A delegation of MEPs from the Syrian Peace Process Support Group has visited Syria to promote an inclusive dialogue among the parties to the conflict. Matthias von Hein spoke with the group's leader, Javier Couso Permuy.
Although a new round of UN-brokered peace talks on resolving the six-year-long conflict in Syria is due to begin on March 23, many doubt whether a lasting cessation of fighting can be achieved in the current situation. A delegation of European parliamentarians recently visited the country with the declared aim of "building bridges between the European Union and the Syrian government" to help bring about an "inclusive dialogue." DW's Matthias von Hein asked the delegation's leader, Spanish MEP Javier Couso Permuy, how he assessed the situation and what role he saw for the EU in helping stop the war.
DW: After meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, what is your impression: Can a lasting peace be attained with Assad in power?
Javier Couso Permuy: My impression was positive. We had a meeting with him for around one hour and a half, and we had the time to talk about everything. I would like to highlight that the Syrian government seems to be willing to talk with all the actors, excepting, obviously, the organizations considered by all as terrorists. It wants to carry on with the reconciliation plan that is already in place in several regions and districts with a total population of 3 million people. The result of this plan, at the moment, is that 100,000 people were amnestied after having laid down their arms. The government is also proposing a national debate and a referendum, so the people can decide on a new model for the Syrian state.
How does Assad react to accusations of war crimes?
I think this question should be addressed to Assad himself; I am not the person to answer it.
After six years of brutal war and a horrendous record of atrocities on the side of the regime - and at least in part on the side of the armed opposition - what is your impression regarding the support that Assad enjoys among the population?
International humanitarian law is breached in every armed conflict and that is deplorable. But there are also mechanisms in every peace process for reconciliation and to bring justice. It could be by forming truth commissions, as in Central America, or by implementing a transitional justice scheme, as in Colombia. But that, once again, must be decided in a dialogue between the actors and in the context of their mutual competences. Whether Assad should remain in power or not is something that has to be decided by the Syrian people.
How much of the popular revolt of 2011 has by now been hijacked by Islamist jihadist extremists, and how much influence do democracy activists still wield?
I think that in the beginning there were already some infiltrations by armed groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood and other external elements from the Gulf, Turkey and some European governments. But the point today is that almost all of the combatants of what the mainstream media calls the "opposition" are terrorists financed and assisted by external powers. There is no democratic armed opposition apart from the Kurdish forces, which fight the most of the time against "Islamic State" and other terrorist organizations in coordination with the Syrian Arab Army.
Syria is under a severe sanctions regime. How much does this impede help for the roughly 6 million internally displaced people?
The unilateral sanctions against Syria and bans on imports are severely hitting the Syrian people and the country's economy, and are also a huge obstacle for reconstruction. Sanctions don't achieve their goal very often and, in my opinion, are against International Law. They should be suspended, and that is what we members of the Syrian Peace Process Support Group of the European Parliament have asked High Representative [Federica] Mogherini to do.
What role could the EU realistically play in bringing about peace and stability in Syria?
It has to be a positive role and one that is open to dialogue with all actors, excepting, as I said, those organizations considered as terrorists. It seems nonsensical to exclude a key player that represents most of the population, who has a presence at the UN and who is winning the war, from these conversations and from diplomatic contacts. This approach to the war in Syria is just another sign of the irrelevance of the EU when it comes to playing an active role in mediating and trying to solve the problems affecting countries in our vicinity.
The delegation from the Syrian Peace Process Support Group of the European Parliament, made up of Javier Couso Permuy, Tatjana Zdanoka, Yana Toom, Andrejs Mamikins, Fabio Massimo Castaldo and Stefano Maullu, visited Aleppo and Damascus from 10 to 12 March.
The interview with delegation leader Javier Couso Permuy was conducted by Matthias von Hein.