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Iran's New Regional Initiative on Syrian Peace

Vijay Prashad discusses with Newsclick the new initiative that Iran is proposing to place before in the UN Security Council for peace in Syria. The Foreign Ministers of Russia and Syria have met with the Iranian Foreign Minister and worked out the contours of such a proposal. Last time that such a regional initiative was taken, it was sabotaged by the US and its western allies. Vijay believes that the US policies are increasingly becoming incoherent in the region. It is no longer able to control its allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. So instead of shaping West Asia policies of its allies, increasingly its allies are shaping the US policies in the region. He hoped that a longer term solution will emerge through such a regional initiative, as the Syrian war has devastated the country and created a huge external and internal displacement.


Rough Transcript:

Prabir Purkayastha (PP): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today, we have with us Prof. Vijay Prashad a well known commentator particularly on West Asia. Vijay, good to have you with us. The Syrian issue seems to be hotting up with discussions between the Iranian, Russians and the Syrians on a peace proposal. So what do you think are the prospects of the proposal and what are the main elements of the proposal?

Vijay Prashad (VP): Well, the most interesting thing is that after some time, the language of regional discussion and regional negotiation has come back on the table. This last week, Iranians had the Russian Foreign Minister and Syrian Foreign Minister for a meeting in Tehran where they discuss the prospects of the Syrian situation which are really quite cataclysmic in many respects and out of that meeting emerged a four element Iranian peace plan which they propose to submit to the United Nations. Now, nothing in the plan is really new for instance they talk about they need for a cease fire, they talk about the need to write a new constitution and they talk about the need for a unity government. Each of these elements have been there in both the Geneva, talks they have been there in the proposals put forward by the UN envoys. So nothing specially in the four points are new. What's new is the timing and in a sense the confidence of the Iranians because the Iranian Foreign Minister right after this meeting talked to four major Arabic language newspaper in Lebanon, in Qatar, in Kuwait and in Egypt. In each of these papers published the same Oped which called for the need for regional diplomacy to tamp down both on the Syrian civil war and the civil war ongoing in Yemen. So there is an important movement here where the Iranians are riding the wave of the nuclear agreement believing that not only should this nuclear agreement determines the politics of the region but there should be a grandeur bargain which includes the conflict in Syria and in Yemen.

PP: Leaving out Yemen for the time being that's really the main player being Saudi Arabia at the moment apart from the Yemenis. The Syrian issue has Turkey as the main player. Now, is Turkey on board is US on board and without these two on board is there a prospect of a Syrian settlement.

VP: This a very important question. If we back track a little bit to 2012 when Syrian contact groups formed at the time under the leadership of Mr. Morsi of Egypt. So Morsi was then leading Egypt invited Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to an important conference on the Syrian situation and they created a Syrian contact group. At the time itself, it seemed unbelievable but Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would gather together to try to come up with the regional solution for Syria. Unfortunately, at that time, the West and the Russians scuttled the formation of the Syrian contact group by moving the venue for a debate around Syria to their own meeting in Madrid and they didn't invite the Syrian contact group as major players. So there is a history of attempting a regional solution. I think that's important to bear in mind. Of course, we are some ways away from 2012. Now, the Turkish government is not in the same position as it was in 2012. In 2012, Mr. Erdogan I think erroneously believed that the Assad government will fall in Damascus and that he would be able to conduct what had began then as a major peace agreement with the Kurds. Neither has the Assad government fallen in Damascus and nor has Mr. Erdogan been able to create a major peace agreement with the Kurds. In fact, the opposite, the three year cease fire that the Turkish state had adopted with the Kurds has fallen apart. The Turkish government of Mr. Erdogan in a sense humiliated in the last Presidential elections and Parliamentary elections, largely Kurdish party the HDP was able to win over ten percent of the votes. Therefore, Mr. Ergodan, frustrated by the hampered power that he has now had angered by the growth of the Kurdish political position because of the guerrilla fighting of the Kurdish militias in the Northern Syria has of course, launched this attack on the Kurdish positions of the PKK of the YPG in the Northern Syria and the Northern Iraq.

PP: So what you are saying is Erdogan is much weaker today vis a vis the Kurdish issue. In fact, I would say there is more hawkish with Kurdish issue and therefore, at the moment he is talking about the buffer zone in Syria which would be free from IS and de-facto he also seems to be arguing that it will be under US and the Turkish protection which means that even Bashar Al Assad's forces will not be allowed to enter. So how does it shape up with any peace proposal?

VP: Well, the idea that the Turks want the no-fly zone or a buffer in Northern Syria has been rebuffed by almost everybody else. I mean this is Mr. Erdogan's sole proposal. He is the only one who wants it and when he attempted to get a go ahead from the West and from the UN to create some kind of refugee buffer zone in Northern Syria. There were no takers for his proposal. This is important because it shows that there is some gap between the kind of maximalism of the Turkish government's position of the Syria incoherence of the West's position on Syria. Mr. Erdogan for all his faults is clear in what he wants in the Syrian situation and unfortunately for him he has miscalculated completely in terms of the politics and military realities or what is happening in Syria. The West on the other hand has much more incoherent policy. So it appears, Turkish forces has confirmed one of the quid pro quo given for Turkish green light or to bomb Kurdish positions was to allow the West to use Turkish air bases for their armed drones to then operate in Northern Syria. So in a sense, the West has got a very limited benefit from this agreement that now they can use armed drones and Turkey is able to flail about back to 1990s when it was in a full scale war against the PKK

PP: Though, President Rouhani from Iran has spoken to Erdogan is not clear how Turkey will respond to this peace overture which Iran is proposing. What about Saudi Arabia, the other important player in the region, who of course currently has bogged down their own misadventure in Yemen. But how do you think Saudi will react to Iran policy because the argument in Yemen is Iran is the main enemy?

VP: Yes, In fact, the look through the wikileaks cache. If you look through the wikeleaks cache on Saudi Arabia, you will find a great Paranoia vis a vis Iran. You know the Saudi bureaucracy, the Foreign Ministry seems in a kind of a cataclysm that everything that goes wrong for them is because of Iran. This is the familiar trope of course it is the trope of the foreign hand in any issue that effects the government. Now, Saudi Arabia has also come to slowly recognize very slowly recognize that in the case of the Islamic state it might had created a monster once again that it can not fully control. The bombing in the mosque recently was followed by Islamic State statement that more such attacks would happen. So very interestingly, just as an indicator of how things are so much influx even for Saudi Arabia it is widely reported that the important intelligence figure Mr. Ali Mamlouk of Syria traveled to Riyadh recently this last week as well and had high level conversations with the Saudis. So I think there is a great deal of flux in the Saudi position. The Saudis no doubt ideologically in a sense, may be temperamentally paranoid about Iran.

PP: Do you think that this is more a limited purpose of only trying to extricate some of the Al Qaeda allied groups in South-eastern Syria as against the two towns which are currently being besieged near Idlib. They are I think about 40 percent of the Shia who are being surrounded at the moment by various rebel forces. Do you read this as a larger peace overture or a simple small problem being solved using Saudi Arabia and of course you know well connected to all these rebel groups and really it's not to do with the larger peace proposal.

VP: Well, let's back up a little bit to what was the West's military strategy. You know, the West has several times since 20/11 tried to fashion so called moderate military force of the ground in Syria to take on and supplant the largely Al Qaeda forces like Jabhat Al Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham etc. their most recent brigade division 30 crossed into Syria and was hastily vanquished by Jabhat Al Nusra who released statement saying we will never allow the West, in fact they used the word capitalistic. We will never allow the West to have any influence on us etc. so the most recent of the West's attempt to create a moderate army inside Syria has been defeated which means the space for Western military interventions through it's proxies is basically closing rapidly. So I feel like here there will be room for broader discussion about the fate of the so called rebellion inside Syria and even if these overtures are merely about the impending massacre of the large populations of the Shia in Western Syria. Even if this is the case, I think it has the potential to open up new channels particularly given this overtures from the Iranians. I think it's incumbent upon the West to think seriously about the grand bargain for the region. The problem actually for this grand bargain is not so much Saudi Arabia and Tukey but of course Israel which has been very much against any kind of slowing down of the kind of intense sectarian violence in the region.

PP: Interesting to say about the Israels position because this is the new Brooklyn's Institutes's paper which also argues that break up Syria, break up Iraq which has been an old US at least neo-con idea which currently has pawned of course forces like ISIS and of course Jabhat Al Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham all Al Qaeda affiliates. Last question to you. Do you think US has now recognized that it's ability to control the region is not there and therefore taking more of a back seat allowing forces like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to work out arrangements? Or do you think it still thinks it is a big player over there and everybody else are small players?

VP: Prabir it is hard for Americans to peeve it into believing they are not a big players in the region. I mean after all one has to feel for Secretary of States John Kerry who seems to spend most of his life on an aircraft, flying between Geneva, Qatar, between Saudi Arabia and of course Israel. This man is hard at work doing whatever he is tasked to do. The issue is in whether they feel they are major power or not. I think, the fact is that they are not able to as easily control what they see as the proxies namely, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states and to some extent Turkey. It is very clear that over the last couple of years there has been some tension between Ankara because Turkey has it's own policy vis a vis it's border and the United States. The US government has asked the Turks at several points to close the border which the Turks has simply not done or closed on or two check points and allowed others to remain open. People should recognize that when for instance when Indian workers were kidnapped in Iraq, Libya or wherever, the Indian government has almost no leverage to get them released. Meanwhile, when an ISS affiliate or perhaps ISS itself had captured a large number of Turkish citizens in Mosul in Northern Iraq, they were very quickly handed back to Turkish state. It should give people pause to question the close ties between the various Jehadi groups and Turkey. A Kurdish general some time back had told me that Turkey has become the Pakistan of Middle-east and what he mean of course is how Pakistan has played a role in Afghanistan back same role Turkey is playing vis a vis Syria. I think it's an appropriate comparison and I think who make policy in the region need to take very seriously.

PP:Thank you very much Vijay. We will keep in touch with you on these issues and other issues regarding peace war and so on.

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for Newsclick are typed from a recording of the program. Newsclick cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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