Norwegian Ambassador to Syria Rolf Willy Hansen discusses unrest in the Middle East
By Kelsey Larson
On Nov. 14, Norway House, together with the Minnesota Peace Initiative, hosted the “Arab Spring: What’s happening now?” event in Minneapolis, Minn. The Norway House Peace Initiative began supporting events in 2008, with the goals of raising awareness, educating audiences and fostering engagement about the peace process around the world.
The Arab Spring event included a presentation by special guest Rolf Willy Hansen, the Norwegian Ambassador to Syria and former Consul General in Minneapolis, Minn., who discussed the changing situation in the Middle East. In honor of Ambassador Hansen’s visit, the Norwegian American Weekly in coordination with Norway House conducted an exclusive interview with him.
Norwegian American Weekly: You were the Consul General in Minneapolis for three years before becoming the Ambassador to Syria in 2008. Tell me a bit about how it was to make that change. What were some of the most significant differences between those two roles?
Ambassador Rolf Willy Hansen: Well, of course they are completely different roles. I have worked in the Middle East before, so for me it wasn’t really a complete surprise. I had worked on those issues before, and I had been to Damascus and Syria before, so I knew what it was like. Of course, Syria was and is a very closed country; information is not really readily available. Whereas when you come from the United States, which is a very open society, in this case I came to a very closed society, where you have to second-guess a lot of what was actually going on. I guess that would be one example of how it was a big change: going from a very open society to a very closed society.
And obviously with Syria we have good relations, but not very close relations. So as an Ambassador, of course, your job is to improve the relationship that already exists. In Syria, you know, it takes more time, we didn’t have any privileged relations, we were only one among many countries. Whereas in the Midwest of course, being a Norwegian Consul General, that automatically opens up a lot of doors.NAW: How did you get connected with the Minnesota Peace Initiative and what is the goal of the event on the 14th? How does the Arab Spring and coinciding events in the Middle East affect Minnesota and the West in general?
RWH: The Norway House people invited me, of course they were already established as a concept when I lived in Minneapolis, so I knew the people who were working on that. These events that they have now are something new where they focus on topical issues or foreign policy issues. For this event they want to focus on the Arab Spring, and since I’ve recently been there they asked me to come and give a presentation, so I was very happy to do that.
These seminars are all about making people more aware of topical issues in the world, foreign policy issues in this regard, so it’s more a question of discussing what the Arab Spring is, what is it about, why it happened, and what is likely to be the consequences. They included in the subtitle, ‘what this will mean for you and me, what it will mean for the world, and what it will mean for women in particular.’ So that’s what I’m going to talk about, and of course probably what is happening in Syria specifically as an example of the overall trend of events in the Middle East.
NAW: Would you have expected the situation in Syria to become what it is today when you first began as Ambassador in 2008?
RWH: No, no, that was a complete surprise to everyone, I think, or almost everyone. When I was there, the country was slowly opening up economically – not politically, in that regard it was still very closed and controlled – but they were trying to open up the country economically by allowing more private enterprise, by allowing more foreign investments, making it easier to do business between Syria and the rest of the world, which we hoped in the long run would also lead to an opening up of the political situation in the country. Of course then came the events in Tunisia and Cairo, and most people thought that this would not happen in Syria, but of course we were quite wrong about that, because it only took 3 or 4 months until the uprising also came to Syria. So that was a surprise to most of us.
NAW: As a country famous for its conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts, what does Norway feel is the best strategy going forward in Syria?
RWH: Well it’s an extremely complicated situation. Obviously we would all like to see a negotiated resolution to the conflict, so we have supported the work that was done by the former Secretary General of the U.N. Kofi A. Annan, and now his successor Ban Ki-moon who also used to work in conflict resolution for the U.N. But of course the two parties, the Regime and the Opposition, are both of the belief that they are going to win this, so neither of them are really prepared to sit down and discuss a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Opposition are trying to become more united, and they are also pressing for having more weapons so that they can get in a more equal position with the Regime, so that is their approach right now.
And meanwhile hundreds of people die every week. So it’s a terrible tragedy, and it also affects neighboring countries. There are Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, so it has a destabilizing influence on the whole neighborhood. Therefore the sooner this can be resolved, the better. Prospects right now do not seem very good in the short run.
NAW: A few weeks ago, the two candidates for President of the U.S. had a foreign policy debate, in which they expressed differences in opinion as to what the best strategy in Syria is. What do you think is the role of the U.S. in this conflict, going forward?
RWH: Obviously the one thing the U.S. is doing, which is very necessary, is to try to convince that area’s Opposition forces to get their act together, so to speak. That is something we [Norway] share as well, that they need to come together and speak in a more united voice. I don’t think the U.S. has any appetite at all for any kind of international arms intervention, I don’t really think that option is on the table.
So I guess a combination of trying to persuade the Opposition to become more united, coupled with a great deal of humanitarian assistance for the people who are suffering from the violence, including those refugees and the people inside who are being displaced. This is certainly what needs to happen, and then just to try to work within the U.N. to get an agreement in the U.N. Security Council on what needs to be done. And so far of course there has been disagreement between the Western members of the Security Council and Russia and China. So those countries need to try to come to an agreement on how to deal with this. And of course the U.S. has a major role to play in that regard.
NAW: Any other important things you’d like to note about this issue?
RWH: Just to say one final word about the Arab Spring, which is that I think we all have to prepare for this being a lengthy process. This is not something that is going to happen overnight. The process toward a more democratic society, a more open society, is certainly a welcome development, but it’s not going to happen overnight, so we should expect this to continue for many, many years.