Interview with Syria's Deputy Prime Minister "You Can't Bring Peace to Iraq Without Working With Syria"

In an exclusive interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari explains why the US wants to use Syria as an excuse for its failure in Iraq and why peace in Iraq is impossible without the involvement of Damascus.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Damascus has clearly been seeking to get close to Europe in the last few months. You were in Berlin at the beginning of February to negotiate new economic links between Germany and Syria. Was your visit a further step by Syria away from the "Axis of Evil?"

Dardari: We feel optimistic: Trade relations between Germany and Syria are on the up and up, Syrian exports to German increased by 38 percent in 2006, and German exports to Syria also increased by 41 percent. In addition, we heard from everyone we talked to in Germany that they will really make an effort to persuade the US to lift its sanctions. They told us that Germany doesn't believe in sanctions and isolation, but rather in cooperation and dialogue and discussions -- just like Syria.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The US has had sanctions on its trade with Syria since 2004, because Washington says that Syria is "an enemy of the free world." Apart from food, medicine and communication technologies, no American goods have reached Syria since then. To what extent does that interfere with economic growth?

Dardari: I don't want to deny that the US sanctions have a negative impact on Syria. Naturally there are American products which we actually need which are denied to us through that process. On the other hand, there are very few things which you cannot substitute with a similar product from another supplier. The psychological damage is more significant: If you, as a German investor, hear that the US has imposed sanctions on Syria, then you think twice about whether you really want to invest there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz recently reported that there have been secret peace talks between Israel and Syria for some time. Is Syria quietly changing course away from its ally Iran towards the West?

Dardari: Syria has nothing to hide, neither from its own people nor from the rest of the world. If we see a chance of an equitable peace, then we speak openly -- we do not need secret talks. We spoke openly for 15 years. And every time that we were on the verge of reaching an agreement, someone in Israel said: My government is too weak, I can't make the decision.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Syrian President Bashar Assad recently said that Syria should take on a much larger role in helping to find a peaceful solution for Iraq. He said that Syria has a large influence in Iraq and therefore has to be the most important negotiating partner for the West. What kind of reaction did the government in Damascus get to this offer?

Dardari: Unfortunately the official statements from Washington were not positive. The only thing I can say is the following: If any foreign power wants to play a constructive role in the Middle East, is has to do so via Damascus. Anyone who ignores Damascus cannot make a constructive contribution to the Middle East. Syria has good relations with all parties in Iraq. This is a unique situation: We are the only country which has very good relations to all Iraqi groups. We have credibility with everyone. And for that reason, everyone who wants to bring peace to Iraq has to work closely together with Syria.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The US claims that not only weapons but also fighters are being smuggled into Iraq over the Syria-Iraq border, and that the regime in Damascus is tolerating this. What do you say to these accusations?

Dardari: We have naturally no interest whatsoever in Iraq sinking further into chaos. We want a stable, independent Iraq. We have a 600-kilometer-long (380-mile-long) border with Iraq -- in the desert. We have stationed 12,000 Syrian soldiers on the border. If you look on the other side, there is not a single Iraqi or American soldier there to secure the border. It doesn't work like that -- it takes two to tango. We have asked the Americans and the Iraqis to work together with us to secure the border, but they turned down our request. Maybe they want a scapegoat to explain their failure in Iraq. The Americans cannot manage to secure their border with Mexico, but they expect us to secure 600 kilometers of desert by ourselves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your country has taken in more than a million refugees from Iraq. Is your capacity exhausted?

Dardari: We do not call them refugees, we call them visitors. Refugees are something else, like the Palestinians for example. They came 60 years ago and are still here.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you afraid that the Iraqi refugees could stay?

Dardari: If the situation in Iraq remains as bad as it is, then yes, of course. We would be very happy to see our Arab brothers being able to return home soon. Syria has 18 million inhabitants. The figure increased by seven percent within one year because of the Iraqi visitors. No economy can simply absorb so many. In Damascus alone 25,000 Iraqi children are attending our elementary schools -- free of charge, it goes without saying. For us that means we have to build dozens of new schools. One must emphasize that the US in particular has a moral obligation in this matter.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Iraq is on the verge of civil war. How can such a war be prevented?

Dardari: The problems in Iraq can only be solved through joint efforts by regional and international powers. In addition, it has to be made sure that Iraq does not break up. The political discussion has to include all factions. There has to be a precise schedule for the withdrawal of American troops. Parallel to that, the Iraqi army has to be trained. Bit by bit, American units have to be replaced by Iraqi units, region by region.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is paralysis in your neighbor Lebanon. No solution is in sight in the power struggle between the anti-Syrian government and the pro-Syrian opposition. What influence does Damascus still exercise on Lebanon after the withdrawal of Syrian troops?

Dardari: We are out of Lebanaon and do not want to go back again, thank you very much. We do not interfere in internal Lebanese affairs. Naturally Syria has influence in Lebanon, for historical and geographical reasons, because of tradition and being neighbors. A large part of the Lebanese population -- naturally you can argue over how big this group is -- has a positive attitude toward Syria. We cannot prevent that. We feel committed to Lebanon's stability and security. Every problem in our neighborhood is a security risk for Syria. That is why we will support any compromise that the Lebanese agree upon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Syria is pressing on with its economic reforms, but political reforms have been de facto suspended since the crisis in Iraq. Why?

Dardari: The political reform process was not stopped because of the war. In the last two years, laws regarding elections, political parties and the media have been fundamentally revised. A new law is being prepared which would make the imposition of a state of emergency significantly more difficult. We are still working on all these documents and one has to accept that developments in neighboring countries have made the implementation of such laws more difficult. This is an internal democratic process, not a transfer of an already existing system. We will develop our own political system which fits our situation.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Putz


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