British Minister to Asharq Al-Awsat: Cooperation with Saudi Arabia a Fundamental Pillar in Confronting International Terror Threats

 British Minister for the Middle East, Lord Tariq Ahmad (Asharq Al-Awsat)
 British Minister for the Middle East, Lord Tariq Ahmad (Asharq Al-Awsat)

British Minister to Asharq Al-Awsat: Cooperation with Saudi Arabia a Fundamental Pillar in Confronting International Terror Threats

 British Minister for the Middle East, Lord Tariq Ahmad (Asharq Al-Awsat)
 British Minister for the Middle East, Lord Tariq Ahmad (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Lord Tariq Ahmad, the British Minister for the Middle East, emphasized the persistent global challenge posed by ISIS, stating that it cannot be effectively addressed by a single country acting alone. He also underlined the crucial role played by Saudi Arabia in bolstering aviation security, defensive cyber security, and combating terrorism and extremism.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, on the sidelines of his participation in the International Anti-Terrorism Coalition conference held in Riyadh, Ahmad highlighted the significant roles undertaken by both the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia within the coalition. He emphasized their joint efforts, alongside international partners, to achieve the permanent defeat of ISIS.

On the Saudi-British relations and their strategic nature, Ahmad indicated that the relationship between the two kingdoms is longstanding and robust, as it has ever been, saying their bilateral ties cover a wide range of interests, including trade, investment, defense, security, energy, as well as shared concerns on regional issues.

He also stressed that the Saudi-British ties support both the Saudi Vision 2030 and the efforts aimed at boosting the growth of the British economy.

The British official emphasized that the meeting of Ministers of the International Coalition to Combat Terrorism in Riyadh served as a crucial platform to maintain pressure on ISIS, considering the ongoing harassment inflicted by the group upon communities in Iraq and Syria.

In this context, he underlined the importance of international cooperation between partners to address the threat of terrorism and preserve the safety of citizens, noting that collaboration with partners was essential to the UK’s approach to terrorism.

Asked about the regional role of Saudi Arabia, the senior UK official noted that the Kingdom was a major political, energy, diplomatic and economic power in the Middle East and beyond.

He added that its status in Islam as Custodian of the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah grants it a distinctive role within the Islamic world.

The minister also pointed to Riyadh’s hosting of the General Secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Ahmad highlighted Saudi Arabia's commitment to fostering security cooperation with both regional and international partners, including the United Kingdom. This collaboration encompasses various domains such as aviation security, defensive cyber security, as well as joint efforts to combat terrorism and extremism.

Furthermore, he conveyed his country's endorsement of Saudi Arabia's endeavors to advance interfaith understanding and facilitate dialogue.

Addressing the crisis in Sudan, the British minister conveyed the UK’s sincere appreciation for the Saudi effort to facilitate the evacuation of thousands of expatriates from different nationalities, including British nationals, from Sudan.

He further acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s efforts, in collaboration with the United States, in brokering short-term ceasefire negotiations held in Jeddah, which aimed to provide essential humanitarian access.

In this context, Ahmad said that the UK stands in solidarity with the people of Sudan for a peaceful and democratic future. He added that his government’s immediate goal was to stop the violence and achieve protection for civilians and safe and unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

Moreover, the minister pointed to the UK’s participation in a new core group, led by the African Union, to facilitate the return of conflicting parties to the negotiating table.

On Yemen, Ahmad expressed his belief that a political settlement was the sole path towards attaining lasting stability in the country and effectively addressing the severe humanitarian crisis

He pointed to a golden opportunity to collectively build on the progress made over the past 15 months, underlining the need to cease all actions that undermine ongoing efforts to achieve peace, including threats posed to oil infrastructure, traders, and shipping companies.

The British minister stated that his country does not endorse the reinstatement of Damascus into the Arab League, emphasizing that the final decision lies with the members of the Arab institution.

According to Ahmad, the future Arab engagement with Syria must be conditional on fundamental changes made by Damascus and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, noting that the latter continues to detain, torture and kill innocent Syrians.

He also called for holding accountable those who have committed human rights abuses, adding that Syria must participate in the UN political process, which remains the only path to achieving a lasting and sustainable peace in the country.

On the international level, Ahmad described Russia’s war on Ukraine as an unprovoked, premeditated and barbaric attack against a sovereign state.

He noted that the United Kingdom condemned the reprehensible actions of the Russian government, which he said were a flagrant violation of international law and the Charter of the United Nations.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.