'If Obama doesn't strike Syria, nobody will believe his Iran warnings' - Former UN Chief Weapons Inspector
US military strikes are being held back and may not take place at all, in no small part thanks to Russia. But, is it a progress in a war that has already cost so many lives? Or are we back to square 1? About this and more we ask our guest Hans Blix, who worked as the UN's Chief Weapons Inspector at the time Iraq was accused of having weapons of mass destruction and and invaded as a result.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Our guest today is Hans Blix who worked as the UN’s chief weapons inspector at the time Iraq was accused of having weapons of mass destruction and was invaded as a result. Mr. Blix it’s really great to have you with us on the show.
Russia’s latest offer to hand over the control of Syria’s chemical stockpiles to international community – can you call it a diplomatic success or it is still too early to talk?
Hans Blix: I think it’s a success so far, because it has opened a dialogue about possible peaceful solutions. Only, to exclude chemical weapons and punish for their use is not enough – over 100.000 Syrians have died in this war and it continues to rage. I think what we need is ceasefire and talks about a conference in which the relevant parties get together and form the interim regime.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Here in Russia, there were a lot of jokes circulating in the social media about how Obama should hand over his Nobel Prize to Vladimir Putin. What do you make of that?
Hans Blix: I think it’s a little premature, maybe. But, I think that the two leaders and also Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry had a tremendous responsibility. The Security Council is not all that good as world’s policeman, but we don’t want individual countries whether it’s the U.S. or Russia, or China or anybody else to be the world’s policeman. We hope that the permanent members of the UNSC will exercise their responsibility and work together – as the UN charter was intended.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Despite backing down on what they call “local strikes on Syria”, the U.S. rhetoric is still pretty intense. Do you believe the intervention has been canceled or it’s just a delay?
Hans Blix: I think that there are incredibly complicated problems, and I think the focus now is enormously on technicalities, on inspections of chemical weapons, but we all should think about how can we end the hostilities, how can we end the fighting and it seems to me that the Great Powers have influence there . The war could hardly continue if the fighting parties did not get more money and get more weapons, and I think the Saudi Arabia perhaps and Qatar are reported to supply the rebels and Russia and Iran and perhaps Hezbollah are reported to supply the weapons and the money to the other side. I think if it could be agreed in the UNSC that all the suppliers should stop giving weapons and should demand a ceasefire and the conference, then we might stop blood. To punish is understandable, that one wants to do that, that one wants the end of this chemical weapons – that’s good, but what the main thing is after all is to stop the war.
Sophie Shevardnadze: I just want to talk a little bit more about this possible strike, because if it does take place it would change the course of events greatly. So the way the things are looking as of now – the Congress would most probably have voted against the strike – well that’s according to the latest survey. So could Obama have chosen to delay the strike in order to gain more support – I mean, Syria has been propelled in the mass media, especially the Western version of the events. The more you talk about it, the more it looks like intervention is the only solution…
Hans Blix: The strike is not a solution. It apparently has much to do with American wish to uphold the credibility of the U.S. president. Mr. Obama once warned Assad that if he were to use chemical weapons that would change Mr. Obama’s calculation. That was taken as a promise that they would intervene and now he has to hold on that promise. But there’s another promise behind this, that is also, perhaps, even more important – that is the statement from the U.S. that they won’t allow Iran to get closer to a nuclear weapon, and now many people feel that if they now give way to Syria and don’t carry out a strike this would show the U.S. is paper tiger vis-à-vis Iran. So, there are many additional complications to this and I think both Russia and Iran play important role in this and I’m glad that the initiative was taken by Mr. Putin and I think they must live up to the fact that we, in the rest of the world, we expect the permanent members of UNSC to try to solve the problems and avoid bloodshed.
Sophie Shevardnadze:From what I understand, you support the original U.S. version of events that it was Assad who carried out attack on August 21st. But it would seem to me that it’s a suicidal and utterly stupid move on behalf of Assad who was actually starting to defeat the rebels at the time of the attack. What makes you believe it was him – have you seen any solid proof?
Hans Blix: Well I agree with that reasoning, I think it was the disastrous decision on the part of Assad and that’s why I think in Moscow they thought it couldn’t have been him, but the evidence that is gradually coming forward, I think, now points to him. I don’t think we should pass judgment on that until we have the reports of the UN inspectors. They are not asked to say who committed it but even so, we have appointed them, we have sent inspectors into there, and we should listen to them and maybe one can come to some conclusions about the responsibility. I’m inclining to think that so much has come, also from independent sources to believe that, yes, the regime was behind this attack. It doesn’t exclude that the rebels may have used improvised chemical weapons, and it should be investigated. That was actually why the inspectors were sent there, to investigate all earlier uses of chemical weapons.
Sophie Shevardnadze:So just to make sure – you don’t exclude that it may have been the rebels, because Russia says the attack could have been the provocation on the part of the rebels.
Hans Blix: I don’t believe that, I think the scale point at the large organization that was behind it. But that doesn’t mean that I approve the idea of the punitive strike, I think we must not bypass the Security Council. In Washington they do not hold so much for the UN, but for the rest of the world we’d like to see the Council function. That requires also a statesman-like behavior both by Russia and by the U.S.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Like you said, the strike itself – would it have solved anything, because hundreds of people died before this chemical attack was carried out, so it’s ok to kill people organically, but once the chemical weapons were used they have to go and strike?
Hans Blix: I think that’s a very valid objection, I mean it’s a punishment but it doesn’t really solve anything. It is somewhat pathetic, I think, to kill and to strike and then say “Now you can go on with your war, but use other means!” This is not human thinking.
Sophie Shevardnadze:You were chief of the UN weapons inspection team when the West went into war with Iraq – how was it determined that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction?
Hans Blix: Well, that was determined back in 1991, when Saddam occupied Kuwait and we went in, I was the head of international atomic energies at that time and we could see how they were building cauldrons and how they were preparing nuclear weapon. But all that was taken out during the 90s, very harsh sanctions that the Iraqi people suffered under, but they did not reconstruct the program of weapons of mass destruction. That was suspected and alleged and claimed by the U.S. and the UK and we were sent to verify it in 2002, we spent 700 inspections there, all over the country, and we could only report that we did not find any weapon. Then, indeed, weren’t’ any, so the second war, the war in 2003, was unnecessary and a horrible war, it was meant to establish democracy and what they achieved there was anarchy.
Sophie Shevardnadze: You, out of all people, you would know – in case of Syria, how does the UN carry out its analysis?
Hans Blix: Well, there’s a secretary general that has taken the initiative to send inspectors and to negotiate with Assad for some inspection, but for the rest it is this members of the UNSC who have the responsibility and the Secretariat assists by analysis and by collecting data and so forth. But the responsibility rests with the five permanent members but also other ten members of the Security Council. They have to sit down and work day and night to find a way that also saves the face – as many as one can.
Sophie Shevardnadze:But would Obama listen to objections from the UN if he got the approval from Congress, which in itself is doubtful, or would he just push on with these plans, because we’ve seen it happen before? What’s the role of the UN if nobody listens to it?
Hans Blix: They do. In case of Iraq in 1991 Russia and China rallied to the others and agreed on the UN intervention to stop the occupation, and that was President Bush senior who did very much of that. It was a successful, great moment. In the case of Libya there was also an agreement, Russia feels that the Western states sort of extended it, used it too extensively, and they felt perhaps a little trapped in it, but nevertheless, it was an agreement in the UNSC – it’s difficult to reach such agreement, but they need to do it more often. The world expects them in the council to act responsibly for the whole world, not only for their own narrow interests.
Sophie Shevardnadze:The latest UN report suggests both Assad and the rebels are guilty of war crimes. The rebels have allegedly carried even more killings that Assad. How can the West side with them – I mean, clearly, if Obama is to strike, it can’t possibly be neutral.
Hans Blix: I think it’s fairly clear that there are awful crimes committed on both sides in this war, and some people talk about use of International Criminal court and I think that is a step forward that we have such a court that can examine cases and decide who was guilty but it should be in all directions, I mean, if the court is engaged in this situation, as it’s supposed to be, I think it should examine all the war crimes that are committed to be taken up when possible, when hostilities are over.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Logically, if Assad is removed, who will take his place? I mean, other possible candidates already proving just as bad if not worse?
Hans Blix: I don’t know, I think what the aim should be is a conference in which the interested parties, various groups are there, there will be the Alawites and I think, probably, Assad will have to step aside, but he’s not the only one in that movement, there will be rebel movements, there will be the U.S., there will be Russia and I’m sure Iran must be there , Saudi Arabia, Qatar – all those who are involved in it will have to be there, and the aim must be to– and that’s incredibly difficult after this bloody war – to create an interim authority that represents all the various groups in Syria.
Sophie Shevardnadze:It’s just hard to imagine anyone coming to power and reconciling with people after everything that has happened, no matter which side takes the lead. But, if you look at the things globally – who’s war is it at this point? Of the Syrians on the ground or it’s more of Russian-U.S. political standoff?
Hans Blix: Well, on your first question – there have been situations with terrible atrocities happening and yet the parties can come together. South Africa was in such situation, in which a horrible apartheid been there and yet they found the reconciliation, such situation happened in Nigeria, but it’s incredibly difficult – I agree with you. But it’s the only way out, if the alternative is to continue civil war – well, that’s pretty horrible. What was your second question?
Sophie Shevardnadze:My second question is – at this point, do you think it’s a war of Syrians on the ground or it’s more of Russian-U.S. political standoff?
Hans Blix: Well, one might say that basically the war is a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to have a Sunni Muslim government in Syria, and Iran wants the government that is siding more with Shia side. This goes on in many parts of the Middle East, and I think, we, on the western side, we think that they want to coexist the two, and there was of course hope from the U.S. side that if the Sunnis came into power, they would get a regime that would not be friendly with Iran, and there was a fear on the Iranian-Russian side, that if they got such a regime, that would be for their disadvantage. However, I think the question of the Iranian nuclear efforts to expand its nuclear program is an issue that should be settled and solved apart from the Syrian conflict. And with a new government in Tehran, I think there is hope for somewhat more reconciling measures, some interim steps that might lead to less tension – that is very important, because it has to do with avoiding the spread of weapons of mass destruction. There was an opportunity missed, I think, last year, when the U.S. blocked the holding of the conference in Helsinki on the zone free of WMD in the Middle East. That was regrettable, I think we need to get back to that, we need Middle East that is free not only of chemical weapons, but also of nuclear weapons.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Do you side with the speculations in the West that Syria for the West is actually just a way to get to Iran?
Hans Blix: I think the U.S. support for the rebellion in the beginning was certainly a support by democratic people, who wanted to see less brutal, less oppressive regime in Syria. At the same time, I think that the government hoped that if you were to topple Assad that might bring into government the regime that would not be friendly to Iran. But, as the war went on, the world saw that there are many different forces on the rebel side and that perhaps you would get a regime that was very fundamentalist Islamic, perhaps even more dangerous to Israel as well, and therefore, the outside has not been so keen to really make a difference in the war and to side with rebels. The U.S. had been reluctant to send in any weapons which the rebels have wanted. So, I think, the outside world would like to have a regime that is inclusive at this stage, But they should also press more for actually stopping the hostilities, because there we have over 100.000 dead.
Sophie Shevardnadze:But as much as West and America may dislike the current Iranian regime, it is pretty clear that if the West wants to find a solution to Syrian crisis – that is, one more time, I emphasize, if they want to find a solution – Iran could actually play a key role in regulating. Do they realize that?
Hans Blix: Yes, I think they do. But feelings in the U.S. vis-à-vis Iran had been very-very strong in the past, and they still are. On the other hand, I think, they have to notice there’s new government in Tehran a new government that’s been very much more open to discussions and wish to end the war, to end the conflict. At the same time it must not be a solution that is humiliating for Iran, they are proud people, they are proud of their achievements and that has to be taken into account. But, I think there’s hope for some progress on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, and it should be even more ambitious, it should be an ambition to have a zone free both of WMD and also of the means of producing them – that would mean that Israel will also have to do away with its own nuclear weapons and its reprocessing, Iran will have to do away with its enrichment program and others in the region will have to commit themselves not to enrich Uranium and also assurance of supply of the fuel that they need for nuclear reactors in the region.
Sophie Shevardnadze:If we get back to Russia – this country supplies weapons to Syria and it’s legal. Now, the West supports the rebels, including military aid and I’m not sure how legal that is – why is the UN not putting an arms embargo on both sides?
Hans Blix: I think that’s what they should agree to, and I think they should put pressure on those who supply weapons to accept ceasefire within a certain date. This is not an easy thing, Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry are going to meet in Geneva now and they will have maybe two days and that might be not enough, but the great thing about the initiative from Russia now is that there’s an opening for talks rather than simply a political positioning and mutual accusations.
Sophie Shevardnadze: But when the chemical stockpiles are transferred under international control, the war may go on for God knows how long still – will the U.S. be fine with that as long as no chemical weapons are used?
Hans Blix: I think it would be practically very difficult to have international inspectors supervising the elimination of chemical weapons. It may be not so difficult for the Assad regime to issue a commitment not to use them and a commitment to declare what they have and a commitment to destroy them. But actually to carry this out fully during a civil war that is raging I think is practically very difficult. Moreover, perhaps one should not get lost in these technicalities, what is the risk that Assad will use chemical weapons once more – if he did it this time? I think he had narrowly escaped from a punitive strike by the U.S. – would he then risk another occasion of this, which would certainly bring about an international military action.
Sophie Shevardnadze:That is if he carried the strike in the first place and that is we have to find out. Now, the chemical stockpile handover to Russia or any other third party – how it is physically possible? Peacekeepers on the ground, taking them out of the country? Can you walk us trough that?
Hans Blix: I think that is exceedingly difficult. We know that under chemical weapons convention the U.S. and Russia have agreed to, it had taken them many-many years to do away with their chemical weapons. And to begin to do that during a civil war I think is even harder, so I don’t think it sounds very practical, but the beginning of it is an opening for talks leading to ceasefire and that is very important. The first steps are easy – the next steps are very-very difficult, if not impossible.
Sophie Shevardnadze:I was reading a Pentagon research paper yesterday and it states that 75.000 troops will be needed to take care of Syrian chemical stockpiles, and that’s a number that is not definite yet, so this would equal up to a mini-occupation of the country, no?
Hans Blix: I think the figures were given to demonstrate how incredibly difficult it would be to do away with chemical weapons during war. So it’s not practical, but let us see what’s good about it – the good about the proposal is that we don’t have strike yet – we could have had this strike a week ago. We haven’t had this military action yet, but there is talk about the elimination of the weapons. You must also remember there are other countries in the region that may have chemical weapons still, that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention – there are reports that Israel had chemical weapons in the past, whether they still have it – I don’t know! But there are reports that they had it in the past.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Just to resume – now this policy of “non-intervention” is a better one – that’s your quote. But with this much involvement of both the West and Russia already and as you said, Saudi Arabia – can we call it a local war? I mean, it feels like a Third World War coming to completion…
Hans Blix: Its like many earlier wars, it’s local but with intervention from outside. We talk about the U.S. intervention, but of course, selling or sending weapons from neighboring states to the rebels, sending weapons to Assad from Iran and perhaps Russia and others – these are also intervention, this keeps the war going. I mean, without support of weapons and money from the outside, they could not fight, so the war is fed by the outside world, and the outside world, maybe, should stop feeding the war.
Sophie Shevardnadze: With the West clearly on the rebels side, what are Assad’s chances to get his country out of the mess – is there a chance?
Hans Blix: Well, Assad seemed to have the upper hand a while ago, but that may be a temporary thing. The only sure thing is that war goes on very much and that is what we have the responsibility to try to stop.
Sophie Shevardnadze:That’s it for today, our guest was Hans Blix, ex-UN chief weapons inspector. Thank you!