Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Monday defended his country’s abstention from a vote on suspending Syria from the Arab League, emphasising that events in Syria have a direct impact on Iraq.
The Arab League voted on Saturday to suspend Syria, which has been trying to crush a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since March.
Iraq abstained, while Yemen, Lebanon and Syria voted against the measure.
“Iraq’s stance was not easy,” Zebari told a news conference on Monday.
“Syria is a brother country. It is an important country in the area, and we have special relations with it, as it hosted hundred of thousands of Iraqis in difficult circumstances,” he said, referring to Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria to escape violence at home.
“Iraq’s situation is not like the situation of a country in North Africa or the Gulf. This is a direct neighbour, and what is happening there will affect us,” Zebari said.
Zebari said measures against Syria must be taken gradually, rather than all at once.
“We must take them gradually, because the goal is to make the Syrian government understand that national dialogue will serve its interest and the interest of its people,” he said.
More than 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian government’s lethal crackdown on protests that have swept the country since March, according to UN figures.
The vote does not “mean that we support a faction and we support the killing of innocent civilians. We are not against the freedom and the free will of the Syrian people to chose the type of the regime they want,” he said.
Zebari also denied media reports that Iraq had provided Syria with “billions of dollars in financial aid” to support the Syrian economy, as well as gas and oil.
“These accusations are false. There are economic cooperation projects, but they are only in a preparatory phase,” Zebari said.
He said that Iraq opposed the suspension of Syria from the Arab League due to the precedence it sets.
He said that in the future, some countries could move to suspend others they do not want, and “then the system of the Arab League will collapse.”
And he expressed hostility to “foreign intervention” in Syria, saying “it is better that a fact-finding committee from Arab countries and international organisations go there.”
Asked about the influence of Iran, a close ally of Assad’s regime, on Iraq’s decision, Zebari said: “We have relations with everyone, but we are not war prisoners of anyone or of these relations. Our opinion was independent.”