Interview with Alexandra Kirk, ABC PM Program

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

Subject: Syria

25 March 2011

MARK COLVIN: The Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd says he holds grave fears for the situation in Syria.

His Department has upgraded its travel warning advising Australians to reconsider their need to go to Syria because of the risk of violent protests, a high threat of terrorist attack, and unpredictable security.

Mr Rudd says that having approved action to protect Libyan citizens the United Nations will be closely watching events in Syria. He spoke to Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.

KEVIN RUDD: Well Syria is of grave concern to us. Syria has been governed by an authoritarian regime for decades. It's been under martial law since 1963.

And we are deeply sceptical about the official explanations as to what has happened with the various killings which have occurred in Daraa in the southern part of the country, and we call directly on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint in their response to peaceful protest seeking democratic change.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Syrian President's promised Syrians that he'll look at granting them greater freedom. Do you take that pledge seriously?

KEVIN RUDD: I think across the Middle East it's important not just to listen to the public statements of political leaders, particularly those who have run oppressive regimes like the Syrian regime.

But to look instead at what they do on the ground in terms of material political change - and giving people freedom of expression.

For example what we have seen most recently in Daraa suggests that the reverse has occurred.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: What's your reading of President Bashar al-Assad.? He's a 45 year old western-educated doctor. Do you think he wants to bring his country out of emergency law?

KEVIN RUDD: Well analysts will conclude that this President Assad is different from his father in some respects in part because of what you point to, his western education.

But what I would note is that the Syrian security forces are the same security forces that have attended the political needs of his father over many decades, and the core fundamentals of martial law have been in place since 1963.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: In other words that he doesn't have control over the security forces?

KEVIN RUDD: The key challenge for the current President Assad is to demonstrate his difference from the repressive regime with his father by enacting political reforms.

Whether or not the security forces support that or not remains to be seen, but current President Assad has said that he intends to introduce political reforms to give people greater political say. The test of that will be what actually happens on the ground.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Well do you think that he does have that power to do that?

KEVIN RUDD: This remains to be seen on the ground.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But you have intelligence about what's going on in Syria. Does that lead you to believe that he will be able to implement any reform?

KEVIN RUDD: Well you know as well as I do that the Australian Government never comments on intelligence material within its possession.

What I can say to you is that the ball lies squarely in the Syrian regime's court.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Do you think the time is fast approaching to invoke the United Nations doctrine of Responsibility to Protect Syrian citizens as has been done with Libya?

KEVIN RUDD: Each of these matters has to be taken case by case. You will have seen in the case of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya that took weeks to negotiate, and happened in response to mass killings under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, it is these mass killings, mass threats of violence, these crimes against humanity which then invoke that ability for the UN Security Council to intervene internally within states.

Therefore the UN Security Council will be monitoring very closely what happens on the ground in Syria, and in other countries in the Middle East, very mindful of what has unfolded in Libya.

MARK COLVIN: The Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd speaking to Alexandra Kirk.


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