Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in favour of safe zones for Syrian refugees

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said on Wednesday that safe zones could be implemented as long as the aim is for them to be humanitarian and that they are set up with the support of the international community.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, speaks at the fourth Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Wam
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ABU DHABI // Safe zones could be set up in Syria for refugees fleeing conflict as long as the aim was humanitarian and they had the support of the international community, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, said on Wednesday.

“I think these are basics we can work upon,” he said at the fourth Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Abu Dhabi. “But it is still too early to decide what is our final stand towards these zones before we hear the ideas of the new American administration, and develop that further.”

The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, was less optimistic, and feared that Syrian safe zones could fail as they did in Libya. Despite a no-fly zone declared there by the UN and enforced by Nato from March 2011 until the death of Muammar Qaddafi seven months later, dozens of civilians died in the conflict and the Libyan crisis remains unresolved.

“Safe zones were discussed in the early stages of the Syrian crisis,” Mr Lavrov said. “Benghazi had a similar experience of safe zones. I don’t see in this current situation the effort to follow this path because of what happened in Libya, and we are still trying to help the Libyan people regain their territorial integrity.

“When the United States speaks about safe zones, they are interested in reducing the number of immigrants going to the West.”

During his election campaign, US president Donald Trump said Gulf countries should pay for the creation and maintenance of safe zones in Syria. Qatar and Saudi Arabia support the idea of safe zones.

Mr Lavrov said he was ready to hear what the new US administration had to propose. “The dialogue will be aimed at achieving pragmatic results, peace and regulation of the situation in Syria, Yemen and parts of the region,” he said. “It will not be dictated by motives that are deeply ideologised.”

Sheikh Abdullah said Mr Trump’s US travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq – was not targeted at Islam.

“Countries have the right to take sovereign decisions,” he said. “The US took a sovereign decision and there are attempts to give the impression that this is targeting a particular religion, but what is said by the US administration proves this is not correct, and we take with due respect all its statements.

“Second, the majority of Muslims and Muslim countries were not included in this embargo. And third, it is a temporary decision that will be revisited after three months, so we should take into consideration these points.”

Sheikh Abdullah said some of the countries on the list faced internal challenges. “They have to try to deal with these circumstances and situations before dealing with the US,” he said.

Syria’s reinstatement to the Arab League was also discussed. Its membership was suspended in 2011 over its failure to stop government crackdowns on protests and to implement a peace deal.

Syria’s return “is a decision that is subject to the will of the members”, said Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the league’s secretary general. “If this issue is discussed on a ministerial level, the general secretariat will implement the decision. The problem as I see it is that the Syrian situation is still vague and developing and the political settlement has not been implemented yet.”

Russia is a key backer of the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus, and Mr Lavrov said Syria’s absence during key discussions was an obstacle to progress.

“I cannot ignore the fact that the Syrian government is a legitimate member of the United Nations and it cannot participate in the discussions in the Arab League,” he said. “I know there are other forums but the league of Arab states could play a pivotal and more effective role if the Syrian government was a member of the organisation.”

During recent talks in the Kazakh city of Astana, Russia, Iran and Turkey said they would use their influence to strengthen a fragile truce in Syria.

Sheikh Abdullah said the Astana talks changed the impression that there could not be a solution in Syria.

“We see that the cessation of fighting is standing firm in Syria and the follow-up and monitoring started to develop to make sure the ceasefire is done,” he said.

“We hope more efforts by the UN will be exerted to capitalise on this and to move as quickly as possible on the Syrian dialogue, which we hope will end this bloody conflict facing the Syrian people.”

Both ministers also spoke of plans to strengthen the relationship between the UAE and Russia by easing travel, strengthening the fight against terrorism and increasing joint work in education, scientific research, energy, trade and culture. This week the UAE relaxed the rules for Russian visitors, who may now obtain 30-day visas on arrival.

cmalek@thenational.ae