Ali Haidar, Syria’s State Minister for National Reconciliation
Ali Haidar,Syria’s State Minister for National Reconciliation, said in an exclusive interview with Rudaw that his government could not help stop the Islamic State’s (IS/ ISIS) onslaught against the Kurdish city of Kobane because of a stand-off with Turkey near the border. “Our air force could not fly there close to their borders,” he said. Haidar also added that US support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is fighting to overthrow the Damascus regime, was a mistake: “What the US is trying to do is to replace a terrorist group with another, he warned. Here is an edited transcript of his comments:
Rudaw: At the moment more than 300,000 people have fled Kobane. In the last week alone, the IS captured many surrounding villages. Why didn’t the Syrian air force target the IS there?
Ali Haidar: Kobane is a Syrian city, which lies very close to the Turkish border. We have a standoff with the Turkish government and this is why our air force could not fly there close to their borders. There are no Syrian government decisions to overlook border cities. This is just a military issue; our army cannot reach there.
Rudaw: Does this mean that you think the Turkish anti-aircraft guns will target your planes if you fly too close to the Turkish borders?
Ali Haidar: Yes, we do. The Turkish and Israeli militaries so far have downed two Syrian aircraft. They have shelled our troops in the past, accusing us of crossing their borders, which is not true. The real reason was for them to aid the opposition groups.
Rudaw: How do you assess the Turkish government’s involvement in the Kobane battle?
Ali Haidar: Turkey has been aggressive from the start. Turkey is to a great extent responsible for what has happened in Syria. It opened its 800-kilometer borders with Syria in order to facilitate the inflow of foreign fighters into Syria. It also has supported the opposition both economically and militarily and in the media. According to the UN resolution, the Turkish government should halt its support for the terrorist groups in Syria. It should close all its borders or monitor it to stop the entry of fighters into the Syrian war.
Rudaw: What is the position of the Syrian government about the US-led airstrikes on IS bases inside Syria?
Ali Haidar: We fully supported the Security Council’s resolution at the time which strongly condemned the IS atrocities. We support any international effort to destroy terrorist groups such as the IS and al-Nusrah Front. But our conditions must be taken into consideration. This means that the Syrian state institutions and the Syrian army bases should not be targeted at any event. In other words, there should be complete coordination with the Syrian government. What we so far have seen is this: the airstrikes have been in coordination with the Syrian government and with our prior knowledge. The coalition countries have respected the Syrian requests. Indeed, attacking the terrorists is also in the interest of the Syrian government, especially considering the fact that some of the countries that now attack IS, we believe, are responsible for its creation in the first place -- at least on a moral level.
Rudaw: How would you describe your direct or indirect cooperation with the coalition countries?
Ali Haidar: As the Syrian foreign ministry announced earlier, we were notified of the attacks in advance by our ambassador to the UN, Dr. Bashar Jaafari. We had also consultations with the Iraqi government regarding the ongoing events in Syria.
Rudaw: Russia said the attacks were not lawful. Even the Iranian president criticized Syria for allowing the attacks to take place. How do you regard these comments?
Ali Haidar: I understand the Iranian and Russian positions, because I know they want to see the full implementation of international resolutions. We said that this (the attacks) were a step in the right direction. But indeed we also said that there should be coordination with all the involved parties in the region. What Iran and Russia have said is that full coordination has not taken place with the international community. Surely, the coalition on the international level should also represent the UN’s Security Council.
Rudaw: How do you regard the Saudi airstrikes on the IS bases in Syria, considering the fact that Saudi Arabia has condemned Syrian government’s actions in the past?
Ali Haidar: As far as we are concerned, we are dealing with the Security Council’s resolution against terror. We are not against either Saudis, nor the Turks or Qataris, or Jordanians for that matter, to join the attacks on IS. These countries were the reason the IS was formed originally. If they now join the attacks on IS, then it’s a good thing. All these countries were funding and training the IS fighters and sent them over to Syria to fight against our government. But now fearing for their own security, they have joined the airstrikes. They don’t do this for the Syrian people; they are in the fight for themselves.
Rudaw: What is your position regarding the decision by the US government and its allies to aid the Syrian moderate opposition with $500 million? They have announced that there will be training camps for the Free Syrian Army in Saudi Arabia.
Ali Haidar: What the US is trying to do is to replace a terrorist group with another terrorist group. We don’t differentiate between terrorist organizations and the so-called moderate organizations because they have one thing in common, which is the killing. We are monitoring the events. We oppose anything that harms the Syrian national interests. At the moment an international coalition is attacking the terrorist organizations and we are benefitted by it. But this should not be done at the expense of the Syrian interests. They must not meddle in the internal affairs of Syria. The US doesn’t have so much to say about the internal problems in Syria.
Rudaw: If the US started arming the Syrian moderate opposition, will you react to that?
Ali Haidar: Indeed. There are no moderate or extremist organizations. The Syrian government will counter any organization that targets the Syrian people and would try to disintegrate its territorial integrity. We respond to the US according to the events on the ground. The US opposes some terrorist organizations in Syria. But arming groups by the US government is not a new thing. Even the Saudis have armed groups in the past. The Syrian government rejects this totally. We don’t see the $500 million aid and training as something new. We reject it and, if deemed necessary, we will respond to it.
Rudaw: Have the Syrian government troops launched attacks on the IS?
Ali Haidar: The Syrian army and its air force and artillery have constantly attacked the terrorists -- including the IS in both Raqqa and Idlib -- even before the start of the coalition attacks. The Israeli and the Turkish governments have shot downed two of our aircraft so far. Our aircraft were targeted while on missions against the terrorists.
Rudaw: What do you think the events will lead to?
Ali Haidar: All options are on the table. There is a possibility that the coalition widens and both Iran and Russia will join the efforts in coordination with both Syria and Iraq.
Rudaw: How do you see the Western support for the Kurdish Peshmarga troops? Would you like to see a similar support for the Syrian Kurds?
Ali Haidar: I do not differentiate between citizens in north or south of Syria. I believe that their rights -- or parts of their rights -- should be realized. One such right is to be able to live in peace and harmony in their own country. So, we do support any side that would support that. This is primarily the commitment of the Syrian government -- rather than the duty of any other power -- to arm them. We should provide them with all the necessary equipment to repel the terrorists. We support all cooperation that empowers the resistance, but within the framework of our national aspirations. And in regard to the Peshmarga forces, since the support enables them to defend their land and people, we see it as natural and support it. But the sovereignty of both Iraq and Syria should be respected. We support any efforts that strengthens national sovereignty.