UN Envoy Says Syria at ‘Critical Time,’ Needs to Act

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. AFP
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. AFP
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UN Envoy Says Syria at ‘Critical Time,’ Needs to Act

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. AFP
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. AFP

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen has lauded the Arab initiative on Damascus, stressing the importance of taking it into consideration along with the Moscow track and the American and European stances to move forward in finding a political solution in Syria.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Pedersen said that we are “at a very critical time,” adding that Damascus should use this opportunity to move towards a settlement.

 

Here is the full text of the interview:

 

The Arab summit will be held in Jeddah with President Bashar Assad attending for the first time since the Arab Summit in Libya in 2010. What does it mean to the UN Special Envoy to see this?

Let me start by reminding that we have now been searching for a political solution to the crisis in Syria for 12 years. We know the problems are extremely deep and that there is no easy solution, but at the same time we also know that there is a sort of an agreed international consensus that Security Council resolution 2254 should serve as a basis for finding a political solution to the crisis.

We also know that despite the fact that we have had this agreement on 2254, the political process has not really been able to deliver, let’s be frank and honest about this. We know there is obviously no short cut for a political solution to this crisis but at the same time we should welcome renewed diplomatic attention to Syria and we are seeing when it comes to the Arabs, there has been important initiatives. We saw the meeting between the four Arab foreign ministers and (Syrian) Foreign Minister (Faisal) Mikdad in Amman on May 1 and then we are seeing lots of different meetings in Moscow and the last meeting was at the foreign ministers level between the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks and the Syrian foreign ministers. Prior to that we saw meetings on Ministers of Defense levels. There are things happening, but of course what is important to remember is that after 12 years of war and conflict, we had an additional dimension with the tragedy of the earthquakes and the reality is that the situation on the ground in Syria has not changed. We are seeing a lot of important diplomatic symbolic moves but this has so far not led to any real changes for the Syrian people on the ground. And this I believe is the chance that we all need to address together.

Let me just emphasize that obviously and I said from day one that if we are to find a solution to this crisis, we need the cooperation of all actors. We need the Syrian parties, the Astana players, the Arabs and the US and Europe also to be part of this. But now the reality is that a comprehensive solution to this crisis is not possible for now. That of course should not prevent us from trying and more time. What I see increasingly is that despite this fact, status quo is not acceptable so we need to find a way to move forward. I do believe that what we see among our Arab friends and from the meetings in Moscow is indeed that there is an agreement that status quo is not acceptable. The good news here is that the Americans and the Europeans I am talking to also agree on that, so we have the consensus. Then the question becomes what does this actually mean?

All these diplomatic moves as you said in Moscow, between the Syrians and the Iranians, between the Arabs and Damascus, do they make your mandate to achieve 2254 easier?

My hope is indeed it will lead to build some confidence and build on that confidence to be able to see concrete steps being taken in Syria that can be the beginning of implementing 2254. As you know, I have suggested what I call ‘step-for-step’ approach. Based on the understanding I just explained, I have been engaging my Arab friends, the Astana players but most importantly of course the government of Damascus on this. What we are trying to do is to agree on what we call concrete mutual and reciprocal steps that could be taken to try to unlock progress and to move the political process forward. These steps, and this is extremely important, must be very viable and implemented in parallel. Obviously, the reason we want to do this is to try to build confidence and see if we can change the realities on the ground. I highlighted few issues that should be part of such process.

Give us some examples.

Obviously we all know that the file of abductees and missing persons is extremely important and then the file of building conditions for safe dignified return of refugees is of course very important and if we are discussing that, overall we need to address protection issue, to discuss conscription, housing, land and property issues and what I call signal documentation. We also need to put on the table how we can restore socio-economic conditions and this issue became even more important after the earthquakes and part of this means addressing the issue of sanctions. Obviously, what it takes to deliver is all parties participate and put the issues on the table. Here frankly speaking from the dialogues we had so far, I see there are some overlap between the different initiatives, there are complimentary things that we could be doing and there are of course also some differences which should be no surprise to anyone.

I do believe that what we have seen in Moscow and with the Arab initiative that all of this could be a ‘circuit breaker’, the beginning of a possible development and I also said that it is extremely important that the government in Damascus uses this opportunity to engage and that is of course if what we need to see this process move forward.

As you mentioned, ‘step for step’ is sort of a part of the political and diplomatic initiative and this approach has been mentioned in Amman statement, do you think that those initiatives are really willing to engage seriously with this ‘step for step’ approach or just a lip service?

I have a good dialogue with the Arab foreign ministers, I also have with foreign minister Mikdad. I think they all understand very clearly what the key challenges are when it comes to solving the Syrian conflict. The reality on the ground is still there, it is a deeply divided country, there are different entities still controlling different parts of Syria, we have an economic and humanitarian crisis and there are still the challenges of terrorism. I know of course from our friends the issue of the Captagon, all these issues are complex and it need proper understanding and proper engagements. We can work together on this, and I am hearing very positive messages from the Arab foreign ministers about their intentions to work closely with me and the UN to address these issues and after the Arab summit I am looking forward to how to develop this further.

The same of course goes for the Astana players. I am still in close contact with Russia, Iran and Türkiye and there are also overlaps between what they are discussing, what the Arabs are discussing and what we are discussing. It is important that we continue to coordinate, we share information and based on this and the understanding that no one actor can solve the crisis alone. We need all actors to be part of this, to participate. This goes for the Arabs, for the Turks, Iranians, Russians, Americans and Europeans. I see my role as being able to contribute in one way or another to bring different parties to share, to put on the table something that can move the process forward and help change the reality on the ground in Syria.

Is it true that there is a timetable that some Arab countries are expecting Damascus to take certain steps on certain issues?

Let me not talk on behalf of my Arab friends, you have to ask them about how precisely they want to move forward. We had very good discussions so far and hope to continue to deepen the dialogue and have a follow up that would enhance and strengthen the different initiatives launched.

None of us are to have any illusions that this is easy. It will take a lot of hard work but hopefully the reality on the ground, the enormous needs in Syria that have been there for a long time now but even bigger after the earthquake, that it is more important than ever that we come together and see if there is a serious interest in moving forward in a manner that is reciprocal and is very viable and can have in parallel.

There is a gap at least for now, we see Arab normalization with Damascus and the Syrian government and at the same time the western countries, the Americans and specially the Congress are moving in a different direction, trying to impose and tighten the sanctions on Syria. As UN special envoy for Syria, does this make your mission easier or more difficult?

You are absolutely right, there is still a deep division in the international community when it comes to Syria. There is no doubt about it. You are right that we are seeing lately a renewed debate brought in Washington and European capitals on how to continue engaging in this process. My impression is that they all understand and all support the concept of the ‘step for step’ process. If we can see that Damascus now really engages in this process, this will give us a renewed opportunity to move this process. A ‘step for step’ process means that all parties deliver something concrete so that we can move forward.

A source mentioned that the approach is that we offer Damascus incentives and Damascus has to offer something in return, in terms of Captagon, the return of refugees, political process and we need to see concrete steps in the upcoming four to six months. If there is no response, then the western countries will be even tougher on Damascus than now.

The western countries should answer you directly. For me, the situation is we have now had 12 years of war and conflict, things need to change and we are seeing an initiative from the Arabs, the Turks, the Astana format, this creates a real opportunity to move the process forward. We now need to see Damascus respond positively to this. If this is not happening, the reality is that the economic and social situation in Syria will continue to deteriorate and the call for political solution will be further diminished and it will be a disaster for all of us. We are indeed at a very critical time.

I notice that I am hearing positive statements from the Arabs when it comes to have new meetings for the Constitution Committee. In Amman they stated that it is important for the Constitution Committee to meet as soon as possible. I am hearing the same from the Astana players. One easy first step should be to reconvene the Constitution Committee in Geneva. That is really one first small step that should be taken. Then it will be possible for me to follow along with the follow up committee from the Arab League and discuss precisely how to move forward, in the same manner as I am having concrete discussions with Türkiye, Iran and Russia and indeed with Americans and Europeans.

This is the unique role of the United Nations, I can talk to everyone and I can bring something to the table that no one else can bring.

Some people are saying that actually the Moscow quadruple track - Iran, Russia, Syria, Türkiye - is a substitute for Astana process and that the Arab track with Damascus is a substitute for Geneva process. Some people are saying that the big victim out of these processes is the UN sponsored process, whether it is the Constitution Committee or 2254. What is your response to this?

These processes have a potential: The Arab initiative, the Moscow track. If it starts delivering, then nothing will be better and I could see that as a support to what we are trying to achieve which is to move the situation in Syria forward in a manner that we can start to see what I call a safe home and neutral environment emerging that will enable us to move forward also on the political process. As I said, all of these initiatives are important but if we really want to see a move forward, we need to have a comprehensive view both on what it requires to change when it comes to Syria, what it requires of international engagement to move forward in Syria and none of this will be easy, but there is now an opening, a possibility but this possibility must be grasped by the government in Damascus.

For you as UN special envoy what are the next steps that you are going to work on?

We are now studying very carefully what is happening on the Moscow track, the Arab initiative, the situation after the earthquake, UN coordination, and based on all this, I have been active lately in my engagement with different key interlocutors. We will try to make sure that we develop this in a manner that can enhance the possibilities of success with the Syrian parties, with the Arabs, with Moscow, with Washington and with the Europeans. It is a huge challenge but without all being interactive together the process will stall. My job is to try to prevent that of happening. So far, the messages I am receiving in particular from my Arab friends are promising.

Until now we have not seen big progress, big change on the ground, what will you tell the Syrian citizens whether they are in Damascus, Idlib, Qamishli, in Lebanon, Jordan, Frankfurt, Paris, London... How can you convince them that actually what we are seeing now will contribute to improving their situation?

After 12 years of war and conflict, the political process so far has not delivered. I understand there is a lot of skepticism and cynicism towards the possibility of seeing a real change. What we are seeing now are important symbolic political moves, but nothing has changed when it comes to the situation on the ground in Syria. What my team and I revert together with all the UN colleagues to try to achieve is that we will see a beginning of a change to this. We will see that reality on the ground is changing and if that is not happening, we are risking continued years of war and conflict, a deterioration of the economic and social foundations in Syria. People are deprived of even hope to see these necessary changes that we need to see if Syria is to return to a situation where people can live in a situation that is safe and calm, and those refugees who want to return can return to their homes and those who are displaced can return to their homes. There needs to be a healing in the Syrian society and I notice from the Arab friends that there is talk about the need for a national reconciliation. Let us hope that this can be the beginning of something new. Are we guaranteed success? Absolutely not. But we should welcome that people are trying to do something. As I said, status quo should not be acceptable.

Some of the political opposition feel that they are abandoned, are they right in this feeling?

The reality is of course that we are seeing a lot of diplomatic moves. If these moves lead to changes on the ground in a manner that will move the process forward, I am sure then it will be welcomed by everyone and this is what we need to see. As I said, I understand the skepticism and even the cynicism to whether this is possible or not. How the opposition sees this, I think you should ask them directly.

In January 2014 there was Montreux conference sponsored by the UN to implement Geneva communique, in December 2015 there was another conference in Vienna which led to 2254. Now in 2023 are we going to see something similar like a big conference in your presence to discuss a political solution in Syria?

How practical what will happen it is too early to say, but your point is a good point and it is what I have tried to reinforce through my discussion with you today and that it is for this to move forward one way or the other. All these different initiatives need to come together. I need to make sure that I have all the key actors on board, obviously the Syrian parties, the Astana players, the Arabs, the Americans and the Europeans. I can reassure you that I will do my utmost so that we will be able to move along those lines.



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)
TT

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.”