Bassma Kodmani, Member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition HARDtalk


Bassma Kodmani, Member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition

Stephen Sackur talks to Bassma Kodmani, a member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition. Will 2017 see a dramatic shift in the dynamic of the Syria conflict?


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Now on BBC News, Hardtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk,

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I'm Stephen Sackur.

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After six years of terrible bloodshed, could 2017 dramatically

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shift the dynamic of the Syria conflict?

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Change is in the air.

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Aleppo has fallen to the Assad regime and a ceasefire deal brokered

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by Russia and Turkey is just about folding.

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Moscow's dominant role in the diplomatic endgame is now

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undisputed with Ankara playing a pivotal role as well.

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My guest is Bassma Kodmani of the negotiating

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team of the Syrian opposition.

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Is it time for the moderate rebels to accept their de facto defeat?

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Bassma Kodmani in Paris, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Hello, Stephen, thank you.

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It's a pleasure to have you on the programme.

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Let me start with a question that comes directly from the New Year.

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Do you see 2017 bringing with it better prospects

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for an end to the conflict in Syria then we have seen at any time

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in the previous, almost, six years?

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I do, carefully optimistic, but I do.

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I do hope and we are working towards making 2017 the end

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of the disaster of the tragedy and the beginning of

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a political transition.

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That is what we are hoping for and the coming

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weeks will tell us whether we are moving in that direction

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but there is certainly a turning point and

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certainly something to build on at the moment

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with the new players that have asserted themselves and I think

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there is space for diplomacy now if the signals coming out

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from Moscow and from Turkey as well as, very

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carefully, from Tehran, if these signals are sincere then

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we have some hope for a political settlement, yes.

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I want to talk about the key players and their

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signals in a minute but just taking up your phrase about a turning

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point.

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Would it be fair to say that the defeat of the anti-Assad

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forces in Aleppo was a fundamental turning point?

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Certainly, the military confrontation has turned

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to the advantage of the Assad regime.

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Why?

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Simply because it had the full and massive support of Russian air

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force on one hand and pro-Iranian militia, sectarian militias on the

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ground as ground forces.

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Very little was done by Assad's forces, it was by one key regional

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power and one key international power so it was obvious the outcome

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was not going to be in favour of the opposition.

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But one needs to look back five years ago or even six years ago

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when the uprising started.

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Those who rose up against Assad had no arms, no military means

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at all so we are looking at a confrontation

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that is ending militarily but the ingredients for a conflict

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and the confrontation is still there.

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If we are going to build on the military balance of forces,

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I don't think we will go very far in either defeating terrorism

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in Syria or in ending the conflict and having

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a satisfactory political transition.

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The people of Syria and goodness knows that they

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have suffered so much, they have seen well over 300,000

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of their people killed, they have seen 12 million and more

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displaced including 5 million who have left

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the country altogether.

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With that in mind, is this the right time for you in the so-called

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moderate anti-Assad opposition who have been aligned

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with the United States and the Saudis in particular,

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would it be the right time to acknowledge that you have

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lost out here?

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You wanted Assad to go and those who have prevailed,

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the Russians in particular and the Iranians as well,

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they are the people who are insistent that Assad

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need not and will not go?

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To be fair to the opposition, it has sought support

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from democratic countries, it has received very little support

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and obviously the Assad regime has received massive support.

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Russia has decided Syria would be the place where it

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would signal its international power, stature and military might.

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We have seen it happen on our territory.

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It is not because we chose to align ourselves

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with this or that party.

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We as Syrians are asking for dignity,

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rights, freedom and security and the right to life today

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for every Syrian and for that to happen, we will be

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working with any country serious about organising and facilitating

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a political transition.

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We have tried it with Assad himself directly for ten years,

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then the population rose against Assad for six years.

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Did not receive any concession, none whatsoever.

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We look to all the powers in this world and if Russia

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is serious about brokering a settlement in Syria,

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it will find a partner among the moderate opposition,

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both military and political.

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These are people who the moderate political opposition

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is very clear about.

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The state needs to remain.

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There has to be continuity of governance, we need to restore

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security to Syria because we know the international community

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is worried about international terrorism coming out of Syria.

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If I may, let me read between the lines.

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You acknowledge the Russians are driving the process,

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no question.

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The Americans with Obama in his final days as president,

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with Donald Trump singing a very different tune,

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the Americans aren't really in this game at the moment

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and as far as you're concerned, you are now ready, are you,

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to undertake the peace negotiations the Russians want,

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to be, they say, hosted in Astana, Kazakhstan, with the Turks

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and the Iranians playing key roles with no sign of the Americans?

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Are you with your team in the high negotiations council

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of the opposition prepared to participate

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in that process?

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Look, I believe if these talks were to take place in Astana

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or Geneva or any other place, if they are placed under the terms

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of reference, if the terms for the talks are clear,

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if they refer to UN resolutions which Russia has voted for,

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there is no problem in participating in such a process.

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Russia is brokering a cessation of hostilities on the ground.

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If this holds, the parties will be ready to go

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whether they are military or political.

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What we would like to see is certainly the new US

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administration step in and take some responsibility in brokering

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this political arrangement.

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We have Russia telling us it is serious about

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political settlement.

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We have Turkey playing a positive role but so far we have not

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had a positive role from Iran.

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Let us admit that Iran has been the key spoiler.

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Sectarian militias on the ground are our key problem today in Syria.

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They are fuelling jihadis on the opposition side.

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What we need as a priority is a coalition of countries,

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and the Trump administration should be part of that,

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to push out both sectarian militias who are poisoning

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the ground inside Syria.

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I will push you on this a little bit.

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You can say what should happen and what you

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would like to happen but let's deal with reality,

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what is happening.

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The US is not playing a role and the UN, frankly,

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has been sidetracked as well.

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The Russians are dominating the diplomacy right now and I want

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a simple yes or no answer.

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Are you prepared to go to peace talks that are brokered

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and controlled by Russia?

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The Russians who don't see a reason to insist that Assad be

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removed from power.

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Are you prepared to undertake and participate in those talks under

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Russian auspices?

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The Russians are referring to the UN resolutions.

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If that is clearly the case, there is no problem in participating.

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The opposition can go.

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What I'm saying is the Trump administration, the US Congress,

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are clearly coming out against Iranian behaviour

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across the Middle East because it has really destabilised the region.

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That is where we can expect the Trump administration will play

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a role in pressuring Iran to limit its presence

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across the region.

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It's Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, everywhere in the region

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and we have a real problem there with the Shia militias

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on the ground.

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We cannot get rid of Sunni jihadis whether it is Daesh,

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Al Nusra, radical groups, if we have this poisonous presence

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of Shia militias on the side of the regime.

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This is where Iran needs to come to terms

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with what needs to happen on the ground in order for Syria

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to see a peaceful settlement.

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On one point of detail, yesterday a coalition of 12

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or so different anti-Assad forces on the ground said

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they were going to reject any further diplomacy under

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the Russian-Astana tent because of what they described as systematic

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violations of the ceasefire agreement by Assad forces

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on the ground.

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If that your position as well or you prepared to say

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that the ceasefire is holding in a satisfactory way?

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Unfortunately the ceasefire is not holding.

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These groups are the ones who signed with

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Russia and Russia signed on behalf of the regime,

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an agreement for cessation of hostilities.

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The groups abided by the ceasefire and the Syrian regime

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is not abiding.

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What the groups are asking is for our Russia to get the Assad

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regime to behave, to comply and enforce the cessation

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of hostilities.

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If it is credible, a political negotiation can happen.

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These groups are willing to go to Astana, they signed,

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they said they were going and now we see the other side is not

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respecting any of that.

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We need Russia to put pressure needed, and it can do so,

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on Iran and the Syrian regime if it was a political settlement.

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I personally believe that Russia today has an interest in finding

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an exit strategy through a political settlement.

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I would expect it will do so.

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Have you and other negotiators who have aimed

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your efforts mostly at the UN track in Geneva, have you reached out

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with key Russian officials?

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Through the United Nations we have contacts with

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everyone involved in this crisis.

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With respect, I don't mean through the UN track.

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The Financial Times reported last month that some

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moderate leaders had covert and secret talks with Russian

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officials hosted by the Turks in Ankara.

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Have you been involved in that?

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The Turks have hosted talks with military groups

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and lots of political figures from the opposition have also been

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in touch directly with Russia.

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Some have gone to Moscow and some have met them elsewhere.

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There are many messages passed on to the Russians and they know

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exactly where the opposition stands and what it is willing to negotiate.

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Really, the problem today is not so much Russia and the opposition.

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They know each other, or they understand each

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other's position.

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We are willing to operate and negotiate under the political

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transition, fine, we can go to a negotiation

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on political transition...

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If I may say, we have talked before and you have always in the past

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said, you know what, it's quite simple, the removal

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of Assad, no role for us that in the transition.

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That is a dealbreaker dealbreaker for us.

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We cannot sign anything or engage in any process that involves Assad.

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It seems to me that you must be changing your mind.

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If you say you believe in Russia's good faith

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and believe in their desire to see the conflict ended,

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we know the Russians don't feel that Assad has

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to go so presumably, to have given ground

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on that, have you?

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Look, can I say very simply, we read the international equation.

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Here's the balance of forces on the ground, here is what Russia

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is seeking to achieve, a political settlement,

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fine, along the lines of resolutions in the UN,

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to talk about political transition.

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That is fine for us.

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What Assad becomes is how he behaves in these negotiations.

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Is he in a position to make concessions, to yield some

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of his prerogatives, a lot of his prerogatives,

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most of his prerogatives, any of his prerogatives,

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to a transition government?

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If that is the case then the discussion changes but do

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you think the opposition...

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He might be leading the transition.

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He cannot lead it.

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What?

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He obviously cannot lead it.

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He is not showing any indication other than destroying communities

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and starving people.

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We need to see some behaviour that is positive on the other side,

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then we will have a partner for peace.

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If we don't, I think Russia will come to terms with the fact

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that it doesn't have a party on the other side and cannot ask

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the opposition to do much to work with Assad if Assad doesn't

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want to work with the opposition.

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The equation is fairly easy, you know.

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We are not asking for Assad to go away the day we enter negotiations.

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We are talking about negotiations in which there are give and take.

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We need prisoners out, we need women and children to be

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safe and to be released also from prisons.

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We need the disappeared, to have news about them.

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We need to have the bombings stop and barrel bombs stop

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being thrown at civilians.

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I'm sorry to repeat myself.

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I don't want to get stuck on this issue, but one last time,

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it does seem to me that you have given ground on the role of Assad.

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You are now acknowledging to me that Assad will be a key figure

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in the negotiations.

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He won't just be removed, it will be Assad in many ways

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who is the figure deciding what he can give.

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Look, the power of Assad is very little.

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He has nuisance power, yes, but those who are negotiating,

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the decision-making power is in Moscow and Tehran.

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Unfortunately there is no Syrian regime that can

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still decide on a yes or no.

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That is why we are talking to Russia.

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We will be talking to the countries and parties that support

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the Assad regime, not so much the regime itself.

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We need to find some reasonable voices over there,

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we have not seen them so far, he has prevented them from rising

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and if negotiations can bring those reasonable voices out and if we can

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talk to them and have them safely talk to us without being themselves

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punished for showing some reasonable behaviour, then we will have

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a negotiated process.

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Otherwise I think Russia will understand, Iran is more difficult,

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but Russia will understand that it doesn't have a helpful partner out

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there and needs to work differently with the opposition.

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Everything we are talking about is couched in terms

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of Moscow, Putin, Russia.

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Let's reflect on how we got to where we are today.

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Do you feel desperately let down, maybe even betrayed

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by the Obama administration?

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I think the Obama administration has opted out.

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It should have played the role that was what a US role

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should be in this region.

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Opting out of this region is abandoning certain

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responsibilities vis-a-vis Syria but also vis-a-vis the whole region,

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Iraq, the Gulf countries.

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We are in a region where the US was a key player.

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It cannot just pull out as it did and in the case of Syria,

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it is the Syrian population, yes, that is paying the price.

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Yes, we are disappointed.

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Obama, he steered away from obviously any significant

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military action against Assad.

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It looked possible for a while, he walked away from it.

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He talked, or at least Hillary Clinton talked

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for a while about some sort of aerial intervention

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to establish safe havens.

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They walked very long, long way from that.

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They talked about training moderate forces on the ground.

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Well, the training programme turned out to be pitiful.

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Actually farcical.

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So when you look at all of those elements of what the administration

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talked about and didn't deliver, give me your final verdict as Obama

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is about to leave office.

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Well, I believe he should have thought of where security,

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how to restore security in Syria and today that is our concern.

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The Obama administration has decided that there was no possibility

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to challenge Russia.

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He certainly should have challenged Russia at some point

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and at those turning points, he failed us, he certainly did.

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But what we are looking at today is can we bring

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back security to Syria?

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Because this is the concern of the international community.

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Unfortunately, no one is thinking of Assad.

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Assad can sit there, they don't see the risk

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and they don't see the link between terrorism rising

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and Assad staying in power.

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Fine, but what we are seeing today is if you want to bring

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an alternative to the horrible, criminal system that we have

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in Syria, then we have to have a security plan for this

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country and we need the cooperation of every country.

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We need the US, we need Russia.

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Your message to Donald Trump then, Donald Trump the man who says

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Vladimir Putin is very smart and who also says that when it comes

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to analysing the serious situation, his objective and his overriding

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concern is smashing the jihadists in so-called Islamic State.

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It doesn't seem to be in getting rid of Assad whatsoever.

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So your message to Trump?

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The message to Trump is get the foreign fighters out of Syria.

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Shia militias, pro-Iranian, they are Iraqis, they are Afghans,

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they are Iranians, they are not Syrians and on the other side,

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there are jihadis who are foreigners and we want them out of the country.

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This is what the international community needs to help

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the reasonable Syrians in order to achieve the coming

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weeks and months.

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That's when we can have the ground for a political settlement.

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We don't have much time left and I just want you now to reflect

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on the six years that have brought us here.

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You have been actively involved with the opposition throughout

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that six-year period and here we are with

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Russia in the ascendancy, with the Americans opted out

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and with Donald Trump singing a tune that doesn't sound

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like it is going to suit you very well, and on the ground,

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the opposition forces defeated in Aleppo and on the defensive

0:20:580:21:03

in those pockets of territory they still retain.

0:21:030:21:07

Is it time for you to quit, for the opposition to say,

0:21:070:21:10

we tried, we failed, the country has been ruined

0:21:100:21:14

and the best thing now is to walk away and accept defeat

0:21:140:21:19

because that is the only way we can save further life?

0:21:190:21:26

This is our country.

0:21:260:21:28

We cannot give up.

0:21:280:21:29

Giving up makes no sense.

0:21:290:21:33

What we are looking to achieve...

0:21:330:21:35

Well, it makes sense when you are saving lives.

0:21:350:21:38

Well, no, it is not, because coming under Assad's

0:21:380:21:42

control tomorrow morning, if that is to happen,

0:21:420:21:44

is also under Shia militias.

0:21:440:21:48

Again, Assad has no capacity to control the country, to govern it.

0:21:480:21:54

Neither the legitimacy nor the capacity, the military capacity.

0:21:540:21:58

He needs those foreign troops to be on the ground,

0:21:580:22:01

so it is too late to imagine a scenario of Assad returning

0:22:010:22:05

and retaking control of the whole country.

0:22:050:22:07

That is not going to happen because he cannot do it.

0:22:070:22:10

Even if Russia wants him to do it, he cannot achieve it.

0:22:100:22:16

Quickly, what Russia seems to want, as best as we can understand,

0:22:160:22:19

it is that they want a much more federal system, Assad

0:22:190:22:23

to still be president, much more autonomy to the different

0:22:230:22:26

regions of Syria, which would then recognise the rights

0:22:260:22:28

of all of the different ethnic groupings within the country,

0:22:280:22:32

a looser system but one in which still has Assad

0:22:320:22:36

at its federal centre.

0:22:360:22:37

Could you imagine accepting that?

0:22:370:22:42

I think the Russians will themselves realise that that is not

0:22:420:22:44

going to work with Assad.

0:22:440:22:46

We want decentralisation, we want a loose control from the centre,

0:22:460:22:51

we want obviously a democratic, participative system,

0:22:510:22:54

so we are not disagreeing here and we are saving we need

0:22:540:22:58

security and fighting terrorism.

0:22:580:23:00

We are on the side of the international community on this.

0:23:000:23:03

Is Assad on the side of the international community?

0:23:030:23:05

That is the real question to ask.

0:23:050:23:07

Is he willing to fight those jihadi groups because the Shia groups

0:23:070:23:11

are just as jihadi as Daesh group, so that is what we need to achieve.

0:23:110:23:16

Is Assad a partner in doing that?

0:23:160:23:18

I don't believe he has shown any indication of that and this

0:23:180:23:21

is where we believe the opposition is showing every sign

0:23:210:23:25

that it is part of the solution and that with it builds security

0:23:250:23:29

capacity and governance capacity for a future Syria.

0:23:290:23:35

Do you think we will be having this conversation again

0:23:350:23:37

at the beginning of 2018, with Syria still at war

0:23:370:23:39

or will it be over by then?

0:23:390:23:42

I think war will be over by then.

0:23:420:23:44

I think the parties are exhausted and I do believe that

0:23:440:23:47

in 2018, we will be talking about what we have reconstructed

0:23:470:23:52

so far and how we have brought legitimate governance

0:23:520:23:55

to the different areas of Syria.

0:23:550:23:58

That is my belief and that is what we are fighting for.

0:23:580:24:00

We will end on that positive note.

0:24:000:24:02

Bassma Kodmani, thank you very much for joining me from Paris.

0:24:020:24:07

We

0:24:390:24:40

We had

0:24:400:24:40

Stephen Sackur talks to Bassma Kodmani, a member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition.

After six years of terrible bloodshed, will 2017 see a dramatic shift in the dynamic of the Syria conflict? Aleppo has fallen to the Assad regime and a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey is just about holding. Moscow's dominant role in the diplomatic endgame is now undisputed, with Ankara also playing a pivotal role. Is it time for the moderate rebels to accept their de facto defeat?