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Jordan’s King Abdullah: Coming Weeks Critical for Syria, Assad, Arab League

January 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
King Abdullah II of Jordan, the first Arab leader to urge President Assad to step down, sat down with Margaret Warner Thursday to discuss his expectation of more killings in Syria, the Arab League's role in quelling unrest there as well as the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative and reforms within his own kingdom.
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MARGARET WARNER: I spoke with King Abdullah about all this today at his hotel in Washington.

Your Majesty, thank you for joining us.

The Arab League is about to wind up its mission, in fact, today, in Syria. What do you think has been accomplished, if anything?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think it’s given Arab countries a better insight of what is going on inside of Syria.

It’s been an interesting mission, and I think we have had some gains and some losses on that. And I think what it will do is it will help develop a Pan-Arab strategy on how to deal with Syria. Obviously, we have been in discussions with the Syrians for many, many months on what is going on internally.

I think all our countries are very concerned of what is happening. And I will have to see what the next stage, what the outcome will be from Arab League decisions. Obviously, we in Jordan will abide by the Arab League and we will work together with them, whatever the advice is going to be.

I don't see this ending up as a good story. I mean, it's going to turn out badly no matter what. When is anybody's guess.King Abdullah II of Jordan

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Assad last week, though, gave a very, very tough speech in which he said he was going to continue to go after the terrorists with an iron fist. He was quite insulting about the Arab League and the mission.

Do you think it’s had any effect in moderating, even, the killing?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, this has been going on — the exchanges between the Arab League and Syria have been going on for a while. And we’ve had some very heated discussions in Cairo. We have had delegations go to Syria.

I do wish that the Syrian regime would take the Arab League a bit more seriously, because, at the end, a unified Arab position is something that they have to consider very seriously. The next couple of weeks are going to be very critical. How does the Arab League deal with Syria and with President Assad?

MARGARET WARNER: The emir of Qatar this weekend on “60 Minutes” said that, in fact, the killing was so horrific, that Arab troops should be sent in to stop the killing.

Would you ever support something like that?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, again, I’ll fall back to say that we are with Arab consensus. And we will have to see what the Arab League comes up with.

I’m just very wary that, once you start military operations in any country, it’s very difficult to predict what the outcome is. We’re hoping that dialogue, continued pressure on Syria will have an effect.

Understanding it from my point of view that, unfortunately, what you are seeing in Syria, you’ll see pretty of the same thing for a while to come. When Syria. . .

MARGARET WARNER: You mean you think the killing really is going to continue at this pace?

KING ABDULLAH II: I don’t know at this pace, but I think the disturbances and the loss of life will continue, unfortunately.

The problem with Syria — and we’ve been here in Washington for a few days talking to our colleagues here. And I’ve been in interaction with my colleagues around the world and the Middle East — nobody has an answer for Syria. And that is the most disturbing thing.

We don’t really know what to do. It’s different than Iraq. It’s different than Libya. There are so many different sub-societies inside of Syria. But once things are taken to a next level, so to speak, as you are alluding to, it could be anybody’s guess what is going to happen. And I think that is what concerns everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: You have known Bashar Assad a long time. The two of you are almost the same age. You came to power almost at the same time, both the sons of powerful rulers in your respective countries.

I’m also told that you actually told the Obama administration you thought he was a reform-minded young leader that they could work with. What happened? What went wrong? What did he do wrong?

KING ABDULLAH II: Look, you know, I do know President Bashar very well. I also know his wife and his children, and my family knows them very well.

And I believe that, in his blood, he does have reform, he does have the vision. And what I keep trying to explain to people is I think that the system doesn’t allow for that in Syria. So, whether the intentions are there, the way the political system is, the party, the sect, I don’t think allows for reform to happen, because once they start to open that door, then I think everything falls apart.

So I think he is hijacked by his position, by the system that he is in charge of.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you suggesting that he would like to compromise, to open the door to sharing power, but somehow has been precluded from it?

KING ABDULLAH II: No.

I think if — I’m going back on my experiences of Bashar. He’s always tried to implement reforms. Just, I think the system didn’t allow for it. And in an atmosphere of the Arab Spring, where there has been conflict between the regime and the people, and now that there’s, as you see, the bloodshed is ongoing, I think he’s hostage to the regime.

So, even if he wanted to, I don’t think that he could change the way that he does business. And people say well, you know, if Bashar is replaced — my feeling from looking at Syria, even if he is replaced, the person that comes in his place, would he have the ability to reach out in actual dialogue, as we did in Jordan and other countries?

I don’t think the system allows for that. So it’s not so much the issue of the individual, is what I’m trying to point out. It’s the system that won’t allow for what’s happening in Syria to change in the near time.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you mean by the system?

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, it’s a political party based on a sect.

MARGARET WARNER: The Alawites.

KING ABDULLAH II: The Alawites.

So, unlike, you could say, in Iraq, where it was the Baath Party, it was a political party, this is based on an ethnic group, if you say, or a sect of people. And if they start to relinquish power, then I don’t think there’s a middle ground. Everything will go.

So I have the sense that sometimes, when they talk to each other, it’s sort of a do-or-die attitude. They don’t have much choice. And I think, if you look at Syria from that point of view, you’ll understand the way that they are taking on the opposition in their country.

And, you know, from my point of view, I don’t see this ending up as a good story. I mean, it’s going to turn out badly no matter what. When is anybody’s guess.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the U.N. Security Council should impose sanctions or a sanctions regime? They seem to be waiting to hear a recommendation from the Arab League.

What would your inclination be in that regard, whether to encourage the U.N. Security Council to do some sanctions?

KING ABDULLAH II: I think that is where the dialogue is going. And, again, if you looked at what happened in Libya, it was, I think, bold action taken by the Arab League that allowed U.N., NATO and others to firm up their position.

And so, if I can predict what will be happening over the near future, again, the relationship between the Arab League and the U.N. on how to take it to the next step, understanding from our experience last year that, when the Arab League comes together as a bloc and makes a decision, it’s much more easier for the international community to then move to the next phase.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you are, of course, in a region that’s seen a lot of unrest, as we just referred to. And you’ve had protests and demonstrations in your country for almost a year — for a year. How secure do you feel?

KING ABDULLAH II: I think very secure.

I mean, I think you have to be confident in what you are trying to achieve. We’ve had, as you said, demonstrations for actually just over a year. And I think we’re the only country definitely in the region — and when you look across the world, we’re the only country in 2011, with all the demonstrations that we’ve had, that there was no single loss of life.

And that, I think, talks about the attitude of how we are moving with the reform process, tremendous pride I have with the security services that really took a lot of hard hits to make sure that citizens are protected. And, today, we have a road map. We will have elections, municipal and national this year.

There was a lot of requests by those in opposition to change the way that Jordan does business. They wanted to change the constitution. And, actually, a third of the constitution has been ratified. The most — two important things are constitutional accord, and for the election process and for, I think, the democratic process of political parties, an independent commission for elections that then allows the government to step way back and have nothing to do with elections.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the activists, the — some of your opponents say, though, that your security forces have continued and have used brutal tactics against protesters, demonstrators, opposition parties.

KING ABDULLAH II: Well, I think — well, I think certain opposition members in any country will continue to take that line, no matter what you do.

But the proof in the pudding is that in a year of demonstrations, not one loss of life. And in actual fact, if you want to look at how many people have been in hospital, there’s a far greater proportion of policemen that have ended up being injured, some of them brutally stabbed with swords and knives over a couple of — very nasty conflict with a crowd.

And they have taken those hits to make sure that the civilians have been protected. So, actually, I’m amazed at what the police have been able to do, and I think the complete opposite to the impression that some people are trying to give about Jordan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, finally, you have embarked on this attempt to get the Israelis and Palestinians to at least talk about talking with one another. How does that fit in the context of the Arab Spring?

KING ABDULLAH II: What our friends in the West must understand is that whatever is happening in the Arab Spring, whatever any country is going through, the core issue in the minds of all Arabs and Muslims is that of the Palestinians.

And so it is very dangerous to maneuver in the Arab Spring without paying any attention to the Israeli-Palestinian process. The Israelis and Palestinians have not been talking to each other for quite some time. It would be tremendously damaging to both of them if we went into 2012 without any negotiations.

As a result, we have been successful in getting Israelis and Palestinians together in Jordan in what I call baby steps. We have been doing this for over 60 years. Let’s not think, through naivete, that we are going to solve it right away.

MARGARET WARNER: Should I read from your tone, though, that you don’t think a chance of a breakthrough is very likely in 2012?

KING ABDULLAH II: The simple fact that I think both leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, I believe, want a way out of the impasse and have come to Jordan to have their lieutenants, so to speak, try to set up the process, so that we can get both the leaders together, I think should be given a lot of credit to both sides.

We know there are obstacles. We know there is a hard road to battle forward, but at least they’re talking to each other. What we will see over the next couple of weeks will determine if there is enough there for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit around at a table. If we can achieve that, then 2012 will be a safer year for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, with all the instability that is going on in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Your Majesty, thank you so much.

KING ABDULLAH II: Not at all. Great pleasure. Thank you.