Bassma Kodmani - Syrian Opposition Negotiator HARDtalk


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Bassma Kodmani - Syrian Opposition Negotiator

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.

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After five years of bloodletting and suffering, the Syrian war has

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a new, potentially game-changing dynamic.

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The combined forces of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian

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backers are pushing back the rebels in the north and west

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of the country.

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A mooted truce appears to have been brokered on Russia's terms,

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and seems unlikely to halt the military push.

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My guest today is Bassma Kodmani, a representative of the so-called

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moderate rebels.

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Is the only realistic choice in Syria today Assad,

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or Islamic State?

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Bassma Kodmani, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thank you.

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This is the strangest of weeks in the Syria conflict,

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because by the end of the week we are supposed to be seeing

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a quote-unquote cessation of hostilities, and yet day by day

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right now we hear of the most terrible new acts of violence.

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In the last few hours, strikes against hospitals,

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a medical facility in the north of the country.

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What, in your view, is going on right now?

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Probably because of the announcement of cessation of hostilities,

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the parties are positioning themselves as best as they can.

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I suppose Russia, if it believes in any way in what it has signed,

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which is an agreement on cessation of hostilities by the end

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of the week, then it is trying to make the biggest gains it can

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make this week, in these coming days.

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And that is not something that will happen, I think,

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without any response from neighbouring countries.

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You mean Turkey, in particular, because many of the strikes right

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now are happening close to the Turkish border

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in the north of Syria.

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Clearly for Turkey, Turkey's anger and frustration with the situation

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has been growing.

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It is now at a point where it sees that no-one is going to come

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in support of its own vital national interests.

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And I think it has made a decision that, whatever happens,

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it is going to defend its vital interests, and those vital interests

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can be defined.

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They are, first and foremost, the Kurdish issue, which impacts

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Turkey's internal stability and internal national cohesion,

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as well as it has taken a position against the Assad regime.

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It cannot see the Assad regime prevail again,

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because it sees this as future years of attempts to destabilise it

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by the regime.

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Well, we will come back to analysis of the Turkish condition

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and all the key international players in this conflict

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in a short while.

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But I want to begin by getting to grips with the position

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of your grouping of, let's say, moderate forces,

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both political and military, inside Syria.

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You have represented them for the best part of the last four

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or five years.

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I just want to get a very simple question out of the way.

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Do the groups that you are associated with,

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the so-called moderates, recognise this cessation

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of hostilities deal?

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Will the fighters that you, in a sense, speak for,

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be silencing their guns by the end of this week?

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If there is a stop of air bombings by Russia.

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The air campaign has jeopardised the whole attempt to get,

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really, to a point where there is a cessation of hostilities.

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The groups who went along with the political opposition,

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these were military groups represented in Geneva two weeks ago,

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when talks were supposed to start, peace talks were supposed to start

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in Geneva, with the regime.

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Those groups were represented, they were there.

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And they came because they were sincerely planning to abide

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by any political arrangement.

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Now, the humanitarian situation was no...

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Not any better, and this was an important requirement

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for the talks to start.

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But more importantly, the air campaign by Russia started.

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So the opposition, both political and military,

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was left with no choice but to ask for a suspension of the peace talks,

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which in fact never really started.

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No, but as far as you are concerned now, you are not going to take part

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in any mooted further peace talks, are you?

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Because the idea of the Americans is to get back to Geneva and get

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back to talking before the end of February.

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But your groupings are not interested anymore?

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Of course they are.

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I think it is very important to continue to say that the opposition

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is genuinely committed to a political process.

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But the political process will never happen if the minimal conditions

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that the opposition has set, what it has been fighting

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for for five years, are not met.

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When I say minimal, we know what that means today.

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And Russia understands, and every country that has been

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involved in this process understands, what that means.

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That means that Assad is not part of transition negotiations.

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He is still there, until we reach an agreement

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on what the transition looks like.

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And it should look like what we have defined in the Geneva document,

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four years ago now, what we have redefined and reconfirmed in several

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documents signed by Russia, signed by the United States,

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that a transition...

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Yes, but if I may interrupt you, things have changed.

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You are still banging on about Assad having absolutely no role

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in the transition, when it has become painfully obvious in recent

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weeks that the Russians are driving this process forward.

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And as far as they are concerned, Assad is essential to

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Syria's future.

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They are not letting him go, they are now buttressing his power.

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And as we now know from Mr Assad himself, an interview a few days

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ago, he now firmly believes he can achieve full military victory,

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thanks to Russia's and Iran's support.

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Look, even Russian observers themselves say that what Assad says

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himself doesn't matter that much.

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He is not a player any more in this equation.

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The player is Russia.

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Russia is clearly calling the shots.

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Do you believe that the Russians right now are, in a sense,

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running rings, diplomatically speaking, around the Americans

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and the Western powers?

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I think Russia has defined its strategy, has decided that it

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would keep the regime in place, not necessarily Assad,

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maybe in the future.

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But for now it needs Assad, because Assad provides legality

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for its own intervention, international legality.

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Russia says it intervened on the request of the Syrian regime.

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It therefore needs Assad.

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Assad - whatever you say, Assad is very much a player.

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Well, Assad is still sitting in power in Damascus,

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but he doesn't call the shots.

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He is not the one who makes the decisions.

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On the ground, his troops are not even visible.

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But we see armed militias from Iran, from Iraq, from Hezbollah,

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Lebanon, and these are the militias, these are the Shia-led militias

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who are fighting against the revolutionary groups,

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the rebel groups everywhere.

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And your fighters, if I can put it that way, they are such a loose

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association of so-called moderate fighters, it is very hard to call

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them fighters, for example the fighters who were defending

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Aleppo, and areas around Aleppo in the north,

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they are losing, losing big-time.

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Yes, they are.

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But being confronted by what they are, do you know how

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many enemies these groups are fighting today?

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They are fighting Russia from the air, they are fighting Iran

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and the regime on the ground, they are fighting Daesh,

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of course, because Daesh is attacking at the same time,

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and taking advantage of the situation to attack,

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and the fourth one, unfortunately, are the Kurdish groups,

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what we call the PYD groups, which is the radical Kurdish groups

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with the secessionist agenda in Syria.

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Sure, there are all these groups who frankly right now are militarily

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much more effective than the groups you are associated with.

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All it means is that you, the so-called Syrian moderates,

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have no leverage left at all.

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You are barely players in the game anymore.

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They are players.

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They are delaying the attacks, they are making it more difficult.

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That is all they can do at this stage.

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But the point is that what are we looking at politically?

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Because if we are only going to say these have anti-tank missiles,

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and the others have aircrafts, then is this what will...

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Are these the terms on which we will develop a political process,

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and a political agreement?

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I don't think any of these powers, whether it is Russia

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or the United States or any of the actors on the ground,

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or even Iran, are saying that this will determine an acceptable

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political settlement that will stabilise Syria.

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Well, stabilise is the word, and if we just leave the military

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and the political aspects for a moment, and talk humanitarian,

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stability there is so very important for all the players.

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But particularly for Turkey, the neighbouring states,

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and then for Europe, because of the huge numbers

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of refugees who are escaping the bloodshed and the suffering

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in Syria, and going ultimately, many of them, toward Europe.

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Do you, from what you see and hear on the ground,

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fear that the exodus of Syrians from Syria,

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particularly in the areas around Aleppo and in the north

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of the country right now, is going to accelerate once again?

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Of course.

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There is every risk that the refugee issue will become...

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Will accelerate, and will become much more serious in the weeks

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to come, if the situation is what it is.

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And if it is not, there is nothing, there is no political horizon.

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We have a very dangerous situation on the ground,

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but we have the opportunity right now to say what would create

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in Syria conditions for stabilisation.

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Stabilisation will take a long time, and lots of effort, and the groups

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on the ground will have to commit, and some who will not commit will be

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considered spoilers, and will have to be fought.

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I think the moderate opposition will go along with that.

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If we were to reach cessation of hostilities, these groups will be

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excluded if they don't abide by an agreement.

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Therefore, if there is no process that takes those terms

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into consideration, we are in for something very dangerous.

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Remember Iraq 12 years ago, 13 years ago maybe now,

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when George Bush decided to invade Iraq, and we are still

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paying the price.

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What is the price?

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The price is the loss of Iraq altogether, and the emergence

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of a monster, Daesh.

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Daesh is out there because of the policy

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which was brought in Iraq.

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And I fear that they are doing the same today in Syria.

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One thing that strikes me very powerfully right now

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is that the more I read about what is happening

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on the ground, in places like Aleppo, the more I realise that

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many of the fighters who used to perhaps self-describe themselves

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as moderates have given up on this idea that the Western powers

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are somehow going to help them with funding and arms,

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and back them in their struggle against the Assad regime,

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and against Daesh, the Islamic State.

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And many of them, it seems, are now actively joining

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the jihadists, whether it be Nusra Front or Islamic State itself.

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Fighters who used to be loyal to your position are now giving up

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on any idea that there is room for moderation,

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and they are actively now joining the jihadists.

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Well, they are definitely very disappointed with Western powers,

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particularly the United States.

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The support has not come, and the picture could have been very

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different had they received the kind of support they needed.

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Not only in arms, and maybe not specially in arms,

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but more in organisational capacity, the ability to raise an army,

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to organise it, to provide central command, et cetera.

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With respect, you can't blame the Americans.

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The Americans committed $500 million to a training programme

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for quote-unquote moderate fighters.

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Most of that money was siphoned off, was lost.

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And those fighters who were trained were put into theatre in Syria,

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most of them either ran away or gave up both themselves

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and their weaponry to the Nusra Front, and the Americans

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have washed their hands on it, and said, these moderates,

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they are totally incompetent and unreliable.

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The programme from the start was ill-conceived, and there was no

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political will to implement it.

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The money was not spent on the rebels.

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Had it been spent, I assure you, it would have been a very,

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very different result.

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Is that not your fault?

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The Division 30 men who were put on the ground, we now know,

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on the record, gave most of their weaponry to the local

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commanders of the Nusra Front, a group that is associated with Al

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Qaeda.

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That is why it is that it was most important to organise the people,

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provide salaries to the fighters.

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And then you would have an army.

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You would have soldiers.

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You have people committed to their units.

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That never happened.

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This...

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The selection process was ill-conceived, the definition

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of the criteria for vetting were not there.

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Nothing was properly done in this process.

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It was so disappointing.

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Do you not take any responsibility on the part of the Free Syrian Army,

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the moderate various different groupings of locally-based forces

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whom you claim to be associated with?

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They failed.

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There is an incoherence to the so-called moderation

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opposition which has hamstrung your movement

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from the very beginning.

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The groups were really determined to fight,

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and they continue to be determined to fight,

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but they were left for a very long time with no alternative.

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The money was going to groups which were radical.

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When they still wanted to fight, they found money and arms in groups

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that were radical.

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This was the alternative.

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Now, today what we are desperately seeking to create is

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an alternative to that.

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The military alternative, the funding that should have come

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from outside from the democratic countries, did not happen.

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Can we create it politically?

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Can we get these groups to commit to a political process and therefore

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in a cessation of hostilities context, we will see

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them re-emerge immediately?

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It is too late.

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It's too late.

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That is the tragedy of your situation.

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It is simply too late.

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Look at the words very recently of the former US Defence Secretary,

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Chuck Hagel, who says looking back, "Our big mistake was to say,

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'Assad must go.' That was plain wrong."

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We now, from Libya to Syria to even Egypt and obviously Iraq,

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can say that when we remove the authoritarian, remove

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the dictator, the chaos that follows is actually often worse

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for our national interest.

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So the Americans frankly now look at the situation in Syria and it

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seems they are prepared to walk away and leave the Russians to support

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Assad, and allow Assad to expand his area of operation.

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Mr Chuck Hagel resigned because he disagreed with Obama's

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policy, and because he was not given the means to implement a serious

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policy that would have had some effect.

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Now, I think there is a temptation in Washington to leave the situation

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to Russia, but what is happening, in fact, and what we are seeing

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between yesterday and today, is that the countries in the region

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consider that the vital interests are under threat,

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and they are seeing that the United States is not

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willing to mobilise to defend their interests.

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It's Turkey, but also all of the Gulf countries who see

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that if this is left to Russia, Russia will leave Iran,

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take positions there, and saying what happened in Iraq

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happened once - it will not happen a second time in Syria.

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So you are pinning your hopes now on the Turks, the Saudis

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and the Gulf states?

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The Turks and Saudis are mobilising now.

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Are they really?

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The Saudis and UAE say they are prepared to commit men

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on the ground inside Syria.

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They said that a few days ago.

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Absolutely no sign they really mean it.

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They may or may not.

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The point here is are we only going to believe it when guns go up

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and start blowing?

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When bombs start blowing?

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Is this what diplomacy is about?

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These countries are saying to the United States and the world,

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our vital interests are in danger.

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The risks for this region are huge, considerable.

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So they are sounding the alarm bell.

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If no-one is going to hear that alarm bell and only say,

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"Well, they're bluffing, they're not going to send their troops in,"

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fine, they may not send their troops, because they may

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decide it is not worth it.

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Definitely not 'worth it', but that it is too risky to do so.

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The fact remains that they are unhappy with the situation.

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Just to be clear about what you want, because it's

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important to nail this down.

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We've heard Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey make some very grave

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warnings, or even threats, to the Russians, suggesting

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that the Turks may well take serious action in northern Syria.

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Are you saying you want to see Turkish troops

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I don't hope that we go that far. to see Turkish troops

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What I hope happens is that we do get a cessation

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of bombings by Russia.

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We had an agreement signed in Munich three days ago,

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and all of the parties were saying, "It is not going to be implemented,"

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because in fact it is Russia who sets the pace of implementation.

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It is Russia who decides it is not today, it is too early.

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Russia has a clause which allows it to keep striking at quote/unquote

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"terrorist targets" even if there is a cessation of hostilities.

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Yes, and Mr Kerry goes out and says, "But you are targeting

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the legitimate opposition".

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And Russia continues to ignore it.

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So who is going to stop Russia and Iran from controlling

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a situation which will push Syria, which first of all is

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going to break...

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The simple answer to your rhetorical question is no-one,

0:19:110:19:13

because the Russians have made a massive military commitment

0:19:130:19:15

alongside the Iranians, which the Europeans and Americans

0:19:150:19:21

are not prepared to counter or to match.

0:19:210:19:24

So the reality of today, the real politic of today,

0:19:240:19:26

is that your side has lost.

0:19:260:19:30

I believe that if this is the conclusion that the Western

0:19:300:19:40

countries have reached, then it is decades of refugees,

0:19:400:19:42

and I'm afraid some terror attacks, inside Europe.

0:19:420:19:45

These are the vital interests of the West and of Europe,

0:19:450:19:48

even more than the United States, that are at stake.

0:19:480:19:53

If there is no wake-up here to the situation

0:19:530:19:58

and the gravity of the situation and implications of leaving

0:19:580:20:01

the place to Assad and Daesh, because this is what is happening

0:20:010:20:04

now with Russian policy, it is bombing everybody

0:20:040:20:06

on the ground.

0:20:060:20:08

Civilians, children, throughout everybody

0:20:080:20:11

out there indiscriminately.

0:20:110:20:14

What does that produce?

0:20:140:20:15

It produces Daesh and the regime.

0:20:150:20:19

It is a terrible thing to say, but maybe in the end,

0:20:190:20:22

the suffering we see today is a precursor to the end

0:20:220:20:29

of the war, an end of the war which brings some sort of victory

0:20:290:20:33

to Assad in the areas he really cares about,

0:20:330:20:35

and leaves Islamic State to be dealt with later,

0:20:350:20:37

maybe, by the international coalition of forces.

0:20:370:20:40

But the point surely is about the end of the day-to-day warfare.

0:20:400:20:46

With all respect you in the moderate Syrian opposition, you don't

0:20:460:20:48

live inside Syria.

0:20:490:20:50

Those Syrians left inside the country surely want an end

0:20:500:20:53

to the war and the bombing more than anything else?

0:20:530:20:59

We all agree.

0:20:590:21:00

That is what we would like to see, believe me.

0:21:000:21:02

The moderate opposition, inside or outside,

0:21:020:21:04

is on the same page.

0:21:040:21:06

We want an end to this conflict.

0:21:060:21:10

Maybe the only person who can end the conflict at least

0:21:100:21:13

in the medium-term is President Assad backed

0:21:130:21:16

by the Russians and Iranians.

0:21:160:21:18

It may not be pretty, it may be in your view horrible,

0:21:180:21:22

but it might lead to the quickest end of this terrible war.

0:21:220:21:26

OK, let's take this rationale and apply it over

0:21:260:21:29

the last five years.

0:21:290:21:33

We've had a wake-up of the social fabric of Syria.

0:21:330:21:37

We have had a collapsing of institutions of the state.

0:21:370:21:42

We have had an army that is now entirely controlled by one

0:21:420:21:47

community, which is going after another large community in Syria.

0:21:470:21:52

We are now seeing the break-up of the country because Assad

0:21:520:21:55

is willing to let go of a piece of the territory that goes

0:21:550:21:58

to the a Kurdish secessionist programme.

0:21:580:22:04

What does that tell us about Assad?

0:22:040:22:06

It tells us he is simply bringing this country,

0:22:060:22:09

burying this country, and the best way to salvage

0:22:090:22:13

the institutions, the society, and the army of a country that can

0:22:130:22:19

restart its army and its national army, is to get rid of him

0:22:190:22:22

as quickly as possible.

0:22:220:22:24

Is that really the lesson of Libya and Iraq?

0:22:240:22:29

Oh, definitely.

0:22:290:22:30

Really?

0:22:300:22:31

Now, the best thing for Syria would be for Assad and his regime

0:22:310:22:36

to be toppled?

0:22:360:22:37

What kind of chaos would follow?

0:22:370:22:40

We don't want chaos.

0:22:400:22:41

We care for the stability more than any country outside Syria.

0:22:410:22:46

We Syrians want stability before anything else.

0:22:460:22:49

But he is creating instability every single day.

0:22:490:22:52

What we need to see, is the moment we are promised

0:22:520:22:54

that there is a serious transition of this country,

0:22:540:22:57

Assad cannot be part of that.

0:22:570:22:59

He is a criminal.

0:22:590:23:01

We know that.

0:23:010:23:05

Even if nobody is allowing us to take him to court,

0:23:050:23:07

we know and everybody knows he is a criminal.

0:23:070:23:09

So we need that transition.

0:23:090:23:11

Once we have that political horizon, that political promise,

0:23:110:23:14

then you will see immediately guns turn against Daesh from both sides.

0:23:140:23:17

From the Free Syrian Army as well as the national army.

0:23:170:23:19

Those who defected from the army continue to believe this

0:23:190:23:23

is their army, and it has been confiscated by the regime.

0:23:230:23:26

They want a national army and would want to merge

0:23:260:23:32

with the national army in order to fight Daesh.

0:23:320:23:35

That is the only way to create an indigenous force on the ground

0:23:350:23:38

to fight Daesh.

0:23:380:23:39

In the end, Daesh, Islamic State, is what the West is most preoccupied

0:23:390:23:42

about.

0:23:420:23:44

You are visiting London and talking to politicians in the West.

0:23:440:23:46

Surely you know now their priority is no longer getting rid of Assad,

0:23:460:23:51

it is taking on Daesh, and they may believe keeping Assad

0:23:510:23:54

there in the long run is better for their campaign against IS-Daesh.

0:23:540:23:59

We believe it is one objective - Assad and Daesh need to be ended.

0:23:590:24:06

That is how one needs to proceed, otherwise we are going to keep both.

0:24:060:24:09

Bassma Kodmani, we have to end there.

0:24:090:24:12

Thank you for being on HARDtalk.

0:24:120:24:14

Thank you.

0:24:140:24:24

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?