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'Syria is central to Middle East peace'

February 14, 2014 14:45 IST

‘Why not ask for a change of leadership in Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia? Is there a constitution in Saudi Arabia? Are there elections in Saudi Arabia? Why no talk of democracy in these countries?’

‘America said change the leader now, but is now ignoring the feelings of the Syrian moderate majority. Is that democracy,' asks H E Dr Riad Abbas, Syrian ambassador to India, in an interview to Cleo Paskal.

In December, Ryan C Crocker, who has served as the United States ambassador to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait and Lebanon, wrote in the New York Times, 'We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.'

That engagement will require at least listening to the Syrian point of view.

The Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the nation for 44 years, has been involved in a violent civil war with insurgents since March 2011.

Despite repeated requests by the West, Assad has refused to step down.

A United Nations backed peace process -- comprising representatives of the Syrian government, the opposition and international mediators -- is underway in Geneva. So far, it has resulted in some relief being offered to refugees from the city of Homs.

In the days leading up to meetings in Geneva, H E Dr Riad Abbas, Syrian ambassador to India, explained the Syrian position to Cleo Paskal.

What is the situation on the ground?

It's on the record that America, with the support of Saudi Arabia, created Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda members follow the culture of Wahabism. They think that if you don't believe what they believe, you are not a Muslim, and they have the right to behead you.

Now, Al Qaeda has spread all over the region and beyond, including Syria. At the 2012 Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco, Mouaz al-Khatib, at the time 'leader of opposition', refused to distance himself from Al Qaeda. He said that al-Nusra (which had openly pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) is the main force in the Free Syrian Army.

On the ground, there is no Free Syrian Army, there is only Al Qaeda.

Who are the rebels in Syria?

They are all (members of) Al Qaeda. They are coming to Syria for Jihad. They are answering the call from al-Zawahiri, not from the Free Syrian Army.

Among them we have found at least 3000 European Union citizens, 70 Unites States citizens, and at least 6000 Saudis, including serving officers from the Saudi and Pakistani military. Some of the fighters are now spreading from Syria into Iraq and Lebanon. They will in time go back to their home countries, to the US, UnitesKingdom, EU, everywhere.

Who is supporting the rebels?

Turkey, with Saudi and Qatari money, and French technical assistance -- is the new base for Al Qaeda. How can the French fight Al Qaeda in Mali and support them in Syria? The West is fighting the very offshoot of what they are creating.

There are now two branches of Al Qaeda in Syria. One is supported by Saudi Arabia and one is supported by Qatar. America supports the Saudi faction. France and Turkey support the Qatari faction. The two factions are now fighting each other.

In January alone, fighting between the factions has killed thousands.

We have arrested Al Qaeda members who came to Syria from all over the world and they tell us they've gotten support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and France. And, I am sorry to say, Israel.

Israel has been giving weapons and medical care to Al Qaeda fighters, and then sending them back to Syria to fight again. Israel has also allowed its territory to be used to let Al Qaeda fighters pass from one area of Syria to another.

I want to ask (Israel Prime Minister) Mr Netanyahu, does Saudi Arabia allow you to visit Medina? Is there a single church or synagogue in Saudi Arabia? Meanwhile, did anyone prevent you from coming to Syria? We were home to some of the world's oldest religious buildings of many faiths. Most have now been destroyed by those the West is openly backing.

In the Syrian Christian city of Ma'loula, one of the oldest cities in the world, they still speak Aramaic. Syria protected the city and its people -- for thousands of years it was safe. These people you are supporting destroyed it. How can Christian people support the Al Qaeda that destroys their history and culture?

Syria is central to Middle East peace. There is no peace without Syria.

What is the West telling Syria?

America has only one demand -- get rid of His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad. Why didn't they ask for elections in Syria three years ago and let the people of Syria decide?

Without overwhelming support, including from the Syrian Sunnis, President al-Assad could not have stayed in power, especially during these three terrible years. America said change the leader now, ignoring the feelings of the Syrian moderate majority. Is that democracy? There can't be conditional democracy.

Why not ask for a change of leadership in Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia? Is there a constitution in Saudi Arabia? Are there elections in Saudi Arabia? Why no talk of democracy in these countries?

Syria is the only Arab secular democracy in the Middle East. It seems they want to replace a secular government with an Al Qaeda one. Syrian secularism is a challenge to religious fundamentalism in the region. And America wants to replace that with Al Qaeda leadership in the name of 'fighting terror'?

There is much coverage in the American media about the suffering of those inside Syria, and how Syria should remove its security forces to let in aid. But that would give free access to Al Qaeda and lead to still more deaths.

If the international community is concerned about the suffering of the Syrian people, why aren't they helping them in the places they control, like the refugee camps in Turkey? Syrian families are freezing and starving, and mothers, sisters and daughters are getting raped and trafficked into prostitution -- under their watch.

What about the use of chemical weapons?

An American report has found that the Syrian government does not even have the sorts of weapon that was used in the attack that was the excuse to prepare for a strike on Syria. But Saudi Arabia does.

The fact is that [former Saudi Ambassador to the US, now Director General of Saudi intelligence] Bandar bin Sultan provided them to his followers on the ground in Syria. They used them against the opposition so the Syrian government could be accused of crossing America's 'Red Line'.

We asked the international community to come in and check who used the chemical weapons. They delayed. We gave the evidence to Russia to show at the UN Security Council.

Are there plans for an election?

Countries that value freedom must support us in our fight against Al Qaeda. How can we have elections with Al Qaeda terror on the ground? And how can we have democracy without an election? And how can it be a free election unless we can vote for any Syrian, including President al-Assad? Any government in the world has to protect its citizens and restore order. Once we have stability and security, we will have free and safe elections, with international monitors.

What are your thoughts on the Geneva negotiations?

In Geneva, America, France and Turkey will in effect sit down together with two Al Qaeda factions against a secular government. The Syrian National Coalition sits in five-star hotels outside Syria and has zero control inside the country. It is only a conduit for cash and weapons going to extremist fighters who behead innocent people for entertainment.

On the ground, there is only Al Qaeda. And this is how the West says it is fighting terrorism?

Our government will participate in Geneva, but we will not compromise with terrorism. National dialogue can only be between secular and moderate people who believe in human values. People who believe in the state.

Al Qaeda does not even believe in Syria as a country. Without President al-Assad, Syria would disintegrate. That is Al Qaeda's game plan - to break apart Syria into Wahabi fragments.

Image: Syrian refugee children look from behind a fence outside their family camp in Darashakran refugee camp, on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq Kurdistan region. Photograph: Reuters

Cleo Paskal