Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Wolf Blitzer
The Situation Room
18 July 2012

CNN: And Jordan’s King Abdullah II is joining us now from London.  Your Majesty, thanks so much for joining us.  We have lots to discuss.  Appreciate your spending some time with us.

Let’s begin with Syria.  Right now, as you know, some of Syria’s top defense officials were killed today in a suicide attack.  What’s your immediate reaction when you heard what was going on, right in the heart of Damascus?

King Abdullah:  Well, obviously, it was a surprise.  I mean, obviously this is a tremendous blow to the regime.  But, again, Damascus has shown its resilience.  So I think maybe we need to keep this in perspective, although this is a blow.  I’m sure that the regime will continue to show fortitude, at least in the near future.

CNN:  So you don’t necessarily think this is a sign that that regime of President Bashar Assad is crumbling?

King Abdullah:  Definitely this shows some cracks in the system.  But, again, I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions or writing the regime off in the near future.

CNN:  I want you to listen to what the U.S. Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, said immediately after hearing what was going on Syria.  Listen to this little clip.


Leon Panetta:  This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control.  And for that reason, it’s extremely important that the international community, working with other countries that have concerns in that area, have to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right, to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.


CNN:  Are you fully on board with Leon Panetta and the Obama administration as far as Syria is concerned?

King Abdullah:  Yes, I believe so, Wolf.  Part of the problem is, and we’ve been saying this to the Syrian regime, we haven’t seen any indications, really, of seriousness to actually implement any political improvements or transition. 

So, I think all of us in the international community have been reaching out to the Syrian regime to make a move on political transition.  But on the ground, we haven’t seen much for it.  So, unfortunately, there’s the status quo.  And as a result, we’re seeing, as we’ve been seeing, continued violence on the ground.

CNN:  And you made it clear several times over recent months, you believe it’s time for Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, to leave, to step down.  Is that right?

King Abdullah:  Well, what I’ve been saying is the issue is not Bashar.  If Bashar was to leave tomorrow, and the regime stays, then what would have we achieved? 

What we’ve been trying to say is we need to find a formula of a transition where the regime feels that it has a stake in the future, where the Alawis as a sect, an important sect of Syria, feel that they have a future in Syria, that they have a life to live.  And the only way that we could do that is a political transition. 

Part of the problem is, as we, as part of the international community, try and create an international political option, we’ve seen over the past several weeks sort of a tension on the ground from the different sects that it’s creating violence to a level that maybe a political solution may no longer be an option.

CNN:  You agree, though, that this is, for all practical purposes now, a civil war in Syria?

King Abdullah: Well, I think as we continue to pursue the political option, the realities on the ground may have overtaken us.  Therefore, I think the clock is ticking.  And have we, as you just alluded to, reached the point where the political option is too late?  I think we should continue to give politics its due.  But if we haven’t already passed that window, I think we’re getting very close to it.

CNN:  Because some people say, you know, Bashar Assad should see the handwriting on the wall.  Look what happened in Libya to Gadhafi, for example; look what happened in Egypt to President Mubarak. 

Should he, in your opinion, be allowed to leave Syria right now, get sanctuary, let’s say in Iran or Russia or someplace else?  Or, as the rebels would, would you prefer he be tried for war crimes, for example?

King Abdullah:  Well, I think the argument out there is what brings the violence down?  There is a counterargument in the international community.  I mean, what we’d like to see is a cessation of violence as quickly as possible.  So if you can bring peace as quickly as possible and create a political transition, that’s the lesser of all evils, I guess, is what we’re trying to say.

You know, if Bashar leaving the scene and exiting Syria brings a stop to the violence and creates a political transition, that’s the lesser of all evils.  But have we gotten past that stage?  That’s a question I can’t answer. 

And, again, I just want to look to the point that if Bashar leaves, does that solve the problem?  Whoever comes in his place, is he or the people around him willing to create a political set of circumstances that allows for the political transition that we’re talking about? 

So it’s not so much the individual, it’s the system that we’re talking about.  And can the system allow for the political transition?  And that’s where I have my doubts.

CNN:  Your Majesty, when was the last time you spoke with President Bashar al-Assad?

King Abdullah:  Over a year ago.  And about this time last year, I sent the Chief of the Royal Court on two occasions to impart to him my advice and my concerns about the way the regime was handling the situation.

CNN:  If he’s watching this interview right now -- and he might be watching in Damascus, because this interview is being seen around the world, what would you say to him?  What would you like to say directly to the Syrian leader?

King Abdullah:  I’m looking at it from the point of view of the mosaic of the Syrian people. I’m seeing, for the first time, have been watching this for the past two-three weeks, where the sectarian violence has begin to appear to a point where different groups of Syrian society are having a go at each other to a point where we are getting to the level of the potential of full-out civil war. 

In other words, it’s getting very, very messy, to a point where I think the worst-case scenario for all of us in the region is when you get full-out civil war, there is no coming back from the abyss.  Syria’s far more complicated than Iraq and other countries in the area. 

The different minorities, actually, put them all together, they make the majority, it is unlike any of the other countries in the Levant and the Arab Peninsula.  If it breaks down, if civil order breaks down to the point of no return, then it’ll take years to fix Syria. 

And I have a feeling that we’re seeing the signs of that over the past three weeks.  The only people that can bring us back from that brink are, obviously, the president and the regime.  And I believe this is the last chance that they have.

CNN:  Well, the last chance that they have. One very, very serious complicating issue, as you well know - and you’re right in the neighbourhood over there - chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. 

The Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, other U.S. officials say they are deeply concerned about the poison gas, the Sarin gas, other nerve agents that may have been stockpiled in various locations in Syria.  How worried is Jordan about this?

King Abdullah:  You will see that I think all the countries in the region and the international community have been looking at the weapons of what we call mass destruction, the chemical and biological weapons, as elements of tremendous concern, not just recently, but since the beginning of the conflict. 

And the Syrian regime knows that all of us in the region have been looking at those stockpiles.  I know that there have been discussions, that there’s concern that the Syrian regime would use them. 

I think they know that there would be an immediate kneejerk reaction from all of us in the neighbourhood, including the international community, if the Syrian regime made the mistake of using those chemical weapons, simply because we can’t afford the use of those chemical weapons, obviously on the Syrian people, but also the chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands. 

So I would be very, very surprised - I mean, that would be a tremendous miscalculation on the Syrian regime if they were to use that and it would elicit an immediate reaction from all of us in the region and the international community.

CNN:  When you say an immediate reaction, I know in the past, Your Majesty, you’ve opposed outside military intervention in Syria.  But if there were indications that these chemical weapons stockpiles were about to be used, would you change your mind?  Would you support outside military intervention?

King Abdullah:  I think when you’re looking at some of the discussions that are happening at the United Nations, on chemical weapons being used on his own people, obviously this would elicit an international reaction against Syria.  And I think it will be very difficult for the Russians and others to oppose such a decision.

However, even more of concern, if those weapons were to fall into hands of opposition - and we’re not too sure who those opposition would be - then I don’t think anybody could afford those type of weapons to fall into unknown hands.  Then, again, there would be some very quick meetings within members of the international community and then people, I think, would be looking at crossing borders.

CNN:  Crossing borders. So that would justify that kind of - that would be a game-changer, basically, is what you’re saying, if the Syrians were to engage or if, for example, some of those chemical weapons were about to get into the hands of Al Qaeda elements or other terrorist elements along those lines, because as you know, there have been some suggestions that Al Qaeda has some sort of presence in Syria right now.

King Abdullah: Our information is that there is Al Qaeda presence in certain regions inside Syria; has been there for a while.  And, again, one of the worst-case scenarios, as we are obviously trying to look for political solutions, would be if some of those chemical stockpiles were to fall into unfriendly hands.

CNN:  That would really be a game-changer, as you say.

The Russians, though, have been protecting Bashar Assad at the United Nations Security Council.  They’re also backed, to a certain degree, by China.  Do you see any indications that Russia is about to change its position?  Because, as you know, they have veto power on the U.N. Security Council.

King Abdullah:  You have to understand where the Russians were coming from initially.  Russia has obviously strategic objectives in Syria.  They felt very badly put out by Western powers on Libya.  They had vested interests in Libya for many, many years, when Libya went through its changes. The Western powers very conveniently moved the Russians and the Chinese out. That left a very bad taste in their mouths.  And so part of the Russian obstinance, I believe, was because of what happened in Libya. 

For the Russians, Syria is of tremendous strategic importance.  But, again, we have seen the Russians show up to every single meeting, trying to work with us on political solutions.  We obviously have been poring over Lavrov’s statements recently.  We’ll have to see what happens at the United Nations. 

But I think when it comes to issues as you’ve just alluded to, of weapons, of chemical weapons falling into rebel hands, I think at the end of the day, all of us would suffer from that.  I’m sure that they would be very supportive of international reactions, because at the end of the day, we all pay the price.

CNN:  Sergey Lavrov being the foreign minister of Russia. The notion of arming the rebels, where does Jordan stand on that?

King Abdullah:  Well, when we talk about arming the rebels, who are we talking about?  I mean, we’ve had a position of, you know, ‘give us an address and a CV.’ There have been discussions about arming opposition. 

And in principle, like we understand the principle and are supportive of that.  But we just want to make sure that if you’re going to send weapons to those - specifically weapons - we just want to make sure that they go into the right hands and don’t end up, as I alluded to earlier on, into the hands of groups like Al Qaeda.

CNN:  We’re out of time, Your Majesty, but one final question, sort of on American politics a little bit.  The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, as you know, he’s going to be going to Israel to meet with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  I think he’s going to be meeting with the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad, as well. 

What would you, as a country that’s been so intimately involved in the Middle East peace process, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the years, a country that has a full peace treaty, a diplomatic relationship with Israel for so many years, what would you hope that Mitt Romney leaves the region with?  What impression?

King Abdullah:  Well, he came to visit me, I think almost a year ago, and we had a discussion about the challenges of the peace process.  He understands that with the Arab Spring and all the challenges that we have, that the core issue of the Middle East still is the peace process, the two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. 

I presume that his visit and meetings with both the Israeli and Palestinian counterparts will be to bring him up to speed on the ongoing negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians.  And in that fact, I will just add that these Israeli and Palestinian discussions are still ongoing. 

The peace discussions, so to speak, are not dead.  Our job is to keep the process alive until the end of this year, when American elections are finalised.  And depending on who wins, of the two candidates, then that puts us into a better position to understand how to move the process forward at the beginning of next year.

CNN:  Do you see any significant difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as far as the peace process is concerned?

King Abdullah:  Well, obviously, there’s always going to be a difference between a second-term president and a first-term president in dealing with this core issue.  A second-term president is going to be in a much more comfortable position in dealing with the Middle East peace process. 

Obviously, a first-term president will tend to be less willing to take on such a difficult issue, at least in the first two years of his presidency.  That’s something that we have been used to for so many decades. 

But, again, the presidential candidate is fully aware of the issues.  We have exchanged our views a year ago and whoever it is that becomes president, I’m sure both of them fully understand that, whatever is happening in the Middle East, the core issue still is that of the two-state solution and the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian people.

CNN:  Your Majesty, thank you so much for spending some time with us.  Our viewers in the United States and around the world always appreciate hearing from you.  Thank you so much.

King Abdullah:  Thank you.