PHOTO: Prime Minister al-Halqi in Damascus Market, November 2013
Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi has spoken to the Lebanese site al-Akhbar about the “crimes” of “militants”, the proposed international “peace” conference, and relations with Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah:
Al-Akhbar: We must begin with the massacres being committed on a daily basis, and the military situation. What are the latest developments on the ground?
Wael al-Halqi: What is happening in Syria [involves] crimes that have not been committed since World War II. Look at what happened a few days ago: dismemberment, rape, beheadings, and burning [corpses]. A doctor was apparently slaughtered with a scalpel before his head was cut off with a cleaver and displayed on a pole in the street. This happened with dozens of people in the city of Adra al-Amalieh.
The militants want to distract the armed forces with side battles to relieve pressure from the main battle in the Qalamoun region, in Yabroud. Yabroud is completely under siege, and has all but fallen militarily pending the entry of the armed forces.
Al-Akhbar: What about the political process in light of these developments?
WH: The political process is proceeding in parallel. There is nothing new in relation to Geneva II. It will be held in the city of Montreux, Switzerland, and the date has been tentatively set at January 22.
The names of the Syrian delegation members have been requested, but no decision has been made about this so far, and this will depend on the level the meeting will be held at. If it will be at the level of foreign ministers, then obviously, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will represent Syria. The problem is in choosing the representatives of the opposition. To date, this issue has not been settled.
There are sustained pressures by regional powers, and there is an attempt to engage the so-called Islamic Front, led by US Ambassador in Syria Robert Ford, to give gains to this front, which calls for toppling the Syrian state and establishing an Islamic state. This is inconsistent with the claims of the United States and the West regarding a pluralistic secular Syria. Ford’s attempts in Istanbul to have the Islamic Front become the military arm of the [opposition Syrian National] Coalition means that he wants to take this project to the very end.
As you know, the so-called Free Syrian Army no longer exists on the ground. Salim Idriss [the head of the Supreme Military Council] is a symbolic, imaginary, paper figure that has no popular or even military arm. They are trying to compensate with this new military wing to have a bargaining chip for the talks in Geneva. Zahran Alloush, the leader of [military operations for] the Islamic Front, is a professor of Islamic Sharia from the city of Douma, and reports to [Saudi intelligence chief] Bandar bin Sultan.
Al-Akhbar: Will two delegates sit opposite one another, one from the government and one from the opposition, or what exactly?
WH: We are concerned only with our delegation, and our delegation has been ready since Geneva II was agreed to. We do not have any problem, our agenda is clear and we discuss it every day. We are going there to be open to a transparent dialogue with those who claim to be a patriotic opposition. We are going to tell the others we are open to partnership by forming an expanded national unity government.
Al-Akhbar: But will you negotiate with the Islamic Front?
WH: The Islamic Front is not on the negotiating table yet. The other factions we will negotiate with are representatives of the various opposition groups, which have contradicting ideologies. What I know is that Ford is saying that the coalition is the sole representative of the Syrian people, which means that no other delegations would be participating, that is, the [National] Coordination Committee, the Kurdish Supreme Committee, and the opposition National Council.
We have internal oppositions, so what will their fate be? Are they the ones who should represent the Syrian people? Those who are present on the ground and have popular arms are the ones who represent the people. [Otherwise] they are fronts for puppet masters, and as you know, each one of them has [foreign] intelligence handlers.
Al-Akhbar: Will Iran and Syria participate in Geneva II?
WH: No invitation has so far been sent to Iran. But no invitations have been distributed to begin with, though as far as I know, 30 countries will be participating. We insist on Iran’s presence because it is a key player, not only now after Iran achieved success in the context of its peaceful nuclear program, but for the past decades. So Iran’s presence will help find a solution to the crisis.
But as you know, Saudi Arabia now has a disease, not just an obsession, called Iran. Nevertheless, I am glad about Iranian rapprochement with countries of the Gulf. I noticed that Iran restored direct flights between Tehran and Manama, despite the fact that relations with Bahrain are tense, and Bahrain is a Saudi colony. We also noticed some cracks appearing in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Al-Akhbar: Do you believe Saudi Arabia will allow the Syrian opposition to participate in Geneva II?
WH: There is still another month and two days to go. There will be rapid developments and sharp turns in attitudes, especially if there is a real international will. What is happening in Syria is an insane bloody escalation by the armed groups and those who are behind them. All matters related to the opposition based abroad are entrusted to the Americans. Russia is coordinating with Syria, the government, the national internal opposition, and part of the external opposition. The point therefore is to let each of the two sponsors of the conference to play its role as agreed.
There is Syrian-Russian-Iranian coordination, and with the internal national opposition. As the latter is concerned, the Russians have said they are Russia’s responsibility. What’s left is the external opposition and the new factions spawning each day, which have Western, American, Turkish, or Saudi frames of reference. Hence, there are no promises from the Russian ally in this matter.
I believe that other events will take place during the next few weeks in the context of agreeing to a final framework among the sponsors of the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
So far, the Russians have been watching and saying: “I gave you the freedom to act with your people. My people are ready, so show me what you have achieved.” Because of this we see the US rushed role, and the bad role that Ambassador Ford is playing in his sustained contacts with the external opposition to produce a stance that supports US attitudes. However, it seems that America has not yet reached the advanced stage of putting together a delegation that can represent all spectrums of the external opposition.
In any case, I believe that the Geneva conference will not achieve the desired aspirations of the Syrian people, but will be one stop of many long and complicated ones to reach a solution.
Al-Akhbar: Some are saying that Geneva II is more of an American-Russian need than a Syrian need. To what extent is this true?
WH: This is accurate to some extent, thanks to the achievements of the Syrian Arab army. These achievements are troubling for some, if they continue according to the timetable set by the armed forces, invalidating the need to go to Geneva. I am not talking only about military victory, because this alone will not resolve the problem. It should be supplemented by a Syrian-Syrian political dialogue, which is what we announced in the initiative of the president on 6 January 2013.
What would it mean if Geneva was held on 22 and 23 January 2014, but the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish borders remain open for the flow of terrorists? If you want me to give you some information, I am from Deraa, where the armed forces are fighting fierce battles. Where did all the armed groups come from? A few days ago, 3,000 militants from Islamic groups from various nationalities entered the city of Enkhel in Deraa. Where did they come from? From Jordan. So far, there is no regional will, especially with respect to the practices of the Saudi regime, which has gone mad after Iran concluded the nuclear deal.
Al-Akhbar: What is the most important achievement you made during your recent visit to Iran?
WH: With each visit I make to Iran, I feel there is an added value compared to the previous visit.
First of all, on the personal side, I feel there is friendliness with the Iranian leadership, and also sympathy with the Syrian government and people by the Iranian government and people.
On the general side, we are pressing ahead with the agreements we started, especially in economic and services sectors, by means of credit lines covering the needs of the Syrian people and their steadfastness with basic commodities. The figures are often adjusted. There is a $1 billion-credit line for basic commodities and another to cover imports of petroleum products and crude oil. There is continuous security and strategic coordination with Iran, because we are in the same trench, the trench represented by the axis of resistance that starts in Tehran and extends to Baghdad, Damascus, and Lebanon, with the Islamic Resistance – Hezbollah.
Al-Akhbar: How true are the reports about Iraqi oil and financial aid to Syria?
WH: In terms of oil, there are no Syrian imports of oil from Iraq. We import crude oil from our friends in Iran, which only passes through Iraqi territory, and we refine it in our refineries in Syria. There is security coordination with Iraq in regard to the border. They engaged in serious efforts on the Iraqi side to prevent the flow of terrorists in both directions. This cooperation has on many occasions led to stopping and capturing terrorist groups. We thank the Iraqi leadership, led by Mr. Nouri al-Maliki, for their cooperation in this regard.
Al-Akhbar: President Bashar al-Assad has described Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah as the “Sayyid of Loyalty.” How do you describe him?
WH: No matter how many words we use to describe Sayyid Hassan, we cannot do him justice. But I add to what the president said, that he is truly a symbol of loyalty and giving, and he is always the advocate of resistance in his words and deeds, and actions and conduct. When we know that Nasrallah will speak, we sometimes postpone our meetings to listen to him, because he speaks the truth.
Al-Akhbar: What about the Lebanese government?
WH: There has been no contact with the Lebanese government since I took office. With the exception of the Foreign Ministry, there is no relationship. We met by coincidence on certain occasions as delegations with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, but the relations do not reflect the long history between the two countries. I would say that not only are relations cold, and not self-dissociation, but that part of what Syria has been subjected to is the responsibility of the policy of the Lebanese government, which facilitated the entry of militants and weapons. There were even training camps and sheltering for the armed terrorist groups.
Were it not for the intervention of Hezbollah’s men on both sides of the border, especially in Qusayr, there would have been ongoing terrorist activities. As you know, terrorists continue to flow, even if partly, through the Lebanese-Syrian border. For this reason, the term self-dissociation was not accurate. There was interference.
Al-Akhbar: What about the Palestinian camps and Hamas?
WH: A few days ago there was an attempt to end this issue. Palestinian leaders were present in Syria to work on it, including Executive Committee member Zakaria Agha. We also are in talks with Anwar Abdul-Hadi as a government. There are 14 Palestinian factions, and only three of them have confronted the terrorist groups: the PFLP, the PFLP-GC, and Fatah al-Intifada.
There was an attempt to secure the departure of all militants and the return of the Syrian army and the hoisting of the Syrian flag on institutions in the camp, in addition to the return of civilians, but the attempt failed in the eleventh hour, thwarted by the militant groups.
Al-Akhbar: What concrete measures have you taken in the area of reconstruction?
WH: The government recently allocated 50 billion Syrian pounds for the reconstruction committee for the year 2014, the majority of which will go to implementing a relief plan. This amount is likely to increase according to work requirements and the ability to implement the plan.
Al-Akhbar: What are the real figures of the refugees and displaced people?
WH: The number of internally displaced people is around 5 million, distributed along government and civilian shelters. The government provided 983 centers for temporary accommodation for internally displaced persons in all provinces to date, housing 1,799,000 people. These centers provide all basic services for citizens. The rest are distributed across civilian shelters and safe neighborhoods, regions, and cities.
In this regard, 47 cooperation agreements were signed between civil groups and international organizations. The Syrian government, in collaboration with UN agencies, also developed a humanitarian response plan for 2013 to ease some of the burden and deliver aid to affected families.
The government allocated 2 billion Syrian pounds (international funding) to rehabilitate shelters, in addition to 5 billion Syrian pounds for the project of building housing units to shelter refugees in Adra, Homs, and Daraa from the funds of the reconstruction committee. The government, in collaboration with international organizations and civil groups, also provided aid to displaced families and those affected by the crisis (4,476,070 food rations, 1,390,661 medical rations, 2,122,807 blankets, 1,068,295 mattresses, and 214,338 kitchen packages).
Al-Akhbar: What is the size of the losses in infrastructure?
WH: The total value that has been calculated to date has reached 627.3 billion Syrian pounds [just over $5.5 billion at official exchange rates], taking into account that the real value of direct damages exceeds this figure as a result of the inability to conduct surveys, especially in the governorates of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa. Some estimates put direct and indirect damages at 3,000 billion Syrian pounds [$26.5 billion].
Al-Akhbar: What has really happened to the industrial sector in Syria? And how does the government plan to revive it?
WH: Direct damages incurred by the industrial private sector that have been counted so far, through applications submitted by the owners of the facilities to the chamber of commerce, stand at around 231 billion pounds [more than $2 billion] involving 1,014 facilities. In the industrial public sector, 48 companies and factories have shut down, and production in most companies declined significantly. Investments noted in investment plans have not been implemented because of current security conditions, and the value of direct and indirect financial losses until 30 October 2013 is estimated at 112 billion Syrian pounds [almost $1 billion].
Al-Akhbar: What about the healthcare sector?
WH: The healthcare sector has given many martyrs – 136 dead and 116 injured, in addition to 30 health workers who were kidnapped. This is in addition to the material losses suffered by public facilities. The number of damaged hospitals reached 66, of which 41 went completely out of service, in addition to 673 clinics. 412 ambulances have been destroyed, and 28 medicine factories have been damaged, of which 21 went out of service.
Regarding financial losses, estimates indicate that they have exceeded 100 billion Syrian pounds, not including the losses suffered by public and private drug factories, which have been exceedingly damaged, with some going out of service. Their losses are also estimated in the billions.
Al-Akhbar: What about education?
WH: The number of damaged schools is more than 3,000, while 1,000 schools have been turned into shelters. Necessity required us to quickly adapt to this reality, so it was imperative to adopt summer classes and continue to coordinate with other government bodies to find suitable alternatives to shelter affected families, vacate the schools, and put them back in service. Measures were taken to facilitate the admission and enrollment of students in schools, in addition to flexibility in giving out certificates and in exams. This allowed students to enroll in their schools at a rate of 70 to 73 percent. It is worth noting that the estimated damages in the educational sector have exceeded 100 billion pounds.
Al-Akhbar: What can be said about the tourism sector in this context?
WH: The tourism sector is one of worst affected economic activities as a result of the crisis. There was about a 95 percent decline in tourism compared to before the crisis, and direct and indirect damages in the sector were estimated at more than 330 billion Syrian pounds annually. This figure remains small if we set it against the number of martyrs and the destruction and looting of archaeological sites.