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SYRIAN Ambassador Radwan Loutfi
SYRIAN Ambassador Radwan Loutfi

KARACHI: In the view of the Syrian government, bringing peace to that troubled land hinged on two key factors: an immediate ceasefire followed by a political process “that would leave only Syrians to discuss” and decide their future.

This was stated here on Friday by the Head of Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic in Islamabad, Ambassador Radwan Loutfi, while speaking on the ‘Future of Syria’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. The programme featured a speech by the Syrian envoy followed by a lively question and answer session in which the extremely fluid geopolitical situation of the Middle East was reflected.

Amb Loutfi started his talk by discussing the Arab Spring and its aftermath. “Was it really a spring?” he asked rhetorically. Damascus’ top diplomat in Pakistan said that before the crisis in Syria was sparked in 2011, his country was witnessing an economic boom and there was a big opening towards a market economy. “Syria was enjoying a lifestyle like nowhere else in the Arab world. We were almost free. There were some restrictions, but they could be managed within the country.”

He claimed the Syrian opposition was “moved by international players”. However, he added that a solution to the crisis could only come about “when Syrians understand their country is being destroyed, their history is being destroyed”.

During the Q&A session the consuls-general of Russia and Turkey — two states deeply entrenched within the Syrian quagmire — also offered their respective views.

In response to a question about what Russian and Iranian interests in Syria were, Amb Loutfi said “everyone has strategic interests in Syria”. He added that Iran had good relations with Damascus since the 1970s and that even during the Iran-Iraq War Syria and Iran maintained relations.

“Iran has a legitimate interest in protecting sacred shrines [in Syria]. I am Sunni, but I will be the first to protect the shrine of Sayeda Zainab. These are figures from Islamic history,” he added.

As for Russian interests, the Syrian envoy said if Moscow is pushed out of Syria, it will lose access to the Mediterranean. To this the Russian CG later responded that his country wanted to support the political process and international law in Syria.

Regarding the claim that the militant Islamic State group was exporting oil through Turkey, Ankara’s CG said that “if proof is given to Turkey, we will act according to it”.

To this the Syrian envoy said that while the Turks were “brothers, Turkey is backing or closing its eyes” where the cross-border movement of “terrorists” is concerned.

Regarding the status of President Bashar al-Assad, Amb Loutfi said Bashar “is a symbol. He has majority support in Syria” including from “Sunni cities” apart from his own Alawite community and others. He lambasted foreign media for “doing a very good job in showing what is not true” in Syria, in particular taking aim at two Gulf-based satellite channels for, in his words, giving a distorted picture of the situation on the ground in Syria.

He urged the international community to join forces with his government to “fight terrorism. When there is security and stability, we can have national dialogue and elections”. In a thinly veiled critique of the Gulf monarchies, Amb Loutfi said “those who are supporting the introduction of democracy in Syria, are they living with these norms? These monarchies are our brothers, we wish them the best. But this paradox” is flagrant.

The Syrian ambassador observed there was “appreciation in Syria for Pakistan’s positive neutrality in the conflict” as Islamabad did not pull its ambassador after the outbreak of hostilities. However, Amb Loutfi did point out that along with 4,000 Chechen fighters in his country, around 500 Pakistanis were also fighting his government.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2015