The Possibility of Using P5+1 Format to Tackle Syrian Crisis

Monday, October 5, 2015

Tehran Times Exclusive Interview with Farhang Jahanpour
By: Javad Heirannia

Professor Farhang Jahanpour says it is possible the example of Iran-5+1 talks be used to resolve the crisis in Syria.

“There is a possibility of using the 5+1 format to tackle the Syrian crisis,” Jahanpour, a former senior research fellow at Harvard University, tells the Tehran Times.

Jahanpour, a current member of Kellogg College (University of Oxford), also says despite “geopolitical differences” between great powers and regional players toward in Syria they should collaborate with each other because the danger of terrorism in Syria is “extremely serious and if it is not checked it will spread to the rest of the world.”

This is the text of the interview:

Q: Russia has started its attacks on ISIS in Syria. Why have the Russians decided to get involved in the Syrian crisis?

A: The situation in Syria was complex and dangerous enough before the latest developments, but it has become much more dangerous as the result of direct Russian involvement in the fighting. However, if handled carefully and in collaboration with other major powers that are fighting against ISIS, it can provide a possible solution to the conflict.

What is happening in Syria has three main dimensions, domestic, regional and international. Domestically, it is a battle between the government on the one hand, and the insurgents and various terrorist groups on the other. Regionally, it is a proxy war between Saudi, Turkish and other Sunni regimes on the one hand, and Iran, Iraq, and the Hezbollah on the other. Internationally, it is a geopolitical battle between the United States and the West on the one side, and Russia and to a lesser extent China on the other. While so far the West has had a virtual monopoly of movement and military action in Syria, now it has been joined by Russia.

Already, at least six countries – the United States, Britain, France, Australia, UAE and Israel – have been bombing various targets in Syria, and now Russia has become the seventh country to join the fray. However, there is one big difference between Russia and the rest, because while all the others have been bombing targets in Syria without the agreement of the Syrian government, Russia has been invited by the Syrian government to take part in the fighting against the terrorist groups.

Q: You referred to the three dimensions of the crisis in Syria. How did the terrorist groups that are fighting the Syrian government come into being?

A: The origins of the conflict in Syria go back to the start of the Arab uprisings, which are wrongly termed as the “Arab Spring”. Almost five years ago on 17 December 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire, and his self-immolation sparked a conflagration that burnt the authoritarian regimes of Tunisia and Egypt to cinders. The downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators soon led to uprisings in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere.

With the single exception of Tunisia, where the collapse of the former regime has led to elections that have produced a workable government, in Egypt the government of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood that succeeded Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a military coup. The uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain were crushed by Saudi forces, and the tragedy in those two countries still continues.

The West intervened in Libya and Syria with the aim of replacing the regimes that were hostile to the West with more friendly governments, without any consideration for the people and their aspirations. Libya has been turned into a failed state where militant groups have taken over, and in Syria we have a vicious civil war, which so far has killed more than 200,000 people, has uprooted about half of the population, with some four million Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries. The recent waves of Syrian refugees in Europe have constituted the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

At the beginning, the uprising in Syria also followed the pattern of revolutions in other Arab countries, with demands for greater freedom and democracy. Instead of bringing about some needed reforms, the Syrian government responded with unnecessary force, which further alienated and brutalized the population. However, soon foreign countries began to make use of the situation to drive their own agendas at the expense of the poor Syrian people.

Q: You referred to the regional dimension of the conflict and the participation of a number of regional countries in the Syrian civil war. How did that come about?

A: Ever since the American invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, many Arab countries have been unhappy about the rise of a Shia government in Iraq based on its massive Shia majority. Saudi Arabia has been particularly hostile to that development and has refused to recognize Iraq’s government or send an ambassador to Baghdad.

At the same time, during the Iran-Iraq war when the majority of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council member states supported Saddam in his aggression against Iran, both economically, politically and even militarily by providing him with bases and military assistance, Syria under President Hafiz al-Assad was the only Arab country that sided with Iran. Saudi Arabia regards itself as the guardian or overlord of Arab states and has never forgiven the Syrian government for breaking ranks with other Arabs. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has been financing and arming militant Sunni groups to topple the Syrian government.

There is an interesting cable released by Wikleaks, which shows that even former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also identified Saudi funding for Sunni “militancy”. In December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks she wrote: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.” She said that in so far as Saudi Arabia did act against al-Qa'ida, it was as a domestic threat and not because of its activities abroad.

John Hannah, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, wrote in summer 2011 that a senior Saudi official had told him that the late Saudi king Abdullah believed that regime change in Iran would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests. He went on to say: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.”

Unfortunately, Turkey that has good relations with Iran also fell into that trap and collaborated with Saudi Arabia. For Israel, the collapse of the Assad government also meant cutting the links between Iran and Hezbollah. Therefore, a form of informal alliance was formed with Western backing to support the anti-Assad insurgents in Syria. As has happened many times in the past, the support for radical religious groups always ends badly, as we have seen in the case of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and various fundamentalist groups in Iraq and Syria.

During the American occupation of Iraq various militant Sunni groups acting under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had links with al-Qaeda even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq formed a terrorist group known as Jama’at Tawhid wal-Jihad, sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a close friend of Zarqawi, but in his brutality he has even gone beyond Al-Qaeda and regards himself as the leader of a worldwide Sunni caliphate.

In view of the support provided by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments to the insurgents in Syria to topple Bashar Assad’s government, Iran, which believes that it owes a debt of gratitude to Assad, has provided military advisors to the Syrian government and with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah is trying to defeat the terrorists.

Q: The Pentagon has rejected an official request, or “demarche,” from Russia to clear air space over northern Syria, where Moscow said it intended to conduct airstrikes against ISIS. Considering the differences between Moscow and Washington, is there any possibility of cooperation between them against ISIS?

A: Although Russia and the West follow different goals in Syria, they are united in their wish to defeat ISIS. President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and had a cordial and constructive discussion. Russia has said that its aim is to attack ISIS and other terrorist groups. In a long press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked which terrorist groups he had in mind. He replied: “If it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist — right?”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was asked whether he agreed with Lavrov that the two countries were targeting the same people. He said: “Well, in concept, but we are not yet where we need to be to guarantee the safety and security and division of responsibility.” The American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also had a videoconference with his Russian counterpart and the tension between them seems to be easing. Of course, there is always the danger of miscalculation or accidents, which would lead to a major conflict.

Q: How could the escalation of the conflict be avoided?

A: There is a need for constant communication between the two. After four years of fighting IS, the United States and the Coalition forces have not achieved a great deal, although they have slowed its advances. They should realize that despite their disagreements with Russia and Iran and despite their geopolitical differences, they should collaborate because the danger that is posed by the terrorist groups in Syria is extremely serious and if it is not checked it will spread to the rest of the world.

There is a possibility of using the 5+1 format to tackle the Syrian crisis. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told journalists that there was a meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the Iranian foreign minister in New York on Sept. 29. “We have had some discussion on Syria … especially on the fact that we managed to achieve something … so important for the world through dialogue and diplomacy in this format,” Mogherini told journalists at the UN in New York following the P5+1 Iran ministerial meeting.

This is by far the wisest course to follow. If Iran were seen as the only major power supporting the Russians in Syria, it would paint the situation as a Shia-Sunni conflict with Russia taking the side of the Shias, and the West taking the side of the Sunnis. That scenario would be extremely dangerous for Iran and would split the region further along sectarian lines.

Iran should hold serious talks with Turkey and Egypt and should persuade them to join an international coalition to find a solution to the crisis, otherwise all of them would suffer as the result. In view of the large number of refugees that Turkey has accepted and the domestic problems that she is facing, and also in view of the Egyptian government’s battle against the militants in Sinai, both governments might be open to cooperation provided that there is also a degree of flexibility by Iran and the Syrian government.

Cooperation in Syria could ease some of the tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Also, instead of splitting the region along sectarian lines, true cooperation between Iran and the major regional countries against the terrorists could bring the region closer together and put an end to the existing tensions.

Source: Tehran Times

More By Farhang Jahanpour:

*US Benefits If It Pushes Arabs to Give Up Support for Extremists:

*A Mutually Acceptable Nuclear Deal Entails Compromises by Iran and West:

*Congress Can’t Go against World to Annul a Deal with Iran:

*Photo Credit:, Muslim Journalist

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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