of nations and it is also a set of values.
• Because it is a major story, that is very important for many Syrians. Allow me to understand. As of now, are you committed to EU conditions regarding normalization, and reconstruction?
- Let me again be frank. As things are in Syria right now, the obvious thing we would like for example is opening corridors in which we could provide humanitarian help.
As you know, there is only one open corridor from Turkey to Syria now, from which humanitarian help could be provided. We need more. If that happens, which is what we are waiting to see, then we are interested to see how the Assad regime sees the future. How it can present to the European Union with a sort of proof that it is willing to create a democratic future for the Syrian people, the ability of the Syrian people to express their opinions.
The Constitutional Committee is a great forum in which, if the Assad regime wishes, it could present some sort of steps. But I am not sure that we will see that happening.
• As you mentioned, the Russians and the Americans have reached an agreement at the UN Security Council to renew cross-border assistance.
What is your comment on this? Also, do you think that could be a start for the Americans and the Russians to work together, to reach a settlement?
- Well, it would be great if they could reach an understanding. An understanding between the Americans and the Russians would be a first step towards a better future for Syria. But let us see if that happens.
• I have a few more questions. One is about NATO. Greece and Turkey are NATO members. How do you describe the relations with NATO in terms of the complicated ties between the two countries?
-Well, both us and Turkey are among the oldest members of NATO. And I have to say we are proud of this membership. Yet, having said that, NATO sometimes keeps equal distances between the member states.
I would like NATO to remember more, that apart from an Alliance, it is not only an Alliance of countries, it is an Alliance based on certain values. And that would have made it necessary for NATO when one of its members is at fault, to say so clearly. It has not done that up to now.
It is understandable, again I am saying, because we are speaking about a member state. But yet again, NATO is an Alliance of values. And I have to say that we are doing a full revision on NATO’s future: the 2030 policy for NATO. It would be interesting to see how this element of NATO values is being described in that policy paper.
• In that regard, the Americans have decided already, I think, some time ago, to expand their naval military base in Alexandroupolis. So what is the meaning of this move, Mr. Dendias?
- The Greek-American relations, I have to say, are at an all times high, and the Americans in the last years have always said the right things when there is a Greek-Turkish crisis.
And I have to say, for example, I was extremely happy because 3 or 4 weeks ago, Secretary (Antony) Blinken openly came out and advised all the countries of the world to subscribe to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, the UNCLOS, taking into account that even the United States has not subscribed to UNCLOS up to now. So, for us, this is music to our ears, because that is what we believe.
So, I have to say the United States is a very positive force in our region, and especially in the Aegean and in the context of the Greek-Turkish relations. And I would be happy if there is more American presence in Greece, more American presence in the region. I consider that as absolutely positive.
We are negotiating a new defense agreement with the United States. I hope we will be able to conclude these negotiations by the autumn of 2021 and sign this new agreement before the end of this year, but that remains to be seen. All negotiations are rather complex, but that is our aspiration.
And I have to say, I am quite positive about the role the United States has played in our region.
• This is the last one. Is this related to the Incirlik military base, in south of Turkey? Does that mean for Turkey, the US is trying to expand its relationship with Greece at the expense of…?
- I do not see our relationship with the United States as something that is opposing Turkey in any way. Again, as I told you, I would wish Turkey to normalize its behavior, to aspire to become a modern, western-values country, a democratic country, a partner of the community of democratic, law-abiding states.
So, our liaison with the United States has a value per se for us. Having said that, what the Americans do with their Turkish friends is none of our business.
• Great, I know, I took much of your time.
- Not at all, it was a great pleasure. I hope to see you in person sometime. Thank you so much.