Stephen Sackur speaks to Syrian opposition negotiator Bassma Kodmani - is the only realistic choice in Syria between Assad and Islamic State?
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Welcome to HARDtalk, I'm Stephen Sackur.
After five years of bloodletting and suffering, the Syrian war has
a new, potentially game-changing dynamic.
The combined forces of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian
backers are pushing back the rebels in the north and west
of the country.
A mooted truce appears to have been brokered on Russia's terms,
and seems unlikely to halt the military push.
My guest today is Bassma Kodmani, a representative of the so-called
Is the only realistic choice in Syria today Assad,
or Islamic State?
Bassma Kodmani, welcome to HARDtalk.
This is the strangest of weeks in the Syria conflict,
because by the end of the week we are supposed to be seeing
a quote-unquote cessation of hostilities, and yet day by day
right now we hear of the most terrible new acts of violence.
In the last few hours, strikes against hospitals,
a medical facility in the north of the country.
What, in your view, is going on right now?
Probably because of the announcement of cessation of hostilities,
the parties are positioning themselves as best as they can.
I suppose Russia, if it believes in any way in what it has signed,
which is an agreement on cessation of hostilities by the end
of the week, then it is trying to make the biggest gains it can
make this week, in these coming days.
And that is not something that will happen, I think,
without any response from neighbouring countries.
You mean Turkey, in particular, because many of the strikes right
now are happening close to the Turkish border
in the north of Syria.
Clearly for Turkey, Turkey's anger and frustration with the situation
has been growing.
It is now at a point where it sees that no-one is going to come
in support of its own vital national interests.
And I think it has made a decision that, whatever happens,
it is going to defend its vital interests, and those vital interests
can be defined.
They are, first and foremost, the Kurdish issue, which impacts
Turkey's internal stability and internal national cohesion,
as well as it has taken a position against the Assad regime.
It cannot see the Assad regime prevail again,
because it sees this as future years of attempts to destabilise it
by the regime.
Well, we will come back to analysis of the Turkish condition
and all the key international players in this conflict
in a short while.
But I want to begin by getting to grips with the position
of your grouping of, let's say, moderate forces,
both political and military, inside Syria.
You have represented them for the best part of the last four
or five years.
I just want to get a very simple question out of the way.
Do the groups that you are associated with,
the so-called moderates, recognise this cessation
of hostilities deal?
Will the fighters that you, in a sense, speak for,
be silencing their guns by the end of this week?
If there is a stop of air bombings by Russia.
The air campaign has jeopardised the whole attempt to get,
really, to a point where there is a cessation of hostilities.
The groups who went along with the political opposition,
these were military groups represented in Geneva two weeks ago,
when talks were supposed to start, peace talks were supposed to start
in Geneva, with the regime.
Those groups were represented, they were there.
And they came because they were sincerely planning to abide
by any political arrangement.
Now, the humanitarian situation was no...
Not any better, and this was an important requirement
for the talks to start.
But more importantly, the air campaign by Russia started.
So the opposition, both political and military,
was left with no choice but to ask for a suspension of the peace talks,
which in fact never really started.
No, but as far as you are concerned now, you are not going to take part
in any mooted further peace talks, are you?
Because the idea of the Americans is to get back to Geneva and get
back to talking before the end of February.
But your groupings are not interested anymore?
Of course they are.
I think it is very important to continue to say that the opposition
is genuinely committed to a political process.
But the political process will never happen if the minimal conditions
that the opposition has set, what it has been fighting
for for five years, are not met.
When I say minimal, we know what that means today.
And Russia understands, and every country that has been
involved in this process understands, what that means.
That means that Assad is not part of transition negotiations.
He is still there, until we reach an agreement
on what the transition looks like.
And it should look like what we have defined in the Geneva document,
four years ago now, what we have redefined and reconfirmed in several
documents signed by Russia, signed by the United States,
that a transition...
Yes, but if I may interrupt you, things have changed.
You are still banging on about Assad having absolutely no role
in the transition, when it has become painfully obvious in recent
weeks that the Russians are driving this process forward.
And as far as they are concerned, Assad is essential to
They are not letting him go, they are now buttressing his power.
And as we now know from Mr Assad himself, an interview a few days
ago, he now firmly believes he can achieve full military victory,
thanks to Russia's and Iran's support.
Look, even Russian observers themselves say that what Assad says
himself doesn't matter that much.
He is not a player any more in this equation.
The player is Russia.
Russia is clearly calling the shots.
Do you believe that the Russians right now are, in a sense,
running rings, diplomatically speaking, around the Americans
and the Western powers?
I think Russia has defined its strategy, has decided that it
would keep the regime in place, not necessarily Assad,
maybe in the future.
But for now it needs Assad, because Assad provides legality
for its own intervention, international legality.
Russia says it intervened on the request of the Syrian regime.
It therefore needs Assad.
Assad - whatever you say, Assad is very much a player.
Well, Assad is still sitting in power in Damascus,
but he doesn't call the shots.
He is not the one who makes the decisions.
On the ground, his troops are not even visible.
But we see armed militias from Iran, from Iraq, from Hezbollah,
Lebanon, and these are the militias, these are the Shia-led militias
who are fighting against the revolutionary groups,
the rebel groups everywhere.
And your fighters, if I can put it that way, they are such a loose
association of so-called moderate fighters, it is very hard to call
them fighters, for example the fighters who were defending
Aleppo, and areas around Aleppo in the north,
they are losing, losing big-time.
Yes, they are.
But being confronted by what they are, do you know how
many enemies these groups are fighting today?
They are fighting Russia from the air, they are fighting Iran
and the regime on the ground, they are fighting Daesh,
of course, because Daesh is attacking at the same time,
and taking advantage of the situation to attack,
and the fourth one, unfortunately, are the Kurdish groups,
what we call the PYD groups, which is the radical Kurdish groups
with the secessionist agenda in Syria.
Sure, there are all these groups who frankly right now are militarily
much more effective than the groups you are associated with.
All it means is that you, the so-called Syrian moderates,
have no leverage left at all.
You are barely players in the game anymore.
They are players.
They are delaying the attacks, they are making it more difficult.
That is all they can do at this stage.
But the point is that what are we looking at politically?
Because if we are only going to say these have anti-tank missiles,
and the others have aircrafts, then is this what will...
Are these the terms on which we will develop a political process,
and a political agreement?
I don't think any of these powers, whether it is Russia
or the United States or any of the actors on the ground,
or even Iran, are saying that this will determine an acceptable
political settlement that will stabilise Syria.
Well, stabilise is the word, and if we just leave the military
and the political aspects for a moment, and talk humanitarian,
stability there is so very important for all the players.
But particularly for Turkey, the neighbouring states,
and then for Europe, because of the huge numbers
of refugees who are escaping the bloodshed and the suffering
in Syria, and going ultimately, many of them, toward Europe.
Do you, from what you see and hear on the ground,
fear that the exodus of Syrians from Syria,
particularly in the areas around Aleppo and in the north
of the country right now, is going to accelerate once again?
There is every risk that the refugee issue will become...
Will accelerate, and will become much more serious in the weeks
to come, if the situation is what it is.
And if it is not, there is nothing, there is no political horizon.
We have a very dangerous situation on the ground,
but we have the opportunity right now to say what would create
in Syria conditions for stabilisation.
Stabilisation will take a long time, and lots of effort, and the groups
on the ground will have to commit, and some who will not commit will be
considered spoilers, and will have to be fought.
I think the moderate opposition will go along with that.
If we were to reach cessation of hostilities, these groups will be
excluded if they don't abide by an agreement.
Therefore, if there is no process that takes those terms
into consideration, we are in for something very dangerous.
Remember Iraq 12 years ago, 13 years ago maybe now,
when George Bush decided to invade Iraq, and we are still
paying the price.
What is the price?
The price is the loss of Iraq altogether, and the emergence
of a monster, Daesh.
Daesh is out there because of the policy
which was brought in Iraq.
And I fear that they are doing the same today in Syria.
One thing that strikes me very powerfully right now
is that the more I read about what is happening
on the ground, in places like Aleppo, the more I realise that
many of the fighters who used to perhaps self-describe themselves
as moderates have given up on this idea that the Western powers
are somehow going to help them with funding and arms,
and back them in their struggle against the Assad regime,
and against Daesh, the Islamic State.
And many of them, it seems, are now actively joining
the jihadists, whether it be Nusra Front or Islamic State itself.
Fighters who used to be loyal to your position are now giving up
on any idea that there is room for moderation,
and they are actively now joining the jihadists.
Well, they are definitely very disappointed with Western powers,
particularly the United States.
The support has not come, and the picture could have been very
different had they received the kind of support they needed.
Not only in arms, and maybe not specially in arms,
but more in organisational capacity, the ability to raise an army,
to organise it, to provide central command, et cetera.
With respect, you can't blame the Americans.
The Americans committed $500 million to a training programme
for quote-unquote moderate fighters.
Most of that money was siphoned off, was lost.
And those fighters who were trained were put into theatre in Syria,
most of them either ran away or gave up both themselves
and their weaponry to the Nusra Front, and the Americans
have washed their hands on it, and said, these moderates,
they are totally incompetent and unreliable.
The programme from the start was ill-conceived, and there was no
political will to implement it.
The money was not spent on the rebels.
Had it been spent, I assure you, it would have been a very,
very different result.
Is that not your fault?
The Division 30 men who were put on the ground, we now know,
on the record, gave most of their weaponry to the local
commanders of the Nusra Front, a group that is associated with Al
That is why it is that it was most important to organise the people,
provide salaries to the fighters.
And then you would have an army.
You would have soldiers.
You have people committed to their units.
That never happened.
The selection process was ill-conceived, the definition
of the criteria for vetting were not there.
Nothing was properly done in this process.
It was so disappointing.
Do you not take any responsibility on the part of the Free Syrian Army,
the moderate various different groupings of locally-based forces
whom you claim to be associated with?
There is an incoherence to the so-called moderation
opposition which has hamstrung your movement
from the very beginning.
The groups were really determined to fight,
and they continue to be determined to fight,
but they were left for a very long time with no alternative.
The money was going to groups which were radical.
When they still wanted to fight, they found money and arms in groups
that were radical.
This was the alternative.
Now, today what we are desperately seeking to create is
an alternative to that.
The military alternative, the funding that should have come
from outside from the democratic countries, did not happen.
Can we create it politically?
Can we get these groups to commit to a political process and therefore
in a cessation of hostilities context, we will see
them re-emerge immediately?
It is too late.
It's too late.
That is the tragedy of your situation.
It is simply too late.
Look at the words very recently of the former US Defence Secretary,
Chuck Hagel, who says looking back, "Our big mistake was to say,
'Assad must go.' That was plain wrong."
We now, from Libya to Syria to even Egypt and obviously Iraq,
can say that when we remove the authoritarian, remove
the dictator, the chaos that follows is actually often worse
for our national interest.
So the Americans frankly now look at the situation in Syria and it
seems they are prepared to walk away and leave the Russians to support
Assad, and allow Assad to expand his area of operation.
Mr Chuck Hagel resigned because he disagreed with Obama's
policy, and because he was not given the means to implement a serious
policy that would have had some effect.
Now, I think there is a temptation in Washington to leave the situation
to Russia, but what is happening, in fact, and what we are seeing
between yesterday and today, is that the countries in the region
consider that the vital interests are under threat,
and they are seeing that the United States is not
willing to mobilise to defend their interests.
It's Turkey, but also all of the Gulf countries who see
that if this is left to Russia, Russia will leave Iran,
take positions there, and saying what happened in Iraq
happened once - it will not happen a second time in Syria.
So you are pinning your hopes now on the Turks, the Saudis
and the Gulf states?
The Turks and Saudis are mobilising now.
Are they really?
The Saudis and UAE say they are prepared to commit men
on the ground inside Syria.
They said that a few days ago.
Absolutely no sign they really mean it.
They may or may not.
The point here is are we only going to believe it when guns go up
and start blowing?
When bombs start blowing?
Is this what diplomacy is about?
These countries are saying to the United States and the world,
our vital interests are in danger.
The risks for this region are huge, considerable.
So they are sounding the alarm bell.
If no-one is going to hear that alarm bell and only say,
"Well, they're bluffing, they're not going to send their troops in,"
fine, they may not send their troops, because they may
decide it is not worth it.
Definitely not 'worth it', but that it is too risky to do so.
The fact remains that they are unhappy with the situation.
Just to be clear about what you want, because it's
important to nail this down.
We've heard Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey make some very grave
warnings, or even threats, to the Russians, suggesting
that the Turks may well take serious action in northern Syria.
Are you saying you want to see Turkish troops
I don't hope that we go that far. to see Turkish troops
What I hope happens is that we do get a cessation
of bombings by Russia.
We had an agreement signed in Munich three days ago,
and all of the parties were saying, "It is not going to be implemented,"
because in fact it is Russia who sets the pace of implementation.
It is Russia who decides it is not today, it is too early.
Russia has a clause which allows it to keep striking at quote/unquote
"terrorist targets" even if there is a cessation of hostilities.
Yes, and Mr Kerry goes out and says, "But you are targeting
the legitimate opposition".
And Russia continues to ignore it.
So who is going to stop Russia and Iran from controlling
a situation which will push Syria, which first of all is
going to break...
The simple answer to your rhetorical question is no-one,
because the Russians have made a massive military commitment
alongside the Iranians, which the Europeans and Americans
are not prepared to counter or to match.
So the reality of today, the real politic of today,
is that your side has lost.
I believe that if this is the conclusion that the Western
countries have reached, then it is decades of refugees,
and I'm afraid some terror attacks, inside Europe.
These are the vital interests of the West and of Europe,
even more than the United States, that are at stake.
If there is no wake-up here to the situation
and the gravity of the situation and implications of leaving
the place to Assad and Daesh, because this is what is happening
now with Russian policy, it is bombing everybody
on the ground.
Civilians, children, throughout everybody
out there indiscriminately.
What does that produce?
It produces Daesh and the regime.
It is a terrible thing to say, but maybe in the end,
the suffering we see today is a precursor to the end
of the war, an end of the war which brings some sort of victory
to Assad in the areas he really cares about,
and leaves Islamic State to be dealt with later,
maybe, by the international coalition of forces.
But the point surely is about the end of the day-to-day warfare.
With all respect you in the moderate Syrian opposition, you don't
live inside Syria.
Those Syrians left inside the country surely want an end
to the war and the bombing more than anything else?
We all agree.
That is what we would like to see, believe me.
The moderate opposition, inside or outside,
is on the same page.
We want an end to this conflict.
Maybe the only person who can end the conflict at least
in the medium-term is President Assad backed
by the Russians and Iranians.
It may not be pretty, it may be in your view horrible,
but it might lead to the quickest end of this terrible war.
OK, let's take this rationale and apply it over
the last five years.
We've had a wake-up of the social fabric of Syria.
We have had a collapsing of institutions of the state.
We have had an army that is now entirely controlled by one
community, which is going after another large community in Syria.
We are now seeing the break-up of the country because Assad
is willing to let go of a piece of the territory that goes
to the a Kurdish secessionist programme.
What does that tell us about Assad?
It tells us he is simply bringing this country,
burying this country, and the best way to salvage
the institutions, the society, and the army of a country that can
restart its army and its national army, is to get rid of him
as quickly as possible.
Is that really the lesson of Libya and Iraq?
Now, the best thing for Syria would be for Assad and his regime
to be toppled?
What kind of chaos would follow?
We don't want chaos.
We care for the stability more than any country outside Syria.
We Syrians want stability before anything else.
But he is creating instability every single day.
What we need to see, is the moment we are promised
that there is a serious transition of this country,
Assad cannot be part of that.
He is a criminal.
We know that.
Even if nobody is allowing us to take him to court,
we know and everybody knows he is a criminal.
So we need that transition.
Once we have that political horizon, that political promise,
then you will see immediately guns turn against Daesh from both sides.
From the Free Syrian Army as well as the national army.
Those who defected from the army continue to believe this
is their army, and it has been confiscated by the regime.
They want a national army and would want to merge
with the national army in order to fight Daesh.
That is the only way to create an indigenous force on the ground
to fight Daesh.
In the end, Daesh, Islamic State, is what the West is most preoccupied
You are visiting London and talking to politicians in the West.
Surely you know now their priority is no longer getting rid of Assad,
it is taking on Daesh, and they may believe keeping Assad
there in the long run is better for their campaign against IS-Daesh.
We believe it is one objective - Assad and Daesh need to be ended.
That is how one needs to proceed, otherwise we are going to keep both.
Bassma Kodmani, we have to end there.
Thank you for being on HARDtalk.
After five years of bloodletting and suffering, the Syrian war has a new and potentially game-changing dynamic. The combined forces of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers are pushing back the rebels in the north and west of the country - a mooted truce appears to have been brokered on Russia's terms and seems unlikely to halt the military push. Stephen Sackur speaks to Bassma Kodmani, a representative of the so-called moderate rebels - is the only realistic choice in Syria Assad, or Islamic State?