Iran playing ‘central role’ in Syria peace process: Commentator

Tasnim– A senior London-based political analyst highlighted Iran’s pivotal role in recent talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana to end the protracted war in Syria and said the Islamic Republic has been one of the most important actors among those trying to end the conflict.

“A key point about the Astana talks is the central role that Iran is taking in them,” Alexander Mercouris said in an exclusive interview with the Tasnim News Agency.

“Iran has been one of the most important actors among those trying to end the Syrian war and one of the strongest allies of the Syrian government,” he added.

Alexander Mercouris is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law. He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality, and international law, being a frequent commentator on television and speaker at conferences. He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Tasnim: The second round of the Syria peace talks were held in the Kazakh capital of Astana on February 16. The negotiations had been organized by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, with the representatives of the Syrian government and opposition groups in attendance. In parallel talks, Syria’s warring sides will convene in the Swiss city of Geneva on Monday, February 20. The upcoming negotiations will be held under United Nations auspices. The Geneva talks were originally planned to take place on February 8, but the United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he had rescheduled them to take further advantage of the fruits of the Astana discussions. What is your take on the parallel meetings? Do you believe the ongoing crisis in the Arab country can be resolved through a political process? Will the peace talks be able to end the suffering of the Syrian people?

Mercouris: My clear view on the parallel negotiations in Astana and Geneva is that the UN-supported Geneva negotiations have been completely sidelined and that the negotiations that now matter are the ones in Astana.

The reason for this is touched on in your question. The Astana negotiations have been convened on the initiative of Iran, Russia, and Turkey – the three powers that have actual influence on the parties on the ground in Syria. They are also attended not just by the Syrian government but by representatives of the armed factions which have actually been fighting the government of Syria, as opposed to the exiled politicians who have been purporting to represent the Syrian opposition in Geneva but whose actual importance and influence in Syria is questionable.

To be clear what has been happening in Geneva is not really a negotiation at all but a piece of diplomatic theater, which has been going on whilst the actual war in Syria has been intensifying.

By contrast because of who is present in Astana and the fact that a ceasefire is now in place, substantive negotiations there are actually taking place and there is a real process underway there.

A key point about the Astana talks is the central role that Iran is taking in them. Iran has been one of the most important actors among those trying to end the Syrian war and one of the strongest allies of the Syrian government. It was however practically excluded from the Geneva discussions. Its role as a co-sponsor of the Astana conference places it where it needs to be if negotiations are to have any prospect of success, and the fact that it is central to the Astana process whilst it was practically excluded from the Geneva process, shows that it is the Astana process which is the real one, and the Geneva process which is the make-believe one.

On the subject of a wider political settlement, it is important to understand that the most far-reaching settlement anybody is talking about in Syria will NOT end the war there because the two most powerful terrorist groups – Al-Qaeda aka ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’ or whatever name it now calls itself by, and Daesh/ISIS – are excluded from any talk of a settlement.

These terrorist groups will have to be defeated and destroyed militarily and until they are, fighting in Syria will continue.

The objective of the Astana talks is to create some sort of peace settlement between the Syrian government and some sections of the Syrian opposition so that they can fight together against the two big terrorist groups or – more realistically – so that the Syrian army can focus all its efforts against them freed of other distractions.

To the extent that this is the objective it has to a certain extent already been achieved via the ceasefire which is broadly in place.

As to whether or not the ceasefire can evolve into a political settlement between the Syrian government and the ‘rebel’ groups present in Astana, that is highly questionable and will ultimately depend on whether the groups are willing to drop the demand that has made all negotiations up to now impossible: the wholly unreasonable demand that President Assad must step down as part of any peace settlement.

The Syrian opposition groups have never come close to achieving that objective on the battlefield, and hopefully, they will come understand that it is not something they can achieve at the diplomatic table.

If they do accept this then an agreement on a constitutional settlement is possible, but it is a very big if, especially as I am confident that President Assad as the military victory would almost certainly win any genuinely free election held as part of any political settlement.

Tasnim: What concessions may the government of Syria and representatives of armed opposition have offered to restore peace and calm in the country? How do you see Turkey’s role in the talks as a previous backer of the rebels in Syria?

Mercouris: I have already touched on the key concession the rebels must make. They need to understand that President Assad is not going away, and that he not only must be part of any new settlement but that he must also be allowed to contest any election the terms of which the parties agree with each other.

For the rest, I think the government will need to be prepared to concede some opening up of the political system which has previously been tightly controlled by the Baath party. I doubt this would be difficult for President Assad personally since it was what he was trying to do anyway before the war started. His stature within Syria has in my opinion been greatly strengthened by the war so that I think he can afford to relax the previously strict political controls without this seriously impacting on his position since I am confident he would win an election and so I think is he.

As to the precise form of any new constitutional arrangement, that is something that will have to be agreed between the parties.  However, I expect Syria to remain a united, unitary state and I can definitely say that it will not be anything remotely like the sort of Salafist emirate that some of the ‘rebels’ had envisaged when the war was started.

On the subject of Turkey, it has played a hugely over-ambitious game in Syria and has lost badly. It needs now to draw back and save face and also prevent a Kurdish-dominated semi-independent statelet from being established along its southern border.  Turkey also needs help to contain the Frankenstein’s monster it has in part created – Daesh/ISIS – which is now waging a terrorist war in Turkey itself.

On any objective assessment, Turkey, therefore, needs a peace settlement in Syria and is the external power most exposed if the war continues.

As to what Turkey can do, its role is crucial as the principal supporter of the armed opposition to the Syrian government. The Syrian rebel groups receive their arms and reinforcements from across the Turkish border, and this gives Turkey immense leverage over them if it chooses to use it.

Lastly, Turkey at the Astana conference can play an important diplomatic role by providing diplomatic assistance and reassurance to the rebel groups which are attending the conference, and by speaking on their behalf to the two other powers there – Iran and Russia – as it did when it negotiated the ceasefire.

In effect what is happening at Astana is that there is an arrangement whereby Iran provides diplomatic support to Damascus, Turkey provides diplomatic support to the ‘rebels’, and Russia tries to be the mediator between all of them, talking to both Iran and Turkey, and to Damascus and the ‘rebels’.

Tasnim: Measures taken by Washington up to now indicate that it has been seeking to destabilize the Arab country by arming the terrorists there and provoking them to mount operations in the country. Washington is, in fact, orchestrating plots against the successful anti-terror cooperation among Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus. What is your take on that? Don’t you think that Washington’s support for Takfiri groups in Syria is the reason behind the exclusion of the US in the peace talks in Kazakhstan?

Mercouris: Washington essentially excluded itself from the diplomatic process because its objective up to now has never been a genuine political settlement in Syria but the overthrow of the government there. Ultimately when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, and when Turkey and the various ‘rebel’ groups present in Astana became tired of being played as Washington’s pawns, the US found that all the parties to the conflict – Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government and the ‘rebels’ – came to see it as the prime obstacle to a peace settlement, as opposed to being its facilitator.

That is why the Astana talks were convened without Washington’s participation and why it has no substantive role in them.

Tasnim: What is your comment about the stances of US President Donald Trump on the Syrian crisis and the future of US-Russia relations under his presidency?

Mercouris: President Trump’s policy is far from formed. He has made his priority destroying what he calls “Islamic terrorism’ which he wants to “wipe off the face of the earth”. Objectively that ought to put him in alliance in Syria with Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government, all of whom not only want the same thing as he says that he does but, unlike him, have actually been taking practical measures to achieve it.

At the same time President Trump is the inheritor of Washington’s regime change policy in Syria, which he has yet to fully repudiate, and crazily he is accusing Iran of being the prime sponsor of terrorism when on any objective assessment the truth is the diametric opposite.

Given these contradictions, it is all but impossible to predict with any confidence what Washington’s policy under President Trump is going to be.

My guess is that the Russians are going to try to educate him in the realities of the region. They have already said publicly that they think Iran must be a part of any anti-terrorist coalition and not be excluded from it – and much less made the target of it – and I am sure they will try to make Trump understand this in the talks they will eventually have with him and his officials in private. How receptive he will be is another matter.

On the greater question of US-Russian relations, I suspect that the success or failure of cooperation in fighting Takfiri terrorism in Syria and elsewhere will be the make or break issue as to whether there will be any improvement in relations between these two powers. If they cannot even agree about that when their interests on this question so obviously converge, then it is difficult to see what else they can agree about.

Tasnim: How do you see Iran’s role in Syria’s future?

Mercouris: Iran has been the most consistent ally of Syria in its long and difficult struggle. Iran’s stance in supporting the Syrian government has been vindicated after Iran invested a huge amount of diplomatic capital and resources in it.

I would add that though the role of Iran in the diplomatic process underway in Astana tends to be overlooked, it is Iran’s perspective which has been vindicated there.

When the Russians intervened in Syria in the autumn of 2015, they acted in accordance with their standard diplomatic practice by seeking to negotiate a settlement of the conflict with the US.

Iran never hid its skepticism about Russia’s negotiations with the US, and it was proved completely right.  All the negotiations between Russia and the US over Syria came to nothing. It was only when Russia did as Iran always urged, and stopped talking to the US about Syria but started talking to Turkey instead, that the breakthrough happened.

Given this history and Iran’s key role in saving Syria in its hour of need, I would expect the alliance between the two countries to become even stronger. I also expect that alliance to continue to shape the political geography of the Middle East. Hezbollah in Lebanon is already part of it, as are some of the Palestinian groups, and I expect Iraq to be also before long.