Syrian opposition must make its vision clear to the Syrian people: Jeffrey Feltman

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman spoke to Al Arabiya on a wide range of issues concerning the Middle East. (Al Arabiya)

In an interview with Al Arabiya’s Washington, D.C., correspondent Hisham Mellen, United States Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman spoke about the Arab League initiative on Syria and how it was important for Syrians to get a clear vision from the opposition on life after Bashar al-Assad. He also spoke about post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia and addressed concerns about Islamists coming to power in the region and said that the plight of Yemenis should not be forgotten.

Question: No sooner had the Syrian government accepted the Arab League initiative did we see an escalation in attacks on cities such as Homs. How credible is the Syrian position on the Arab League initiative?

Answer: At this point it should be obvious to everyone that it doesn’t matter what Bashar al-Assad or the cronies around him say. What matters is what the Syrians are going to do. It matters whether the Assad regime is going to implement the Arab League initiative or not. Look at what the Arab League has done, what the Arab League has said, what the initiative includes. These are important principles ─ allowing peaceful protests to go forward, pulling back their security forces from the city, allowing media to go in and be witnesses to the world of what’s actually happening inside Syria, allowing Arab monitors to go throughout the country … Things like these are extremely important. For the Arab League to be inserting itself with this way with Syria, an extremely important country, historically, politically, culturally an important part of the Arab world, I think demonstrates that the Arab leaders have basically had enough of Assad’s statements. They recognize, I believe, that the path that Assad has chosen is actually destroying Syria, an important part of the Arab world, and they are looking to save Syria. If the Syrian regime chooses to implement fully the Arab League initiative, that would be very positive. The Arab League is taking an incredible responsibility in monitoring the implementation in trying to verify that Bashar al-Assad would truly be taking a different approach, changing the course of his regime in order to provide protection for peaceful protest, to provide for a peaceful transition.

Question: Bashar al-Assad himself told The Guardian that he doesn’t have time to sit down with the Syrian opposition and talk.

Answer: At this point, I think it’s unlikely that the Syrian opposition is going to sit with Bashar. Right now his cronies are still killing people, torturing people, detaining people, arresting people, preventing the world from knowing what's actually going on. What the Arab League has done with its initiative is set up a series of steps that need to be implemented in full before you would get to the point of some kind of dialogue. From the United States’ perspective, we’ve been clear since August. President Obama stated that it’s basically time for Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow the Syrian people to determine a peaceful transition, to determine their own future.

Question: What do you say to critics who argue that the U.S. does not have a coherent policy on Syria? What would you like the international community to do at this stage?

Answer: We have been clear. There are certain principles we support whether in Syria, or anywhere else in the world, such as the right to peaceful protest. Right now, people trying to protest are being shot, killed, detained and tortured. There needs to be space for peaceful protest, for freedom of speech inside Syria. We’ve been clear that Assad’s words mean nothing. Implementation is what counts, and at this point, it’s time for Bashar al-Assad to step aside and let history make its course. I would look at what’s happened over the past six to eight months since February to see what/how the situation, the atmosphere, the international community has evolved. Back as late as January, Bashar al-Assad was still proclaiming himself a reformer. As the protests began, people talked about reform. You had countries like Turkey very concerned about what’s happening inside, talking about, “Oh, if only there could be some sort of reform process.”

What you’ve seen shifting over course of these months is the international community coming together to tighten the pressure on those around Basher al-Assad and Bashar himself. You have increasingly tough sanctions imposed by Europe, the United States, by Canada, by Japan, and by others. You have opposition in Syria, that despite tremendous difficulties, has come together to form a unified congress that includes people from inside and outside, different communities, people of different ideological backgrounds. You see the Arab League, as I said earlier, stepping up to the damage being done by Bashar’s actions. So I think you’ve seen a growing regional, international, even domestic response to the brutality demonstrated by Assad and his cronies that makes the transition in Syria inevitable. I don't look how long is going to take. I don’t think any of us can predict how long this will take. Assad looks to me as though he would be willing to try anything to destroy Syria in the process just stay in power. He can do a lot of damage. He can kill a lot more people. But he’s not going to be able to prevent what is already happening now, which is a transition away from Assad rule to a more open, democratic system in Syria. This is going to take time.

Question: When you call on Assad to step down, that’s essentially that you want him to go out, that’s regime change. The question is specifically what the United States is trying to do. You are talking to the Turks, the Arabs, including the Iraqis, who are providing some help, and I understand that you’re talking to some Arab states where the Syrians have financial accounts. What can you tell us about these contacts?

Answer: You know, we’re talking to a lot of different countries. Europe, Arab world, you mentioned Turkey ─ we have ongoing consultations with these countries about basically how to respond to the threat that Bashar al-Assad poses to stability in the region; not only to the safety and welfare of his own people, but to stability in the region. And you have seen evolution in thinking of Syria’s neighbors and the rest of the world. For example, I know there are Arab countries that are talking to the Syrian opposition. You’ve seen Egyptian political parties receiving the Syrian opposition. You see Turkey trying to help facilitate and create the space for the Syrian opposition to organize, the meetings in Doha, and there have been support from Europe. All of this is again coming out of the recognition by the region that the longer Bashar al-Assad kills his own people, the higher the risks of a more generalized instability from his actions.

Question: I hear that the U.S. is soon going to designate or impose sanctions on some of Assad’s supporters in the business community as well as in the government?

Answer: You know, we are always looking for ways that we can increase pressure on Assad and his circle of supporters. I’m not going to speculate on exactly what we will do when, but we will be looking for ways to increase pressure. At this point it just seems to us it’s in everyone's interest to shift support away from a circle of cronies, that has demonstrated incredible brutality against their own people, that have denied the basic rights and respect that the Syrian people are clearly deserving. The Syrian people have lost their sense of fear. Look at the numbers of demonstrations that take place every day now, despite the brutality of the past six or seven months, there are now more places that have demonstrations every day than there were three or four months ago despite the brutality. It seems as though those people who are just watching need to indicate that they’re not there to try to save Bashar from what awaits.

Question: Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, is going to address the Syrian people soon. You have been saying publicly that you want the Syrian opposition to articulate a full clear vision for Syria post-Assad and you want to allay the fears and concerns of minorities. What do you want to hear from Burhan Ghalioun when he talks to the Syrians and rest of the world? What do you want him to say and do?

Answer: I’m encouraged to learn that this address is going to happen, I wasn’t aware of that. More and more Syrians are realizing that the chaos and civil war that they so fear are likely to originate from Assad’s actions, not from the post-Assad period. I think it’s very important that the opposition lays out a vision for the Syrian people that basically appeals to their aspirations. It needs to be Syrians talking to Syrians. Without question this is not something for the United States or for or any country to presume to tell Mr. Ghalioun what to say. But there are basic principles about the freedoms the people have been so courageously fighting for ─ freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly. I would like to hear a very positive vision of the type of Syria that is reflected in that opposition slogan, that Syria is one people. How are you going to translate “Syria is one people” into policy so that the minorities and the people who are part of perhaps the current security services but are not giving orders to kill see what their role is in the new Syria; have reassurances that there will be a way to participate, to influence decisions that affecting their lives. Again, this has to be a Syrian talking to Syrians, a vision that appeals to Syrians, but it has to appeal to Syrians from across from what is a very diverse country.

Question: After his speech, will you be closer to recognizing them as the representatives of the Syrian people?

Answer: We’re in touch with the Syrian opposition now. Our embassy in Damascus and Ambassador Robert Ford has very courageously been meeting with the opposition. We’ve met with them at various levels outside, including here In the State Department so we have ongoing conversations with the Syrian opposition already, but the really important thing is for the Syrian opposition to be having a conversation with the Syrian people themselves. For those people who don’t like what they see on the ground right now, who understand that Assad is driving them to ruin, but who need to know what the future after Assad is going to look like.

Question: The Syrians have been accused by you and by human rights organization of violating Lebanese territory, chasing Syrians who fled to Lebanon, as well as kidnapping Syrian opposition from Beirut. Even the head of the internal security in Lebanon, General Ashram Rive, accused the Syrians in Parliament of being responsible of these kidnappings in Lebanon. What are you hearing from the Lebanese authority?

Answer: We’re hearing the same things you’ve just mentioned. We’re hearing that Lebanese officials have expressed to us concerns about these issues. I go back to the Security Council Resolution 1559 from 2004, where the Security Council made it clear that Syria is not to be violating Lebanese sovereignty, Syria is NOT to be intervening militarily in Lebanon. But that seems to be happening now.

Question: But what are you hearing from Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government?

Answer: Various officials have expressed concerns to us about this. Now, as you know, the Prime Minister saw Secretary Hillary Clinton in New York on the margins of the opening of the General Assembly, and of course Syria was high on the agenda of topics that they discussed. And I think the Prime Minister understood very clearly the need to protect Lebanon by insulating Lebanon from any unrest that's happening in Syria. For example, none of Syria’s neighbors should be providing an outlet for Syria to evade the sanctions the international community has imposed. This of course is particularly important for Lebanese business and banks, to not fall into these sanctions regime imposed on Syria by trying to be a backdoor for Syria. I think the Prime Minister understood this very well. The best way to protect Lebanon is to insulate Lebanon from these affairs. But unfortunately, the Syrians don't seem to be showing the same respect for Lebanon that Lebanon is showing for Syria.

Question: Speaking of that meeting in New York between the Secretary Clinton and Mr. Mikati, Lebanon should be paying its share to finance the international tribunal concerning Lebanon. Where are we now in this context with the Lebanese especially as they are late now, or almost late, due to the opposition from Hezbollah and Michel Aoun and others.

Answer: Mr. Mikati has said publicly what he said to Secretary Clinton privately, which is that he is committed to meeting Lebanon’s obligations to the international community. One of those obligations is payment of the Lebanese contributions to the special tribunal for Lebanon. We fully expect Lebanon to live up to its commitments to the international community. Lebanon right now is a member of the Security Council. The special tribunal for Lebanon is of course set up at the request of the Lebanese government, and it is set up in order to help the Lebanese. If Lebanon is unable to produce its share of the funding for the special tribunal, we're going to have to take some pretty tough decisions, and I think you're going to see some consequences in terms of the US-Lebanese bilateral relationship, and I’d expect the same thing in terms of some other countries as well.

Question: How concerned are you about the growing agitation on part of the Salafis and Islamists in countries ranging from Tunisia, where the Salafis are taking over mosques, to Egypt where they’ve been involved in stoking sectarian violence, and even the speech by Abdul Jalil, the head of the interim government in Libya, where he essentially spoke about reimposing Sharia, polygamy, Islamic banking etc. How concerned are you about the so-called Arab Spring being hijacked by even the Salafis?

Answer: Look at the Tunisian elections that took place just recently. Look at the number of people who went out and voted. The incredibly high participation rate, the enthusiasm of Tunisian voters gave to that elections, that suggests to me that the Tunisians are going to expect to have their voices respected, their votes respected. They know that building democracy is a difficult process, we're still trying to perfect it in United States after more than 230 years, but they’re going to be expecting their governments to respond to their aspirations and to meet their services. I’m not concerned about one election or one statement, because democracy is a process that is different in every country. We do have, however, a basic issue here, which is that if you're going to participate in a democratic process, you have to play by the democratic rules of the game. We would expect all parties in any of these countries in transition would be agreeing to some basic rules. You protect universal human rights. You renounce the use of violence. You accept and promote the role of women, playing their role in society and politics. It’s not whether a party is Islamist or not Islamist, it’s if a party playing in a democratic game accepts the democratic rules of that game.

Question: President Barack Obama recently called Field Marshal Tantawi and discussed the situation in Egypt and he urged him to lift the emergency laws. We haven’t seen that yet. The emergency laws are being used against activists, they are trying civilians in military courts and on October 9 Egyptian Television urged “Honorable Egyptians” to go to the street, which is a code word for the Salafis. How concerned are you about the situation in Egypt?

Answer: Egypt’s an extremely important country strategically in the region, so we're watching Egypt closely. We have long partnership with Egypt, a long friendship with Egypt. We are concerned about some of the issues you raised. Just one example of Abdullah Fatah, the blogger and there’s another one on hunger strike. We are concerned about them and we continue to raise those because the Egyptians are looking for a different type of country going forward … And again, it’s going to be a long transition process in Egypt, but it’s time now for the Egyptian government to show that it really does understand the need to protect freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, things like that.

Question: In regards to the U.S. vote to punish UNESCO ─ decision to punish UNESCO: Is the U.S. going to take punitive action toward all these U.N. agencies, withdraw from them, cut off funding? Where does it end?

Answer: We do have a legal requirement from our Congress to do just that. I would hope that the friends of these international organizations, those that benefit from the great work that all these organizations do, will take notice of our legislation and think about the implications for what it would mean for us to have to follow through on our legislative requirements. The other part of this is that we want to see a Palestinian state that is able to exercise all the attributes of statehood, that is able to assume the responsibilities that come with membership in those organizations. We would like to see Palestine as a viable state, as a responsible member in all of these organizations. But right now the Palestinians simply have no other course of action to get to that statehood that would allow them to exercise the responsibilities of statehood in these organizations except through negotiations.

Question: Speaking of Congress ─ Congress cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, or froze aid. When will this freeze be lifted, anytime soon?

Answer: We’re in consultation with Congress because we see it as very important to continue to support the institution-building efforts of the Palestinian Authority even while we are looking for ways to get the negotiations back on track.

Question: You’ve been urging President Ali Abdullah Saleh to accept the Gulf initiative. He’s been saying yes, and he’s been dragging his feet. Senior American officials spoke with him while he was in Saudi Arabia ─ where are now with Yemen?

Answer: It’s a sad story, Hisham, because you’ve got 25 million Yemenis who are suffering from food shortages, from fuel shortages, from lack of security in their country; 25 million Yemenis who are yearning for a government that respects their rights, a government that can actually provide services for them. Right now you see the sole purpose of the government is to protect Saleh in his office. It really is time for Ali Abdullah Saleh to follow through on the commitment he’s made to our ambassador and other U.S. officials and step down and allow a peaceful transition to go forward.

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