Attempts to redraw borders just push Middle East back 100 years – ex-head of Arab League

The West once hailed the Arab Spring as the “will of the people,” but instead of shaping the Middle East for the better, the region is now drowning in wars and bloodshed. The issue has gotten out of control, with world powers getting involved in the conflicts. But should they be? Can the Arab states themselves take their fate into their own hands? We ask the former Secretary General of the Arab League – Amr Moussa.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Amr Moussa, former Secretary-General of the Arab League, it’s a great pleasure to have you on our show.

Amr Moussa: It’s my pleasure.

SS: You’re welcome.

AM: Thank you.

SS: You have said that non-Arab states are deciding the fate of Syria, while Egypt and others are actually staying on the sidelines. Why aren’t the Arab states getting involved?

AM: The circumstances in the region, are, as you know, very complicated, and complicating the regional relations. What happened in Syria and what is happening in Syria is so disturbing, but I don’t think that any solution arrived at what would be a kind of understanding between some regional powers like Iran and Turkey, and international powers like Russia and America, would be enough to guarantee the success of any proposition worked out by those powers. The reaction in the Arab public opinion is very important to give the support for any project concerning the solution in Syria. So, Arab involvement is necessary, and this quartet should be 5 or 6, with the participation of Arab countries. I thought and I talked about that, that Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be involved. Now, there’s an Arab Summit coming up at the chairmanship of Jordan, and Jordan will be chairman of the Arab Summit for a year. So, Jordan can represent all the Arabs and be invited into the kitchen. I am not talking about the conference and the cameras, etc, but the kitchen where the real solutions or real problems are being discussed.

SS: I don’t think that anyone is actually arguing that Arab countries should be involved, the question is why aren’t they involved? Maybe they’re not powerful enough to actually influence the situation on the ground?

AM: Yes, perhaps, there’s weakness, of course, in the Arab position and that I cannot argue with. But for the good management, a solid and logical management of things, those 4 powers, should have, from the beginning, invited an Arab countries or a group of Arab countries to be involved, and this I noticed and others have noticed, started at the time of the negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal. This nuclear deal has regional dimensions. The other countries in the region, mainly the Arab countries, were not consulted, were not in the now, were just informed, generally, with the developments of those negotiations.

SS: Let’s see what we have right now - only part of the Syrian opposition was present at peace talks in Geneva, right? So the rebels can’t act as a united front - whether it’s battlefield, whether it’s negotiation table.  How do you consolidate the Syrian opposition - can an outside force take on that role? And if yes - who should that be?

AM: So many forces, in particular, external forces, but also regional forces, have played their role to divide and rule - divide the oppositions, divide all the parties, I must say, because all the parties in Syria now are weak. Perhaps  this is what some powers needed to reach in order to be able to impose a solution. But the point is, we cannot get back to the status quo, we cannot get back to what has been the way Arab countries were governed, were ruled before their revolutions and before the upheaval of the 2011. So, we have to look forward for solutions that go with the XXI century’s requirement, that would appeal to the young people in the Arab world. The young people in the Arab world from over 60% of the Arab population, and this young generation is crucial to give support or to revolt against any imposition and just unfair solution, in particular, in Syria, because Syria is in the heart of the Arab world, it will affect everybody, in particular, the Arab public opinion that is so much politicized.

SS: How would the young generation, that you’ve mentioned, decide anything?

AM: Yes, it’s not ‘decide’, I’m talking about the reaction of the young people, the reaction of the public opinion should be supportive of any solution. If the solution is opposed by the Arab public opinion, it will not succeed. It will be just a kind of an armistice that will end up very soon, and there will be resumption of the troubles and tensions, and, perhaps, also, wars.

SS: Keeping Syria integral is the mantra repeated by all the players involved in the conflict. Yet, to ensure a ceasefire each side has to control a certain part of the country - isn’t this de-facto a partition, already?

AM: No. Of course, that is a kind of… not partition, but, let’s say, provisional partition, because several parts of the country are under different authorities - be them an organisation or a terrorist faction or… But this is the problem. We do want to solve the problem and solve the problem by maintaining the integrity of the country. Any division - because there are people, and even politicians, who talk about a solution in Syria - “that give this faction and that sect a piece of the land…” One of them, here, at the Valdai Conference, talked about ‘Sunnistan’, ‘Alawistan’. I believe that this is a recipe for failure and for description and more chaos and no solution. I believe that if it is so, it will be more than ‘Sunnistan’ or ‘Shiastan’, this will be… We’ll be talking also about the ‘Palestinian-stan’, and ‘Jewi-stan’, and so on, and it will open the Pandora’s box, the gates of Hell.

SS: While you say this partition is temporary and many agree with that, it does create a status quo for some parties involved that actually suit some players - for instance, I’m talking about Turkey, Turkey-backed opposition groups. Can it hinder the political peace process?

AM: Peace process needs the cooperation of all neighbors, the cooperation of Turkey. Turkey should know that Syria would have to be preserved as Syria within its borders.

SS:You’re one of the most experienced diplomats in the world, and you know what countries say and what they do are usually a different thing - Turkey has called for creating a safe zone on the territories it’s liberating in Syria - protecting such zones would require installing ground forces, air power. Would a safe zone in essence create Turkish-controlled enclaves in Syria?

AM: The safe zones, or this notion of zones that would guarantee the security and the humanitarian situation in countries will have to be done with absolute care, and under international supervision - not of this or that country, but under the UNSC supervision and also the UNGA, so that all countries will follow what is going on in such zones. The experience in Libya was so bad, because many countries exploited the UNSC resolution and the desire to protect the civilian population to invade Libya and to divide Libya, and you see what happened to Libya. So, we hope that when we talk about safe zones, we mean safe zones from the humanitarian point of view, that people will not be attacked, but this should be observed, because it could lead to a good result, but it could also lead to bad results. It will be exploited and this is what makes very concerned when I hear about those zones after what we have seen in Libya.

SS: Generally speaking, how does the Turkish intervention in the Syrian process sit Egypt, Saudi Arabia? I mean, the relationships between those countries aren’t at their best.

AM: With Turkey, there’s a problem with part of the Arab world, especially Egypt. Turkey is a neighbor, and a big country, we cannot deny Ankara this kind of presence in the Middle East. But they have to take into consideration that the Middle East is emancipating, it’s changing, it’s moving into the XXI century. So, hegemonistic policies from neighbours and non-democratic type of rule is not going to work. So Turkey will have to reconsider several aspects of its policy with its neighbors, in particular, in Syria.

SS: You know, we talk a lot about Syria’s partition, would it be bad or  not so bad, maybe - ISIS offensive has temporarily erased the border between Syria and Iraq - but seeing how this partition was a European idea, and you yourself has said….

AM: What do you mean by “partition”?

SS:You know, the drawing up of the…

AM: That is just an organisation, or some kind of terrorists or things - that is not “drawing borders”, and, in fact, ISIS or Daesh as we call it, is not the main problem. It is the result of a lot of policies and they wouldn’t have reached that kind of power without support given by authorities, by governments. You will be astonished to know that governments that disagree and not necessarily have  the same kind of policy - they supported Daesh! And also, the policies in countries concerned - that promoted anger, or resulted in anger and frustration that led to the establishment… So, we cannot say, and we should not say that the whole battle, what the whole world is doing now, is to defeat ISIS only. We have to defeat the policies that have led to that terrorism - policies of polarisation, of invasion, of discrimination and of competing interests from abroad, from outside the Arab world.

SS: I’m still going to ask the question that I wanted to ask, if I may, because you yourself said earlier in the interview that things can’t be the same in the Arab world ever since 2011, right?

AM: I believe in that.

SS: I just gave you a small example of erasing the border by ISIS - but, I’m just saying, what’s wrong with redrawing the borders? Maybe it’s time to redraw the borders in general…

AM: Who would redraw the borders?

SS: I don’t know, I’m asking you.

AM: That means those powers, the 4 powers I mentioned, are involved in redrawing the borders between Arab countries. They don’t have that authority! Otherwise, we will be going full century back to Sykes-Picot - this a XXI century, not the XX century! The people will have to determine what exactly should be done with their borders and their countries. So, to allow the countries - to say, “we’re going to redraw this and that” - I believe, that this is a failure and it would lead to disaster, to a big disaster in the region. That’s why I oppose any redrawing. I am not alone. Big portion of the Arab public opinion would not accept. Why should they redraw? Who are they to redraw the borders? Trump is talking about populism - and all of us are talking about populism, and then when we come to the middle east, we forget about people and allow this or that country to say: “Iraq should be this size, and Syria should be that size”. It is unacceptable.

SS: It is unacceptable.

AM: Unworkable! No, more than unacceptable, it is unworkable, it would not work.

SS: But look at the example of Syria, right? It is up to the Syrian people to decide what’s going to happen to Syria. All parties involved are saying this. All parties involved aren’t Syrians. How are Syrian people supposed to decide what’s good for them, if everyone was deciding their fate?

AM: The Syrian people will have to decide their own fate, a way they are going to govern. But the borders of Syria are not only the borders of Syria, they are at the same time the borders of Iraq, they are at the same time the borders of Jordan, at  the same time the border of Lebanon, at the same time the border with Turkey. So, this goes beyond what the people of a certain country need. This is a regional issue. So, the Syrian people will have to decide about their own fate within their own country - but the question of borders is a different story. That’s why the principle should be - let us respect the borders of all countries in that region, including, in particular Syria, which we are talking about now.

SS: Egypt supports the Syrian government, other Arab states do not. Those states - the Gulf states, Saudis - do you think they are ready to give up  ‘Assad must go’ and support early elections?

AM: This is what the negotiations are all about. What kind of future for Syria, transitional period, new Constitution, are we going to get back to square one, or we have to jump to square ten, but this should be left to negotiators. But after the destruction of Syria, the amount of people that were killed, the amount of people that have been roaming the whole world, the refugees, the displaced, etc - something new has to come up, but with the agreement of all, and I hope that the UN, big powers, Arab powers, regional powers, all agree, that they will understand, first of all, that the Middle East has changed and it is not going to accept anything that would be imposed, and be told that “this is better for you” - no. We will not accept  that this is better for us, until we believe that this is better for us.

SS: But in your expert opinion, what is the top priority right now  - settling the civil war between the rivaling factions in Syria or fighting ISIS in Syria?

AM: The first thing is a ceasefire in Syria. That is very important. And allowing the humanitarian organisations to get in, in order to be able to alleviate the suffering in Syria and to allow those who left, the displaced and the refugees, whoever wants to come back - to come back. This is the beginning, this is the most important, and the thing that has to be done as quickly as we can.

SS: Now, you also said that Egypt must play more active role in resolving regional crises, not just Syria. Do you think Egypt should intervene more forcefully in Libya, commit more troops to fighting ISIS there?

AM: Look, this is… here, on Libya - I believe that you are aware that recently the three immediate neighbors of Libya: Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria - have met together and established a kind of a continuous commitee to get in touch with the Libyan factions

SS: Fighting factions.

AM: Fighting factions, but now it is of less intensity. And the security of all Libya and its neighbors, and before that, you will recall that many of the other neighbors of that state - Arabs, Africans, Europeans, etc - were contributing and following very closely the talks. The time has come for those powers, for regional powers, the three powers - Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, to work out a solution with the factions from the East, from the tribes, from the capital… So, this is the work that has to be done, and I believe we must help those three countries, support their efforts, in order for them to be able to wrap, or at least to calm down the situation.

SS: But that’s the best case scenario - if it works out. But with the things the way the are right now, do you feel Libya is being at risk, also, of being divided?

AM: No, divided, I don’t think it is at risk of being divided, but it is at risk of a continued bloodshed and continued tension within the country. But that Libya would be divided is a far-fetched thing. Perhaps, some would like to see Libya divided, but not us. ‘Not us’ meaning arabs and africans, definitely.

SS: In this part of the world, we talk a lot also about the war in Yemen. I mean, 15 months on, we have the richest Arab country bombarding non-stop the poorest Arab country to no end. A lot of people are actually thinking that it’s no one’s interest to end this war, because this war has turned into Germany, UK, U.S., providing arms there. We even have soldiers from Sudan or Colombia being recruited by  the Saudi Army. Do you feel that with so many benefiting from the war in Yemen, ending is not in people’s interest?

AM: As for those powers that benefit, I will tell you: for example, those terrorist organisation - Al-Qaeda, those can benefit from chaotic situation in Yemen. Those are the powers and whoever, any country that would support them just to sell arms and have bloodshed and spread tension in the Arab world. But the majority - I don’t think that even the West would benefit from this chaos in Yemen. The countries that you have mentioned, in particular, they are called upon to help the humanitarian effort, and not to accelerate or to exacerbate the situation.

SS: I was having interview with Egypt’s former Foreign Minister, just before you, and I cited the “New Arab” that reports that the Egyptian military, while participating in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, also provides weapons to anti-Saudi rebels - do you know if that is true, and if yes, what is Cairo hoping to achieve by propping up both sides of the conflict?

AM: I don’t think that this is the case. We in Egypt have a very, very bad experience over there and we know what war in Yemen means, and I don’t think  they are involved in that sense at all. But what Egypt would be involved in is to push towards a political solution. We have a certain affinity with people in Yemen, and a certain affinity, definitely, with the overall Arab security and Arab stability.

SS: I want to ask you about the new Administration in Washington. Trump has expressed some serious anti-Muslim sentiment, trying to ban Muslims from traveling to America. But Saudi Arabia, for instance, says Trump will be a friend for everyone. What makes Saudis so excited about him being in charge, why do they think he’ll be the friend of the Arabs?

AM: Ok, they would  think. A week ago I was talking in Cairo, at American-Arab society, I said that we better give Mr. Trump 100 days like the Americans give him, before deciding or adopting an opinion on mr. Trump. So I stick to that. I’m counting the days, one hundred days. Americans say: “we don’t ask the President of anything for 100 days”. After 100 days we will decide. So, now, we can show good intentions, we can smile, congratulate him, ask him to reconsider positions that we didn’t accept from the previous administration. So we can meet after the 100 days and talk about what policies we would accept and what policies we would oppose.

SS: Alright, so the countdown has begun. Mr. Moussa, thank you very much for this wonderful interview, good luck with everything.

AM: Thank you.