U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman: Moscow‘s position on Syria may have disastrous consequences for Russia
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman has given an interview to Interfax in which she speaks about the situation in Syria and the Iranian nuclear issue, as well as results of her meetings in Moscow.Question: You met today with your Russian colleague Gennady Gatilov. You discussed Syria. Did you try to convince him that Russia has to change its position, did you see any signs that Russian position can be changed?
Answer: First of all, I want to say thank you for this interview. I‘m always happy to answer any questions fr om the Russian press or any press, because the United States believes that a free press is a very strong part of any society, so that information can be freely shared.
Second on Syria, we are at a very, very tough moment. Three times the UN Security Council has tried to establish a unity in purpose to support the Syrian people in their decision about their own future. It‘s not a decision for the United States to make, it‘s not a decision for Russia to make, it‘s a decision for the Syrian people to make. And they have decided that they want change in their government, and their government has not responded to that request. So, at a meeting in Geneva at the end of June that Russia attended all of the powers came to an agreement on a six-point plan and a way forward. It involved the regime‘s pulling back its heavy tanks and heavy weapons from all the cities in which they were trying to oppress their own civilians and kill their own citizens. And then, once having done that, the opposition would seize any actions of their own and we would move towards a political transition. We indeed tried to affirm that in a Security Council resolution that Russia on three occasions would not agree to. So, I think it is very unfortunate that we could not achieve that unity at the Security Council. So, countries that have continued to support the plan which Russia supported at that time have tried to bring that plan into a fact. And Kofi Annan, as the Secretary General and the Arab League‘s joint special envoy, tried to make that happen based on the UNSMIS mandate, which is about to run out, to monitor a cease-fire and move to that political transition. Kofi Annan has since resigned, we are going to have a discussion today in the Security Council about the way forward. And my discussion with Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov was really to talk about what‘s happening in Syria and that Russia needs to join the rest of the worlds‘ community to really give voice to the Syrian people themselves in determining their own future. Things have become much more complex. We are on the verge of a civil war, if not already in the middle of a civil war. Iran and IRGC‘s Quds force is inside of Syria now training a militia, supervising camp militia, trying to really use surveillance on the opposition, working with Hezbollah in ways that are quite disastrous not only for the people of Syria but potentially for the entire region. So, we think it is quite crucial for all countries - and Russia is a great power and a member of the Security Council and a partner with the United States on so many things, we sincerely hope that Russia will come around to affirming the needs of the Syrian people to determine their own future.
Q.: Are their signs that Russia can change its position? Do you think that the Russian side heard your words?
A.: I think that Deputy Minister Gatilov was very attentive, as I was attentive to what he had to say. I don‘t think that any one conversation is going to change things. I think what is the change here is what the Syrian people themselves are asking for. The opposition is better organized, thinking about the day after. The world community, the OIC just voted for Syria to be suspended from the membership in the OIC. So, I think at every turn voices are saying that the voice of the Syrian people needs to be heard. And so it is not just my voice that I want the deputy foreign minister to hear or President Putin to hear. It‘s the voice of the Syrian people themselves.
Q.: After Russia and China vetoed three times UN Security Council resolutions, U.S. official said that these countries have to pay for their position. Could you specify what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meant by saying so?
A.: I think that in fact Russia has already suffered by its choices. And these are choices for Russia to make. And its standing in the Middle East and its reputation around the world. As I said Russia is a great power and a partner with the U.S. on many things. But on this we strongly believe that Russia is not responding to what the people of Syria themselves want and this may have disastrous consequences not only for the people of Syria, which is the most important thing here but also have disastrous consequences for Russia, and already is.
Q.: Another point after the voting in the Security Council, the U.S. said it would act on Syria without any Security Council sanction. Could you specify what was meant?
A.: I think we are seeing that happening. Like-minded countries are meeting and organizing. Secretary Clinton just had a face-to-face consultations with Turkey. Turkey is hosting almost 50,000 refugees, probably heading towards 100,000 refugees. Probably as many as 100,000 refugees. We have engaged in talking with other countries who are very concerned countries in the region, the Arab League, of course. We have met with the opposition groups, as they‘ve tried to organize and get ready for the day after. Because every one understands that President Assad will not be able to stay in power. He has lost legitimacy of his presidency by what he has done to his own people. The OIC has just spoken very clearly about what it thinks of one of its members. So, I think that everyone is working very hard to support the Syrian people in determining their own future.
Q.: Do you think that these other ways, I mean the Group of Friends of Syria or U.S. consultations with Turkey, will help, if the UN Security Council will not help, to make President Assad leave?
A.: Well, one of the sad events here is that the UN Security Council, because it has not been able to act in a unified way largely because of Russia‘s choices -- yes, China has joined Russia, but it has been really China joining Russia in its opposition -- is going to make itself irrelevant in this situation. This situation is going to resolve itself. I believe over a time it will resolve itself in a way that the Syrian people want it resolved. The difference will be is whether it is soon, so that fewer people die, so that there is better future for the Syrian people sooner, or whether that is going to take months and months and a disastrous civil war that will have spillover effect into the region and around the world. I think the whole international community has a decision to make here. The Security Council has a decision again to make here, whether they are going to continue to be relevant here or whether like-minded countries are going to continue to support the Syrian people without Russia, without China, without others who have taken a different point of view and do not want to support the Syrian people themselves.
Q.: The UN Security Council mandate for monitors in Syria expires next week. Moscow says that the UN has to remain in Syria, as their leaving the country may impact the situation in the whole region. What is the U.S. position on this issue? Do UN monitors have to leave? What does the U.S. thinks about the former Algerian foreign minister who is rumored to become a new special envoy to Syria?
A.: First of all, the United States doesn‘t believe that the UN mission should be reinstated. It should end, as the UN Security Council has now mandated its end, because the monitors were placed to monitor the ceasefire, and there is no ceasefire to be monitored. And having them there in that capacity is really quite dangerous for them and doesn‘t serve the purposes of the original mandate. That said, the U.S. will support the Secretary General in a potential mandate for a small UN presence in Syria, as well as a new joint special envoy who can try to help implement the six-point plan that Kofi Annan and the Geneva action group put together and can hopefully move towards a political transition.
We have heard as well that Lakdar Brahimi is considered being a joint special envoy. He is a very able and capable diplomat, and certainly someone that the United States would support, should the Secretary General put his name forward, and should he choose to undertake what will be a very difficult mission.
Q.: You have mentioned that Iran is helping the Syrian regime to fight the opposition. Does the U.S. has any credible evidence of Iran‘s taking part in battles on the side of the Syrian regime, some training activities, or in supplying weapons?
A.: Yes, we do. And we have spoken to that publicly that we absolutely believe and have reasons to believe that Iran and the IRGC Quds force is training, overseeing, financing and supporting the development of the regime-backed militia inside of Syria, and that Hezbollah has a spying role as well, working with IRGC Quds force. The United States has just sanctioned Hezbollah and its leadership for their activities inside Syria. We don‘t think this is obviously constructive at all and quite destructive for the situation.
Q.: The U.S., I think it was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that there is evidence that there are al-Qaeda members among the Syrian opposition. Don‘t you think that in case the Assad‘s regime fall there will be an inter-confessional war in Syria?
A.: I think the question is not whether there may be some violence that will continue, but how soon that violence will end. And it is the reason why the international community has to work very hard to bring the violence to an end and move to a political transformation. And we believe that that political transition and transformation will not include President Assad, because he has lost legitimacy of his people. He may hold that title, while that political transition takes place, but take place we believe it will. We believe that there is the presence of some small number of al-Qaeda members inside of Syria, which is obviously quite concerning to us and to the entire region. And it is why the violence must come to an end, and we must move to this political transition sooner or later, so that al-Qaeda forces do not grow, do not embed themselves with the opposition and do not find a new haven for their activities inside of a new Syria.
Q.: The Syrian opposition is still divided, and there is no common position inside it. Are not you afraid that if the opposition makes President Assad step down there will be a civil war among opposition groups who will come to power in Syria?
A.: The opposition is coalescing, coming together. There was a recent meeting in Cairo. Various elements in the opposition, they came together on a set of principles, on a set of code of conduct, agreeing that all parts of Syria would need to be represented in the new government, including the Alawites, the current ruling party. They talked about the importance of maintaining the institutions of Syria. There is no desire here to end some of the continuity of government, some accountability of government, the institutions of government. So, I think that opposition groups are coming together, they are getting a plan for the day after, they form committees to make sure they have concepts in place, the apparatus in place to govern. So, this is a legitimate concern that Russia has, that all of us have, but in fact the opposition is working very hard to be prepared for the day after.
Q.: But for example just after the Cairo meeting a group of the Syrian opposition formed a so-called interim government led by Haitham al-Maleh and other opposition figures said that that is not the way the Syrian crisis will be settled. They say that it is too early to make such a government.
A.: These kinds of transitions are difficult, but they are possible. We have seen in Yemen, wh ere the president of Yemen, Mr. Saleh, stepped aside in a way that did not lead to sectarian violence. Vice President Hadi stepped in, he was affirmed by 60% of those voting in the election that was held. Yemen has now begun a two-year transition process to reaffirm the institutions of government, to put in place a new Constitution and various institutions of government. And that is proceeding quite well. It‘s a difficult process, but one that people of Yemen wanted very badly. No, these are not simple thing to be done, but they are possible. We do see a coalescence of the Syrian opposition being put in place. A unique, not identical process to what‘s occurring in Yemen, but a similar process in the sense of a long-term commitment to ensuring institutions of government and a good future to the people of Syria.
Q.: I have a few questions about Iran, if you do not mind. The first, and the most important question is a military strike on Iran is still on the table for the United States?
A.: President Obama has said, and he means to say, that although all options are on the table, all options, including the military one, that he believes there is still time for diplomacy. And his strong preference is for a diplomatic solution. He has invested a great deal into a dual-track approach which has been endorsed by the P5+1, and that is engagement with Iran, so that they address the concerns of the international community about their nuclear program and continued pressure and isolation of Iran, if they do not in fact come to a solution to address the concerns that all of us in the international community have. So, the president is committed to that dual-track approach, to a diplomatic solution, but he knows that time is not indefinite, because every day there isn‘t a solution Iran continues to run its centrifuges, to enrich uranium and to move closer to potentially having nuclear weapons. President Obama has been very, very clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Q.: Does the U.S. worry about the fact that while the U.S. thinks there is time for diplomacy, Israel thinks that such time has elapsed and will strike on Iran tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week, there will be not room for diplomacy at all?
A.: There is no question that Israel has been very clear that although they too would prefer a diplomatic solution, and no one is in a rush for war, that Israel perceives Iran‘s having a nuclear weapon as an existential threat, and that is quite understandable, and that Israel will make whatever decision it needs for its own security. The United States obviously has a strong relationship with Israel - it is our democratic ally in the Middle East, we have a very close relationship with it, and we understand that Israel will have to make a decision that is best for their own future and their own sovereign decision-making process. We have tried to talk with Israel and let them know that we still believe that diplomacy still has time, and we hope that Israel will agree, and that we will have time to make diplomacy work. That‘s it. As Catherine Ashton, the high representative and the person who coordinates our actions in the P5+1, has told Dr. Jalili there is a large gap between what the P5+1 has put on the table and what Iran has offered to do. So, this is a difficult moment in the negotiations, and Iran should come back to the negotiating table with greater seriousness to make an agreement. I know that Iran believes that the United States will not make a decision until after the November election. But President Obama is very clear that if Iran is seriously ready to make an agreement, particularly on the first confidence-building step towards full compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions, the United States is absolutely ready to support such an agreement.
Q.: And what about the six-parties talks with Iran? Can they really help to solve the Iranian problem or have they failed?
A.: Well, I don‘t believe they have failed, but they are at a difficult moment, because the P5+1, what you‘ve called the six parties, has put the first, very serious confidence-building proposals on the table. That is for Iran to stop production of all 20%-enriched uranium, to move all of that outside the country and to close operations of underground sites that are a great concern to the international community. In return for that, the P5+1 has put a whole lot of incentives on the table. And in response to that Iran said that it would temporarily suspend its 20% production, and in return they would want all sanctions to be lifted. That is an unreasonable non-starter. So, Iran needs to come back to the negotiating table with far greater seriousness of purpose, otherwise they will face even more isolation, they would see continued sanctions and sanction enforcement, and there will be great consequences for them.
Q.: Do you have information about the date and place of the next round of the P5+1 talks?
A.: That decision hasn‘t been made yet. It‘s partly up to Iran. High Representative Ashton is likely to speak with Dr. Jalili again after Ramadan having urged him to take some time to reflect on what is going on and what Iran really wants to have happen here. The P5+1 colleagues will confer with each other, that is partly the reason for my visit here in Moscow is to talk with my counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which I will do this afternoon. So, after we will all consult with each other and suggest to the high representative what we think is the best step forward, but a lot of that is really up to Iran and what Dr. Jalili will say to High Representative Ashton when they speak again.
Q.: And the last question. Moscow believes that sanctions on Iran may affect Russian companies and institutions, which in turn may impact Russian-U.S. relations. Will such sanctions affect the Russian side?
A.: Well, I know that the United States has not sanctioned a single Russian company during the years of sanction enforcement. And that is because there has not been a basis to do so. So, I think that the Russian concern that was addressed in your recent press in response to the legislation just passed by the U.S. Congress, there is really no a track record to create that anxiety among Russian companies. We do understand that part of what is happening is that Iran has isolated itself, isolated its business and its commerce, put all of its institutions at reputational risk. So, companies and banks that do business with Iran are finding it more and more difficult, because all those Iranian banks and companies are suspect in the world community. Many of the designated banks are helping Iran to finance its nuclear program, finance its terror around the world. There has been many instances over the last several months of terrorist activities by Iran and Iranian cooperation with Hezbollah. And I can understand anyone in the world who has concerns that doing business with Iran is no longer an easy thing to do. But Iran has brought that on themselves. I know that Russian institutions and Russian companies do not want to be a part of financing Iran‘s nuclear weapons programs or Iran‘s terrorism.