Win-Win Solution for Syria Requires All Actors to Make Painful Compromises

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Exclusive Interview with Joost Hiltermann
By: Sara Massoumi

The Middle East continues to be the crucible for numerous global crises but the international community has yet to develop an effective mode of engagement. Across the Middle East, millions of people are suffering. In Syria and Iraq millions have fled their homes to escape the terrifying brutality of Daesh militants. Elsewhere, violence and instability in countries such as Iraq and Yemen is triggering new waves of displacement. Joost Hiltermann, the Program Director of Middle East and North Africa in International Crisis Group (ICG) has come to Iran several times in order to update his analysis and views of Iran's approach regarding each of these regional cases. Etemad Persian daily journalist, Sara Massoumi has interviewed Hiltermann during his stay in Iran about ICG's activities, its projects in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and…, the role of military intervention in regional crisis, possible political solution for Syria, defeating Daesh, EU's policies regarding Middle East developments, role of Iran in regional affairs, and… As MENA Program Director, he leads the organization's research, analysis, policy prescription and advocacy in and about the region. Previously, he was Crisis Group’s Chief Operating Officer (2013-2014), in which capacity he was responsible for the oversight and management of the organization's programs and operations around the world. Prior to that, he was Crisis Group's Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa (2007-2012) and Project Director for the Middle East (2002-2007), helping to manage a team of analysts deployed throughout the region.

The following is the full transcript of the interview:

Q: As a kind of an introduction, would you please elaborate what kind of a work the International Crisis Group (ICG) does?

A: We are a conflict prevention organization and the way we do our work is to conduct research in or near areas of armed conflict, like Syria and Iraq, where we talk to a broad range of political actors to catch a full picture of what is going on from all the conflicting sides. On the basis of that research we then do a full analysis of possible ways towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, a political settlement in Syria for example. Our analysts live in the region and they talk to all the key stakeholders in order to understand the situation and come up with new ideas as to how to solve the conflict. I join them at times to also gain important impressions and meet with the principal players.

Q: What’s your organization's project in Syria?

A: You realize that the Syrian civil war is a very complex conflict with many actors involved, which will make it very difficult to find a solution. One party to the conflict is Iran, and it is therefore critically important to understand not only the official view of Iran about the conflict but to understand different views inside Iran and how decisions are made. So that’s what I’m doing right now.

Q: Do you have any specific project for a country like Bahrain too?

A: At the moment we are not working on Bahrain. We have in the past and hopefully, if we have a bigger budget, we will do so in the future again. But we see the situation in Bahrain as primarily a human rights crisis, which is not strictly our mandate as a conflict prevention organization, so at the moment Bahrain is not a priority for us. This could change, of course…

Q: What about Yemen?

A: Yes, we are working very much on Yemen and we have ongoing reporting on Yemen.

Q: Why do you think the international community can’t solve the Yemen crisis especially regarding the increasing number of civilian deaths? Does your group define any concrete program for this crisis too?

A: Yes of course and we have, you can see our reports. We have said from the beginning of the war a year ago that it’s critical that Saudi Arabia speak directly to the Houthis, Ansarullah. That’s the first step. And after that, you can start a political process between the Yemenis themselves to address the key issues: a national unity government, a new constitution, state structure, and all the other things that were being discussed in the National Dialogue before the war started.

We have to go back to that. But first we have to stop the war and that means that Ansarullah and Saudi Arabia need to sit down and talk. This has started now in Kuwait and this is very important. So that’s the first step. Of course, wars don’t end just like that. In most cases they last a long time. We hope there will be a ceasefire in Yemen based on the Kuwait talks.

There have been a number of ceasefire violations of course, but this is typical of these types of conflicts; we are seeing the same thing in Syria; but in the end we are convinced that no one in the Yemeni conflict can win militarily as soon as all sides realize that they cannot gain a little bit more territory to improve their position at the bargaining table, then they will come to some kind of agreement. But it will take time.

Q: Military intervention becomes a tool for some countries in the region to fulfill their own interest or to compensate for their own failure. We reportedly see that kind of intervention by Saudi Arabia in countries like Bahrain and Syria. Don’t you think that this way of solving the problem will prolong it at the end?

A: The issue is this. Anywhere in the world, not just in the Middle East, we see conflicts starting at the local level, between people and their government, or between groups inside a country, it does not matter. These groups and these governments have outside supporters -- sponsors. They can be anybody, they can be the United States, can be Russia, can be Saudi Arabia, can be Iran, can be Turkey. If these groups start losing, or when they think they are losing, or when their outside supporters think they are losing, they are going to call on these outside supporters to come and help them. So, this is what we’ve seen in the region, in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq. And then the conflict escalates. And in fact in Syria we have seen not only regional actors like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia intervene, but also the United States and Russia. So the conflict is becoming more complex and much more difficult to resolve. Foreign intervention complicates efforts to resolve the conflict.

Q: You insist on a political solution for Syria but do you consider any chance for this kind of a solution for such complicated crisis?

A: It is a good question. We insist on it because the alternative is more war which is clearly a disaster for the Syrian people and it’s also dangerous for the region and for the world. So a political solution is always the best solution if it’s available. But sometimes: it’s not available. Conflicts can end in one of two ways total defeat or a political settlement based on compromise. We pursue the second way because in Syria at the moment we don’t see the possibility of a military victory by anyone. The same in Yemen. We have to find a political solution. But will it be easy? No. Will it take time? Probably. That's the unfortunate reality.

Q: Now every power in the region and international community send military equipment and soldiers to defeat ISIS. Do you think ISIS would be defeated by military means or we need something more to take out the roots of this organized terrorist group?

A: You know, these groups emerge in places where the local population has a serious grievance about something. For example, the reason that Daesh was able to pop up in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, and Mosul and places like that is that in these areas people held a deep grievances against the central government, be it the Syrian government or the Iraqi government. These groups find support among the local population; otherwise they couldn’t exist there and grow. Otherwise, they would just be a bunch of guys with a radical ideology. But they become much more than that. They become stronger and much more dangerous, because they have local support. Not unanimous support by any means but enough support to survive and control the situation.

If we want to get rid of a group like Daesh, we have to realize we cannot defeat it militarily. Even if you succeed in one place, you still won't defeat them everywhere, and most of all you won't defeat their ideology. You cannot defeat ideas, you can only defeat people. So if a military campaign is not done carefully, if there’s no political strategy that looks at what should happen in these areas once the group has been defeated, what will happen is that a group like that will re-emerge in some other form, because the grievance is still there and the ideology is still there. And so I think what we need to do is not just to use bombs and other weapons to defeat this group, but to think about how we can fix the political problems in these areas.

It's not about ideology only. It is very much about the actual situations of people in these areas. But why the international community doesn’t have a positive record on defeating terrorist groups? We still talk about defeating Al-Qaede or Taliban after 15 years?  That's exactly the reason: they cannot be defeated by military means. Emphasis should be placed on improving governance, wiping out corruption, and ending conflicts in whose chaos groups such as these thrive.

Q: Do you think ISIS will survive for a long time and what are the factors which may guarantee this survival?

A: I expect they will be around for a long time, frankly. I think that is very likely. Maybe you can push them out of one area, but then they will pop up in another area. Why? Because, basically, the entire region, the Arab world in particular, is going through an identity crisis. There’s a great disunity, and people are trying to figure out what the future will hold for them. They’re trying to create a new order. But there is a lot of chaos and disarray right now; states have started to collapse. So the question is what will replace them. Right now, the only strong actor, other than the state in those places where it still exists, is Daesh. That’s a very dangerous situation. So we have to see what the people in the region really want. Do they want to go with this ideology, with this group, or will they reject it. And I think that would determine what happens to these groups, whether these groups will continue to have local support or not.

Q: You insisted on the regional problems as a key factor in creating ISIS, but the main question is who gave ISIS weapons or who kept silent when some actors send weapons and let the insurgents join ISIS in Syria? Don’t you consider any role for main international actors in ISIS crisis?

A: It's not weapons that create these groups, but once these groups exist they acquire the means to obtain weapons and attract foreign support. The problem is that Daesh is everyone's enemy but it's not everyone's first enemy: most actors have other priorities, and Daesh takes advantage of this.

Q: To what extent are EU's policies regarding the Middle East developments independent from the United States' Middle East policies?

A: Well, you have to understand that the EU -with its twenty eight member states- can never agree on anything when it comes to foreign policy. So they don’t have a foreign policy. Instead, they follow the United States because they cannot do anything else. But if you look at individual states like France or Britain, and sometimes Germany, they have individual foreign policies. This means they often act at cross-purposes, and moreover, if they fail to act in unison, they cede the initiative to the United States, which is much more powerful. So by and large, in the Middle East, they tend to follow the United States as part of the Western alliance. They don’t have an independent policy.

Q: Don’t you think if European countries define their own strategy in the region it would be more helpful than just following US?

A: Well, the United States has made many mistakes in the region but they’re not the only one. And I don’t see how the European Union could do it. First of all, it’s weaker now than it has been in a long time, and secondly, it cannot forge a common foreign policy, this has been a big challenge. So I don’t see it happening. It would be a good thing but it won’t happen.

Q: Why did Europeans fail to solve the crisis although they were aware that security and political spillover of the Syrian crisis will affect the European Union?

A: First of all, the war started from a popular uprising against a very nasty regime, just as we have seen in other parts of the Arab world. The uprising was met with a brutal response and was then hijacked by outside powers that supported the protestors and gave them weapons. The regime responded both against the protestors and against the insurgents with great violence, so we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees. At his point, European countries, as I already said, don’t have the capability to formulate and carry out a unified foreign policy, so they are stuck doing nothing, except providing humanitarian aid. They have to deal with the refugees. The United States is still playing a limited role in the sense that it does not want to get more involved militarily, except to fight Daesh. And so other actors have come in: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, and now Russia. It's become a big and dangerous mess.

Q: What is the west current priority in Syria? Removing Bashar Assad or fighting against terrorism?

A: It’s a very good question. But the answer is not clear. And it should be clear but I think the United States is pursuing two objectives at the same time, trying to balance them. There are those who argue that the regime's policies and practices, using barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods are actually increasing the radicalization and are bringing more recruits to groups such as Daesh. People who support that theory say that you have to first change the regime in order to end the support for these radical groups. There are others who say that regardless of what the regime does, these groups will exist anyway, because they get outside support, so the priority should be to fight them. In reality, the US is fighting both at the same time, and both Daesh and Bashar are still there.

Q: ISIS isn’t a Syrian or regional problem anymore and it affects the European security too, so don’t you think that west think about accepting Bashar Assad in power for a short term and focusing more on defeating ISIS?

A: Well, I will make that  recommendation but there already is a notion out there on the part of the United States and the European states to start working toward a process, a transitional process, that seeks to preserve state institutions and that includes an eventual exit for Bashar al-Assad. This is different from saying that he should leave at the beginning of the process. How exactly that process will look is the big question that’s being discussed in Geneva. We don’t have a solution for it yet because the opinions in the end are very divided between what Iran wants, what Saudi Arabia wants, what Turkey wants, what Russia wants, what the United States wants.

Q: What about the opinions of Syrian players? It seems they don’t have the ability to make any progress in their own negotiation too.

A: That’s right, I think, first, as I said earlier, the crisis in Syria was a local one that became regional and then became global. Now in turn we need the global powers, Russia and the United States, to reduce the pressure on the other players by coming to some kind of process. The cessation of hostilities was the first step; now it needs to be implemented and the violations stopped. Then you need to have some kind of political process, some transition, and some way of resolving this. Then maybe we can also see de-escalation in tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Q: Do you think we can define a win – win solution for every international and regional actor in Syria?  

A: A win-win solution would require all key stakeholders to make some very painful compromises while retaining their core interests. Since the latter diverge so much, and there are so many actors involved, I think this would be extremely difficult, if not completely impossible.  

Q: Many intelligence agencies in the West, including those of Germany and the Netherlands, have presented evidence and criticized Saudi Arabia's policies in the Middle East. Why aren't we witnessing a shift in the Western states' approach towards Saudi Arabia?

A: I think we are indeed seeing a shift: there are now more critical voices directed toward Saudi Arabia than in the past. But everyone realizes that there are many bad players in the region.

Q: But Saudi Arabia enjoys the highest record of buying weapons in the region.

A: Yes, it's shameful, but Saudi Arabia is a Western ally, and moreover European countries need to sell weapons in order to strengthen their ailing economies. It’s a very cynical, cold calculation but that’s what happens. Of course these weapons are used to kill civilians, it’s terrible. What we say is that any weapons sales to Saudi Arabia should be linked to Saudi Arabia negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the war in Yemen. But you know, European countries have a longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia and so they will criticize Saudi Arabia up to a point but they will not give up their alliance. I think that over time things will be shifting, European countries are now trying to open up to Iran and to do business with Iran and that’s a positive thing. But they’re not going to give up their longstanding ally.

Q: What kind of a role you consider for Iran in the regional affairs?

A: Iran became involved militarily in Iraq and Syria because their allies in these countries, the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, failed. When they failed, Iran had little choice, from the Iranian perspective, but to come in and to fight against Daesh in the case of Iraq and to fight against Daesh and other rebels in the case of Syria. The question for me is how Iran will get out of either country again. Why would Iran want to be militarily involved in these countries? It’s very costly, including in the lives of military officers, and Iran's presence is not popular in either country. What’s the exit strategy?

Q: So you may have the same question about Saudi Arabia too? If Iran didn’t fight ISIS in Iraq we have to fight it here. So don’t you think we can’t just blame Iran for a so called intervention but exclude countries like US from this criticism?

A: Yes, Saudi Arabia is doing the same in Yemen. For both, it’s the same question. Saudi Arabia and Iran both have intervened in states where their allies were failing -- to secure their own interests. And it's not making the situation any easier.

Q: Do Iraq and Afghanistan attest to the failure of the West's policy of military intervention in the Middle East?

A: Western interventions have not solved anything. They have made things worse. Just look at Iraq, what a mess. I agree. 

Q: How does the West view Kurdish groups in the Middle East? Does West support sporadic efforts for independence by Kurdish groups in the region, particularly in the Iraqi Kurdistan?

A: The United States does not; it wants to maintain the state system. It has a very strong sense that, if you start changing one border, all borders will be challenged and the whole order will fall apart which creates unpredictability and damage to American interests. So they want to maintain the borders. They support the Kurds getting political rights within their countries, but not to erase the borders. This has not been American policy. Now, maybe it’ll change under the new president but I don’t think so.

Key WordsWin-Win Solution, Syria, Actors, Compromises, International Crisis Group (ICG), Iraq, Yemen, Military Intervention, Regional Crisis, Political Solution, Daesh, EU Policies, Middle East, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, ISIS, US, Bashar Assad, Terrorism, Weapons, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdish Groups, Hiltermann

*Photo Credit: Foreign Affairs

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

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