DIPLOMATIC POUCH: Interview with Irfan Siddiq, Britain’s ambassador to Baku (PHOTOS)

DIPLOMATIC POUCH: Interview with Irfan Siddiq, Britain’s ambassador to Baku (PHOTOS)

There needs to be a return of the occupied territories, British ambassador says

In a private interview with Trend news agency and Azernews, the British ambassador to Baku discussed a number of issues of interest to Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom, touching upon Formula One Grand Prix car racing, to politics and international terrorism.

Claude Salhani: I understand you have just returned from a tour to Gabala and Shaki. Can you tell us a little about that?

Ambassador Siddiq: This was my first visit to those two cities and part of a general policy I have to get out and about to see as much of Azerbaijan as I can, so I had two days in those two cities.

Seeing the representatives of society, media figures, business figures, civil society and just trying to get to know the place. And I was very impressed by the beauty of Shaki and its historical and cultural richness and also the dynamism of Gabala with the amount of investment going on there. And I was particularly pleased to take part in a Gabala football club training session, because I am a big fan of football. So it was a great trip

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more of what you hope to accomplish in terms of bringing British companies to do business here in Azerbaijan?

A: Britain is the biggest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, but most of our investment is in the energy sector because of BP's presence and all the other British companies that work with them and I am really keen to have the UK support to the president's vision of a diversified and more dynamic Azerbaijani economy. So I have been trying to work with British companies and their Azerbaijani counterparts to identify new areas in which British companies can support Azerbaijan's development and I am optimistic that will be a successful project.

Q: Where do you currently place Azerbaijani-British relations?

A: I think the relations are fantastic. So just today, [Friday, Sept. 6] I hope that the prime minister and President Aliyev could be meeting in the margins of the NATO summit [in Scotland], and this will be one of several meetings they have had in the last year or so.

As I said we are one of the strongest economic partners of Azerbaijan, through the major investment here. We support Azerbaijan's development, we have many, many similarities in our foreign policy, in our approach to Afghanistan, and we have great cooperation on counterterrorism and religious extremism. There is a great deal of cooperation. And on Ukraine and the Russian challenge, the Middle East. There are many areas in which we cooperate. So I am very positive about this productive relationship and look forward to it deepening and intensifying further.

Q: What would you regard as your greatest challenge as ambassador of the United Kingdom?

A: I think really taking our relationship to the next level because we have such a strong set of cooperation in so many areas. There is a lot going on. So finding new areas to in which to cooperate can be a challenge. But also ensuring that the dialogue that we have on issues relating to human rights doesn't cloud or create impediment to all of the wonderful areas of cooperation that we are able to successfully take forward.

Q: What are your thoughts on Nagorno-Karabakh?

A: It's a great shame that there was a conflict that led to the loss of so many lives. In Gabala, last week, I went to visit an IDP settlement and speak to representative of the 300 families who are living there. I heard their heart rending stories about the pain and suffering they had to endure, the dislocation and loss that they suffered from their homes and the fact that they cant visit the graves of their ancestors. I really understand the pain and suffering this is caused.

The UK's position is one that supports the international community's efforts, led by the Minsk Group, to reach a just and peaceful resolution, as soon as possible. As part of that resolution we strongly believe it means that there needs to be a return of the occupied territories, assigning Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, and that there should be free expression of will about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It's a great shame that we have not seen progress on this issue in recent years. I think that is down to the political will needed on the side of the two parties, to face the difficult comprises which everybody understands is not going to be easy, that they need to make to reach a resolution. There is not going to be any imposition of a solution from the international community of one side or the other. There needs to be an agreed compromise to try to end this longstanding and painful conflict.

Q: Do you see that happening anytime in the near future?

A: I hope it will happen. I must confess that the rhetoric that we have been hearing on both sides has not been encouraging, as it only exacerbates and polarizes different positions.

It increases hatred for the other and what we need in this time is understanding of the other. I know this is a difficult thing to ask for in this heated environment when people say why should we understand people who kill our neighbors and take our land, but for there to be any resolution that is what will be required, and its what we have seen through history.

Q: What is your take on ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Your prime minister stated recently that he saw them as a real threat to the UK.

A: Absolutely, we see it as a real threat to the region, to the world and to the UK. That is why we raised our threat levels in the UK, because unfortunately we have this phenomenon of people from the UK and other parts of the world of people traveling to Syria and Iraq to take part in this violent campaign, which really is only sowing discord and chaos.

We think this is a very disturbing development. We think that the international community needs to get together to find a way to tackle this challenge. We think the governments in Syria and Iraq also have a very important role to play. At this moment in time it's worth stressing that the fact that there is this presence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is not a coincidence. It has developed in Syria and Iraq partly as a result of the failing of those governments, particularly in Syria where the regime of Bashar Assad in some ways quite explicitly and deliberately facilitate this phenomenon so as to create a bogey man, an enemy, so that we in the West will see as being worse than Bashar and then, therefore as some are now suggesting, will try to do some Faustian devilish pact with them.

As my foreign minister, Philip Hammond, is being very clear that not what we are here to do. Just because IS is a huge threat, doesn't mean we ignore the hugely damaging role the Syrian regime has played, not only in taking the lives of 200,000 people, but in creating the space and encouraging the formation of this Islamic State group. It should be remembered that al-Qaida in Iraq, the forbearer of this group, was very much supported in 2003 and 2004 by the Syrian government to help facilitate the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. This is very much a Syrian regime creation, one that unfortunately former governments in Iraq also facilitated through their divisive sectarian policies. We hope that the new government in Iraq will take a more inclusive approach that enables Sunni communities in Iraq to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And we very much see the responsibility for dealing with this lays at the Syrian government's feet as well.

Q: What role do you see Azerbaijan playing in securing regional stability?

A: I think Azerbaijan is playing a positive role. The model that it is able to demonstrate of a secular, multicultural, religiously tolerant country, I think particularly being a Shi'a majority state, this is a very powerful example that it sends.

This is something that we hope will be an example that others will follow, will show that inclusion, respect, diversity, rather than exclusion, discord and hatred is what we should be encouraging to create peace and stability in the world.

My concern is that the sectarian discord in the region is threatening to also find an appearance in other countries and we know that there are many Azerbaijanis who have traveled to Syria to fight on either one side or the other and I think the government here is doing a good job in trying to discourage that.

But this brings me back to the original point of what was the root of the uprising in Syria? It was dissatisfaction with governance.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

A: It's a fantastic country that is dynamic and exciting which is merging onto the world scene. I am looking forward next year to the holding of the European Games and the Formula One Grand Prix the following year. My hope is that Azerbaijan will be able to portray a successful positive image to the world, there are so many positive images to share about Azerbaijan. So I hope that the government here will take the policies that will support its overall objectives of promoting Azerbaijan as a model of success and development in this part of the world.

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