Professor Tim Anderson is a distinguished author and senior lecturer of political economy at the University of Sydney, Australia. In an interview he answers questions about the Syrian crisis, the Astana peace talks as well as the role of Iran, Russia and Turkey in the peace process.
– How would the “Astana Talks” help solve the crisis in Syria?
– I believe the Astana talks provide another opportunity for the terrorist groups and their backers to give up their useless and destructive path. What has been most significant is that those armed groups which have chosen to attend must confront Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey, with the USA, al Saud, Qatar, Britain and France excluded. That is a step closer to reality, as the latter group has only played a destructive role, up until now, while the former group is dominated by those in alliance with the Syrian alliance. Turkey alone at Astana represents the sponsors of the al Qaeda groups. Further, the NATO-GCC terrorists come as armed groups and not with the pretence of being a political ‘opposition’. If the armed groups (e.g. ‘Jaysh al Islam’) agree to put down their arms, that will leave the banned terrorist groups more isolated. If they do not agree, no-one can say they were not given an opportunity. What I call the Syrian Alliance (principally Syria, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia) will be seen to have made every effort to avoid bloodshed.
– Why do Syrian negotiators in “Astana Talks” want rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal? Is it legitimate?
– It is certainly true that many Syrian resent the amnesties given to former Syrian fighters, whom they regard as mercenaries and terrorists. We know that the [Persian] Gulf monarchies and some NATO states have paid them higher salaries than Syrian soldiers, with DAESH fighters on the highest salaries. Many Syrians regard these traitors as no better than their foreign terrorist partners. However the Syrian Government’s practice, at least since 2012, has been to remove as many Syrians as possible from the conflict through a ‘reconciliation’ process, recognizing that they must address a post-war legacy of bitterness. Many thousands have already taken advantage of this process. For the same ‘reconciliation’ reasons the Syrian Army has not ‘carpet bombed’ al Qaeda held areas such as Douma in rural east Damascus. The bloodshed must be minimized. The post war ‘reconciliation’ challenge that the government of President Bashar al Assad must face is similar to, but much greater than, the healing process attempted by his father after the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed insurrection in Hama, back in 1982.
– A member of the rebel delegation in “Astana Talks” told AFP on Monday that the group would agree to have Russia serve as a guarantor of the current ceasefire but not Iran; why are they so hostile toward Iran?
– This seems a combination of the recognition of simple power politics, combined with al Saud style sectarian ideology. The sectarian groups, with little skill in politics or diplomacy, must recognize the military power of Russia, while hoping that Russia will eventually withdraw. Iran, on the other hand, is seen as central to the region and is constantly demonized in pseudo-religious terms by al Saud’s Wahhabi clerics.
There is another factor. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, since 1978, has been implacable in its support of Syria and in the rejection of the destructive role of Washington in the region. The Government of Russia, on the other hand, while maintaining support for international law and the rejection of terrorism, has seemed more diplomatically flexible. Russia constantly refers to the USA – the chief architect of all the Middle East wars and the massive terrorism – as its ‘partner’, in an attempt to resolve wider issues of geo-politics. As part of this approach Moscow has paid perhaps exaggerated attention to armed groups which have very little support within Syria. The latest version of that effort includes the circulation of a text (apparently created with very little Syrian involvement) which appears to suggest some drastic changes to Syria’s constitution. While such ideas (removal of the Presidential system, federalization, removal of the ‘Arab’ status of the Republic) may come to nothing, if and when they subjected to a Syrian vote, the process does seem to be testing the limits of diplomacy. It is not clear to what extent the Syrian Government would accept any such proposals. At worst this might maintain unrealistic expectations on the part of the armed groups and their sponsors; at best it might encourage a face saving retreat, helping resolution of the conflict.