Ibrahim Hamidi Interviews Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik: We should not turn our back to Syria
Hamidi: Shall we start? Before coming to Damascus, did you coordinate, your Excellency, this visit with other European ministers before coming to Damascus?
Plassnik: I came in my capacity as Austrian Foreign Minister. Of course we all work on the basis of our common European foreign policy. Also inside the EU I have argued in favour of engaging with Syria on the basis of clearcut positions and firmness rather than turning our back to Syria.
Hamidi: But at the beginning of 2005 there was an unwritten decision by the European Union to isolate Syria. Does the fact that you are here - and other European ministers are here - signal that this unwritten policy is finished?
Plassnik: Austria has good and long standing bilateral relations with Syria. For example we have 380 soldiers on the Golan heights. We have been part of UNDOF for more than three decades.
This is the year 2008, and Austria and Syria both participated in the Annapolis conference, which is a renewed peace effort for the Middle East. We all have to take this very seriously and contribute to this process.
Hamidi: I mean when Mouallem visited Berlin, the Americans protested. Rice called Steinmeier as far as I know. Do you face any kind of pressure?
Plassnik: No. However, many past efforts by the Europeans to engage positvely have been frustrated. No responsiveness from the Syrian authorities. So people lose interest.
Therefore I have listened carefully to my Syrian counterparts, but I have also made our positions very clear.
Hamidi: During this trip you visited Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories and Syria. After visiting these four countries, are you going to back to Vienna more or less optimistic about the current conditions in the Middle East.
Plassnik: It is unfair to divide the world into optimists and pessimists, especially as the pessimists in Middle East usually have a point. It’s the optimists who have a far more difficult life. But after talking to the Israelis and Palestinians I am confident about their negotiations: My impression is that they are firmly determined to push ahead with these negotiations, they work hard.
Hamidi: So you are focusing on a "post Annapolis" process?
Plassnik: Yes. If we want the two state solution to materialize in 2008, we have no time to lose. Nobody should stand aside.
Hamidi: Did you have any demands? Did you ask Syrians to do specific things in this regard?
Plassnik: I am convinced that Syria can contribute to this agenda as Syria has a lot of weight and potential as a neighbour. Syria should contribute in a positive spirit to the search for peace in the Middle East.
Hamidi: Like what, what are you expecting the Syrians to do?
Plassnik: To play a constructive role in the region. For example with regard to the Palestinians: Support president Abbas and his team rather than negative or distructive forces. Work for Palestinian unity, not foster split and division. With regard to Lebanon leading a policy of respect for the sovereignity, democracy, independence and stability for Lebanon according to the relevant UN-resolutions. Supporting the Arab league initative for the elections of the Lebanese president. Lebanese institutions have been paralysed for too long. There is an urgent need to build trust.
Hamidi: I will come to Lebanon, regarding the peace process again. What about Hamas? There are two different views. Within the EU I know there are some who want to engage Hamas, although official policy not to talk to Hamas. now there are more voices who want to talk to Hamas. And others until now want to boycott. Which is…
Plassnik: The question of talking to Hamas or not talking to Hamas is a misleading simplification. Actually a number of people have been talking to Hamas, but where are the results? They were received in Russia, in Turkey, in Arab countries and yet I fail to see any results in the behaviour of Hamas. Instead, there was a violent coup. Yes, Hamas was successful in free and fair elections in January 2006, but the Palestinian people have not elected Hamas to take over Gaza by force, to shoot Kassam rockets at Israel or to send suicide killers. For the EU to deal with Hamas, they will have to meet some expectations.
Plassnik: Be careful with words. I would rather talk of expectations to formulate this as "condition" brings a negative bias to the story. It is not an unfair or undue expectation that you recognise the right of a partner to exist. That you honour the agreements your own people have concluded and that you renounce violence which can not be part of the political alphabet in a democratic process. If your are ready for free and fair elections you can also be expected to be ready to fully and clearly denounce violence. In my opinion Hamas did not get the confidence of Palestinians for a violent coup in Gaza. People in Gaza are now subject to both - Israeli occupation and to the consequences of Hamas violence against their own president and institutions.
Hamidi: but some people say that Abbas cannot implement any agreement with the Israelis without Hamas.
Plassnik: Again. This is too much of simplification. I believe that the Palestininas have nothing to win in splitting into fractions, those who stage violent coups and those who follow a peaceful way. President Abbas has taken the road of peace and this road the EU supports with political and economic backing and innovative policy instruments like Rafah border monitoring or the EU-COPPS, training program for the Palestinian police. In my opinion, Palestinians should now actively work on reconsiliation and suppport President Abbas. Even if this seems a difficult task at this junction. In the medium and long term this is the only reasonable path to follow. The only strategy is to strengthen, not weaken the Palestinian cause. But unfortunately there are still those who do not want President Abbas to succeed.
Hamidi: So you encourage Abbas to talk to Hamas?
Plassnik: I hope the president will find a way forward on this issue as he is the elected president of all Palestinians. I have personally always been a supporter of the national unity government, which unfortunately ended with the military take over of Gaza. I support Abbas’ attitude that this should be revoked and full authority of the PA must be restored in Gaza. We are working for a two state solution not for three states.
Hamidi: What about the Syrian track? Did you discuss the Syrian Israeli track with Israeli officials?
Plassnik: Yes. This is not a new subject matter, and I am sure it will be part of a comprehensive peace settlement for the entire region.
Hamidi: But am I to understand it was not discussed at all in Israel?
Plassnik: I have discussed a number of regional issues, including the situation with Syria with my Israeli partners. There are no specific news at this moment.
Hamidi: Did you discuss this issue with Syrian officials? What did you hear from them?
Plassnik: No news to report.
Hamidi: Can you talk about Lebanon? You visited Beirut and met various officials. What is your conclusion? Do you think a president will be elected on February 11?
Plassnik: I am not a prophet, but someone who believes in a stable, sovereign, democratic and independent Lebanon where all commuities find their place. Lebanon urgently needs to move out of the paralysis of instutions. This is why I hope for the election of a consensus candidate which would be an encouraging signal for all in the region, not only Lebanon. A positive development in Lebanon is necessary for peace in the region. This is why the EU supports the Arab League initiative in this respect.
Hamidi: Did you ask Syrian officials to use their influence over the opposition to elect a president on February 11?
Plassnik: I strongly encouraged my Syrian partners to actively facilitate such a solution.
Hamidi: I heard from Syrian sources that Syrian officials that [Gen] Michel Sulieman is still the consensus candidate. Is this correct?
Plassnik: Yes. Michel Suleiman is the consensus candidate the Arab League including Syria have agreed upon.
Hamidi: What about Syrian-Lebanese borders… did you discuss this issue?
Plassnik: Yes, we discussed it with Foreign Minister Mouallem before and this time. Attitudes have not changed.
Hamidi: Which means the Syrians do not accept European observers on the Lebanese borders.
Plassnik: That is correct.
Hamidi: What about training, the EU position to send experts to train Syrian forces or technical equipment?
Plassnik: We have not moved in our discussions on that matter. So far efforts to find a common line with Syria on that matter have not been successful.
Hamidi: Do you think there will be movement on this regard?
Plassnik: I did not detect movement. The EU and Syria also differ on other issues such as border demarcation stopping arms smuggeling and establishing normal diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon.
Hamidi: The association agreement between EU and Syria was frozen after Hariri assassination? Will there be any movement in months, weeks?
Plassnik: We have not discussed this for the moment in the EU. It is up to Syria.
Hamidi: What are the general conditions that Syria should to reactivate signing of Association Agreement.
Plassnik: There are a number of issues, where Syria can play a positive role and Syria is fully aware of this.
Hamidi: Would you say the EU agreed to disagree over Syria. You have the French, the Germans, the British. Now its up to each and every European country to deal with Syria?
Plassnik: Foreign Minister Plassnik: The common European understanding lies in the objective: that Syria exerts its influence in the region in a constructive and positive manner as a responsible neighbour and a partner committed to the peace process. According to the standards that are known to all of us.
Hamidi: So we will see more European officials coming to Damascus? Not back to the old days?
Plassnik: This will depend on Syria. Engaging with each other is a two way street. We wish to see credible efforts and results.
I personally plead for a strategy of firmness and encouragement. To speak openly and frankly about our differences - including human rights - while recognising common interests. Syria is a secular society where women have a better place than elsewhere and where different religions live side by side in tolerance. We Europeans also welcome Syrian support for the Iraqui refugees and contribute to alleviate their plight.