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Breaking Down the Syrian Crisis
Exclusive interview with Lakhdar Brahimi
 NO. 47 NOVEMBER 19, 2015

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag visits refugees from Syria in Aakkar Province in north Lebanon on October 19 (XINHUA) 

Beijing Review  interviewed Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, in Beijing on November 5 to get his insights on the Syrian crisis and how to solve it. A former Algerian foreign minister and creator of the world-renowned Brahimi Report, he has devoted his career to resolving conflicts and building peace in some of the world's most troubled regions. An excerpt of the interview follows:

Beijing Review : As the former United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, what about the experiences in your own country--Algeria--and your political career has informed your contributions to resolving the Syrian crisis? 

Lakhdar Brahimi: Well, Syria was probably the unhappiest time in my life because you are witnessing the destruction of the country, and you are helpless. You are supposed to help, but you cannot help. I haven't been able to help. When I resigned, I apologized to the Syrian people. So that was an extremely unhappy experience.

What do you think is the problem that is keeping the crisis from ending? 

That is extremely complicated. I am not sure we understand fully how these problems start, how they develop and how they stop. Syria is a highly civilized country. But it happens very often that people start killing one another when you do not expect them to. Cambodians were reputed to be extremely pacific. They said that when they woke up they were afraid they would kill an ant, and you saw what they did to one another. So in Syria, I don't think we're going to understand fully how we reached these levels of destruction and of cruelty. But it happened. I think the [U.N.] Secretary General Ban [Ki-moon]said several times, we have failed the Syrian people. He doesn't mean himself or me, he means the international community. The neighbors of Syria, the big powers, have not helped the Syrian people. On the contrary, I think a lot of people have added fuel to the fire rather than water to distinguish the fire. So this is terribly important. Now, we see these meetings that are taking place in Vienna that seem to be promising. Let's hope that this process will develop in the right direction, in the direction of solutions. We can't be sure at the moment, but let's hope that happens.

What are each fighters' purposes? 

I think the fundamental problem is that the overwhelming majority of Syrians want change. They have been governed by the same family for 40 years. So they want change, and there is a lot of corruption and a lot of injustice. There is really no rule of law, so people want that to change. Unfortunately, the government to begin with did not understand nor respond positively to these very legitimate aspirations. And they used force from the beginning, and then as we said, there were a lot of weapons coming in from all over the place. The aspiration for change from the people has not changed, and it has to be satisfied.

Do you think there is a way to reconcile with each other and find peace and harmony? 

It will happen. It existed before, it will exist again.

How would you comment on the role China has played in the Syrian crisis? 

China is recognized as not being partisan, not being partial, not supporting any side against another. China has been a friend of the region and of the people of Syria. There is no problem. As a matter of fact, I hope that the Chinese will be even more active than they are as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and they are now a member of this process [of peace talks] in Vienna, so I hope China play a more active role and use the opportunity of them being impartial and not taking sides. I think you should. You must. As permanent members, China has responsibilities for world peace and for peace not only in China, but peace everywhere.

How can China help? 

Talk to the Syrians, talk to the neighbors of Syria, talk to the Americans and the Russians, and the Iranians and everybody else about the urgent necessity of working for peace, not for war. I think China should be a bit louder voice in favor of peace.

With regard to the European refugee crisis, what do you think are its underlying causes and what are the preconditions before the crisis ends?

It is a bit unbalanced that people have started talking about refugees only when they appeared in Europe this summer. Lebanon's total population is 4 million. There are 2 million refugees in Lebanon. Nobody is talking about that. Jordan's population is 6 million; Turkey's is 18 million, but still they have 2 million refugees from Syria. And it's been four years already. It's a very big problem for the Europeans. Some of the Europeans have shown incredible generosity and responsibility and solidarity and we are grateful to them. And some have also spoken in very racist terms and that should be condemned more than it has been. I regret that this problem has only been talked about this summer while this problem has existed for years.

It's European and Western centrism: The problems exist only when they are in Europe or in the United States. Lebanon deserves much more interest and sympathy than Germany. I am not denying that there is a problem in Europe, I am not denying that some of the Europeans deserve respect and admiration and gratitude. But we have to make this observation that problems don't exist only when they appear in rich countries. They may exist also in countries that are not as rich or as powerful.

You have been to many places with different cultures. How can the very different cultures of the West and East merge, understand each other and meet halfway? What are some of the important things for each side to recognize? 

I am a very strong believer--and I am sure that I am not the only one--who thinks that the differences are a source of wealth and enrichment. I think that the variety--some of us are big, some are small, some are white, some are black, some speak Chinese, some speak Arabic--all of this is a source of enrichment.

If I am in China, everything I see is new. Instead of saying how hard it is and asking why they aren't like us, I should say I have never seen this. I have never heard that. I have never heard this kind of music. If I consider it an opportunity for me to learn, that will make me richer. Unfortunately, that's not how things work. So the responsibility of leaders is to make sure that their people look more to the opportunity rather than to the problem. I think that the Chinese speak a lot about this and about harmony. Your country is very big. You have a lot of people. You have a lot of languages. So perhaps you are more prepared for diversity. I see it as a source of opportunity, and I am extremely concerned by the increasing number of opportunities that we don't see as an opportunity. Instead, we see them as a problem.

Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl

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