Friday, February 14, 2014

Interview with Syrian Ambassador to India (Rediff)

'Syria is central to Middle East peace'

February 14, 2014 14:45 IST 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, United Kingdom, 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 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  fighters who behead innocent  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.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Article: The Importance of De-Hyphenating India (Huffington Post)

By Cleo Paskal. Western analysis of India is often blinkered by the "hyphen syndrome." First it was India-Pakistan, now it is India-China. But a recent conference in Pune showed exactly why that assessment is dangerously short-sighted, at the very least.

The India and Development Partnerships in Asia and Africa: Towards a New Paradigmmeeting, was held mid-December in Pune, India. It was co-hosted by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Symbiosis University. Symbiosis was an apt choice. The university has a large cadre of international students -- currently representing over 80 countries -- and the name derives from one of its founding principles: "Allowing various international cultures to culminate at a point and grow together".
The conference cast was impressive -- good thing Symbiosis has its own helipad. The Keynote on the second day was given by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Also attending were Ambassadors and/or Ministers from, among many others, Bhutan, Burundi, Dubai, Gambia, Iraq, Mozambique, Oman, Senegal, Tanzania and Turkey . Each panel was chaired by a retired Indian Ambassador.
H. E. Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje, Foreign Minister of Bhutan; Padma Bhushan Dr. S. B. Mujumdar, Founder & President of Symbiosis; H. E. Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan; H. E. Dr. Joseph Butore, Minister of Education and Scientific Research, Burundi.
The message from non-Indians was overwhelmingly: "We already have strong relations with India, and we want even more." They weren't just being polite. The call was based on long-standing, multi-faceted relationships -- far beyond the soft power of Bollywood and small scale trade.
There is a genuine desire in a lot of the world to have an option that isn't the West and isn't China. So far, fractious internal politics in India have weakened the central government's ability to fully engage. But elections are coming up in 2014 and, if an effective government comes in, dynamics might change very quickly. A small sample of what was said at the conference shows why.
President Karzai underlined the millennia-old relationship between Afghanistan and India, even mentioning that Afghan cities were part of Indian consciousness as far back as theMahabharata.
And today, there is an enormous amount of fluidity between the two countries, including in education. In his address, Karzai said that while the West gives a good education: "In a dry sense, what they don't give is a moral value. And that is extremely important." Indian education is viewed as offering both. To widespread applause, he said:
India is not a melting pot which will assimilate you in their culture. Instead it will inculcate values and morals in you.
Currently there are around 4,000 Afghan students studying in Pune alone, and thousands more elsewhere in the country. Karzai himself earned his Master's degree in International Relations and Political Science from Simla University.
India, he said, had already given Afghanistan $2 billion in aid -- adding it was "quality" money spent on "projects of long term development and proper infrastructure," including transmission lines, the new parliament building, a hospital for children, a dam, etc.
He saw the Afghan-Indian economic relationship as potentially growing substantially, with access to the Indian market a boon for the Afghan economy, and Afghanistan being "a roundabout" for Indian access to Central Asia and beyond.
Other speakers echoed variations on the same themes. The Chairman of the Public Authority for Investment Promotion & Export Development of Oman also underlined the age old relations between the two regions (separated by a relatively short sea route) and said that Oman was going to be putting in billions in infrastructure -- including potentially arailway from Kuwait to Oman that would let cargo bypass the Strait of Hormuz -- and they wanted more Indian involvement.
The Foreign Minister of Bhutan talked of Nehru visiting Bhutan by yak before the highway was put in (with help from India), and of India continuing to be a key partner, and friend, for Bhutan.
The distinguished representative from Senegal asked the audience to stand in recognition of the influence that Gandhi, who lived for a time in South Africa, had on Africans, and on Mandela, before calling for the establishment of an India-Africa think tank to promote even closer ties.
Other African ministers mentioned the generations-old Indian communities in their countries, and the contributions they've made. As well as India bringing to Africa a range of critically needed products such as affordable medicine.
And on and on. All wanted more engagement with India, and said so in warm tones that Washington and Beijing could only dream of hearing. There was a feeling of genuine societal compatibility -- with deep roots and a strong desire for a growing future.
Hon. Safia Al Suhail, Member of Parliament, Iraq, and Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Principal Director, Symbiosis.
The Pune conference was not an isolated event, more another wave in a swelling tide as medium and smaller powers seek to maneuver through the perceived rocky Scylla of Western blunt force power, and the sinking Charybdis of economically and socially intruding Chinese influence.
Similar sentiments about India were expressed in November at Asia Uninterrupted, a high-level gathering co-hosted by Gateway House think tank and Manipal University.
Japan is also looking towards India with interest. Economic compatibilities are combining with concerns over China and a lingering doubt about U.S. willingness to engage in a war in Asia to defend Japan. India -- a nuclear state with hundreds of thousands of troops near China's border -- could present China with a distracting second front, if properly motivated. Perhaps coincidentally, not only has the Japanese Emperor just visited India after a lull of over half-a-century, but billions in Japanese investments are starting to flow in to the country as well.
Significantly, quite a few of these discussions are held away from Delhi, and without many participants from the West. I was the only ethnically Western speaker at the Pune conference (though I am working with an Indian university), and no one from the West attended the closed door meetings in Manipal.
These renewing constellations of alliances aren't a challenge to the West. India is a democratic, secular, education and family-focused, demographically young country with a lot of potential friends and a solid growth rate. From a Western point of view, a stable, successful and above all friendly India would be a sound ally heading into troubled times.
For the friendly bit, it means revisiting attitudes towards India, including the sort that produced things like the handling of the Devyani Khobragade case, House Resolution 417and the indignities meted out over the years to India's President, Defence Minister, UN Ambassador, U.S. Ambassador, and biggest film star. This has to stop. If only for the U.S.'s own sake. Apart from strategic considerations, if healthily engaged, India could help in understanding the concerns of sections of the world that are often underrepresented, including India itself, and be a valuable partner in growth as geoeconomics shift.
At the moment, India, in the sense of a strong national government making consistent, directed foreign policy decisions, seems a bit MIA. This may continue until at least after the elections. So, many of the linkages are being maintained informally by the business sector, education sector, health sector, people-to-people relationships, extended families, state-to-state engagement (for example, the Indian state of Gujarat reaching out to Gujaratis living in other countries), the Indian-American caucus (one of the largest on the Hill), etc. The links are there. And will grow. Regardless.
It is high time to ditch India's hyphen. The many complex parts that make up India are more like myriad overlapping hubs with myriad spokes than a single linear hyphen. India's place in the 21st Century is much more than just a counterpoint to China. No matter what happens in Delhi.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Video: Cleo Paskal at the East West Center, DC, on The New Battle for the Pacific: How the West is Losing the South Pacific to China, the UAE, and Just About Everyone Else (3 October 2013)

The New Battle for the Pacific: How the West is Losing the South Pacific to China, the UAE, and Just About Everyone Else from East-West Center on Vimeo.
Far from being small island states, Pacific Island countries are showing themselves as large ocean states, with vast fisheries, potential seabed resources, and increasingly important geostrategic positioning - as the range of military bases dotted throughout the region can attest. However, just as the region is showing its importance, Western influence is waning. When the larger Western powers pulled out of the region following the end of the Cold War (the United Kingdom, for example, closed three South Pacific High Commissions in 2006), they turned to Australia and New Zealand to "manage" the area for the West. Ms. Cleo Paskal discusses how and why this happened and what are the options for the West in this new battle for the Pacific.

Ms. Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House, London, and Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University, India.

Recorded at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C., October 3, 2013