October 6, 2015
In New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said prospects for progress on the Syrian crisis grew after meetings around the U.N. General Assembly. “I think it is important that everybody is coming around to the same concept that we need to focus on procedures and institutions rather than on individuals,” he said in an October 5 interview with Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Zarif later emphasized the need for a “comprehensive strategy” on Syria. At a University of Denver event, he charged that the United States had not been “serious” in the fight against ISIS. Zarif also cautioned that a political transition without President Bashar al Assad as a participant would be “short-sighted” and “misplaced.”
UPDATE: On October 27, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that “we anticipate that Iran will be invited to attend” upcoming peace talks on Syria. Officials “always have recognized that at some point in the discussion, moving toward a political transition, we have to have a conversation and a dialogue with Iran,” he said.
The following are excerpts from Zarif’s remarks on Syria.
Interview with Robin Wright
Wright: “Did you come away from this U.N. General Assembly session believing that there was any movement – genuine momentum – on a process to end the Syrian civil war?”
Zarif: “Well, I came out of this General Assembly with a true belief that there is a possibility. Whether the necessary political decision has been made to abandon preconditions that would only procrastinate this issue and only prolong the conflict, I don’t know. I mean I can only hope.”
“I think it is important that everybody is coming around to the same concept that we need to focus on procedures and institutions rather than on individuals. If that takes place, and if that’s understanding sinks in that we need to leave the decision about the individuals to the Syrian people-- but what we can help and facilitate is for Syrians to start talking and to move forward with the processes that are required, then we can get this crisis closer to a resolution. But if we want to get work done on one individual as we have been over the past four years, then there’s no possibility of finding a resolution. And I think, gradually and slowly, this understanding and appreciation is sinking in. And I hope that once everybody is ready to facilitate a solution, not to dictate preconditions, then we can move forward.”
“[T]he current international coalition is incapable of engaging in such a campaign because it has political inhibitions. It believes that any attempts against Daesh will necessarily lead to strengthening of the central government in Damascus. So they are less than serious in dealing with Daesh. And they have been, and they’re not hesitant in saying so. So there was a need to deal with this very serious global challenge and threat – straightforward. And the only people who were doing it, particularly in Iraq and Syria, were Iran through our military advisers and our support that we provided to the two governments, so I thought it was necessary for an international effort, and it shouldn’t just be Russia.
“Others should recognize the fact that the first and foremost threat to global peace and security, as well as to every single country in the region including those who are reluctant, is Daesh and terrorism and takfiri extremism, and they need to find ways of dealing with it -- without setting preconditions, whether this helps Assad or helps anybody else.”
Wright: Are there more advisors going in [to Syria from Iran]?
Zarif: “You don’t have any specific number of advisors at any specific time, you send advisors based on the required organizational support that you provide to the Syrian army.”
“We are not changing the nature of our presence in Syria. I would have been surprised if we did, but because it was happening during the time I was out of the country, I checked, and the policy stands that we are not changing the nature of our presence in Syria.”
University of Denver event
Moderator: What can be done to kind of calm this region down, and what needs to be...the approach?
Zarif: Well, as I said, a big paradigm shift is required and it should start with all of us recognizing that the problems that are appearing in our region are problems that will affect all of us. That nobody will be immune. We cannot have extremism confined to one country. Some of our neighbors believe that extremists in the Syrian army could kill each other off…Now we have all these extremists attacking followers from all over the world. In one day there was a bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait, a bombing of a tourist resort in Tunisia, and a bombing of a factory in France. Three incidents in one week, three different targets, carried out by a single group in one day. That tells you that the victims and the regions are not confined to one group or one geography…the sooner we realize that this is a common threat the sooner that we can address it…
The group we now call ISIS, or Daesh or whatever, was the outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. These are the sons and daughters of Abu al Zarqawi…As was the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan who grew out of the Soviet invasion. You always have internal problems, you cannot just look at the outside forces and the outside causes as the only cause. You have dictatorship… you have no avenue for expression of frustration domestically, or you also have external elements that lead to it.
So I think what is taking place in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, in our region in general, requires a common approach by all of us…Iran is overwhelmingly Shia and our population is not vulnerable to an anti-Shia message that is being propagated by ISIS or Daesh. But unfortunately the population in some of our neighbors, who have either turned a blind eye to Daesh or who have actually supported it in the past, their population is sympathetic, at least.
Moderator: So among Sunni populations there is some sympathy for these extreme Sunni groups, is what you’re saying?
Zarif: Not all Sunni populations, but some who belong to the Salafi, Wahhabi inclinations in the Sunni world, which would be predominantly in Saudi Arabia and some Persian Gulf countries. So they are more vulnerable, and the sooner they realize that this extremist group is not even a temporary answer…they will not be able to deal seriously with this threat…
Moderator: So you regard radical Sunniism as a threat to moderate Sunniism as well as a threat to you. And a threat to us.
Zarif: Yes, it’s a threat to everybody in the world, and it is something that cannot be addressed only through military means. It may require certain military action, but more importantly it requires serious cultural, political, ideological, economic, and other measures.
Now let me address a few of them. You see people beheading innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria. You listen to them, they speak with perfect French or English accents. They were born and raised in France or in the United Kingdom. Why is it? Because the feeling of alienation, the feeling of disenfranchisement is so severe in some of these societies. These people are not the product of ideological upbringing. They were educated in the West. But the alienation, the Islamophobia, the feeling of suppression and humiliation is so pervasive that pushes them to commit these atrocities…
But you have to understand, there are economic motivations as well…The fact is that these groups are selling their oil. Who’s buying their oil? Who’s paying for it? Which bank does the transaction? …this is not just no longer the military, it is the financial – I mean, every month a thousand people enter Syria and Iraq. A thousand new people. This has become a revolving door. Extremists attract new followers, new recruits come from 82 countries, go to Iraq and Syria, they get trained, if they don’t die after a while they go back to their own societies and become the focus of a new extremist movement. So we’ve got to look at it from that perspective and see that we need a combined global comprehensive effort to deal with this. Just aerial bombardment could not do the job, as they haven’t done in the past.
Moderator: Let’s just look at Syria, because I think we’ve essentially been talking about Syria without mentioning Syria. It seems they need some political arrangements forward, but if you have elections in the current context don’t Sunnis just vote for Sunnis, Alawites vote for Alawites, and Kurds vote for Kurds?
Zarif: Well, I think what is necessary in Syria is to have…a comprehensive strategy to have political reform…even localized ceasefires, maybe, to end the fighting as much as you can…there are areas where people can be brought into a political process who are fighting each other. So you have to stop those fighting. It is impossible to stop the fighting with ISIS. Everyone should join forces in order to deal with ISIS, including others from outside —Iran, Russia, regional countries united in a coalition…
At the same time, begin a political process. That is, now Syria has a centralized power structure, all in one man. And that is why the fate of that individual has become the only issue that has created a political solution, President Assad. What we can do is to make sure that in Syria we have a political system that is not centralized, power is disbursed around various institutions of government. You insist on those efforts instead of on individuals. You insist on guarantees, instead of saying whether President Assad should run in an election or not run in an election. You should insist that they should be a free and fair.
Moderator: So who insists?
Zarif: Unfortunately, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and some European countries have always insisted, up until a few months ago… that President Assad should just go, before the political process started. Now they’re insisting that President Assad can stay because they know that if he goes, the only replacement will be ISIS and terrorists. So they have come to this understanding that it is impossible to ask him to go right now, without…giving Damascus to ISIS on a platter…
What you need to do is to put emphasis on the process itself… Enable the Syrian people to decide. We in the outside world should facilitate the outcome, not dictate the outcome. No negotiations can lead to any conclusion if you want to conclude before negotiating… So this, I think, negotiations without preconditions, a national unity government in Syria is the answer…We should allow the outcome to take shape in the hands of and by the voice of the Syrian people and not by outsiders.
Moderator: Probably the biggest development in the last week was of course the Russian move to actually put troops on the ground, set up airbases, and begin air operations. Does this come as a surprise to you?
Zarif: A year ago, the United States decided to conduct air operations in Syria without the consent of the government of Syria… [The] U.S. and Russia are two permanent members of the Security Council. There is nothing in the charter that gives one privilege over another…The difference is they were there on the invitation of the government, which has a seat in the United Nations. So, if I were to compare the two, I guess, legally, at least the United States cannot blame Russia for being there…
Moderator: This is the moderate Syrian –
Zarif: Whatever you want to call them, moderate Syrian opposition. I call them paid hotel opposition, because all they do is sit in hotels and spend your money, which is fine. They love spending money…Did the people of Syria ask them to be there? …what has the United States and international coalition done in Iraq or Syria against ISIS? I mean, there’s been a [inaudible] bombardment of coalition effort… Not that the United States isn’t capable of doing it, but because the United States has inhibitions, has constraints, and most of those constraints are from allies in the region who do not want to undermine ISIS because it will strengthen the central government. And because of that, the United States and all of that coalition… cannot go all the way against ISIS because it would amount to strengthening the central government in Damascus. And for the same reason that they are not successful in Iraq… The militia in Iraq has been much more successful in liberating Iraqi territory from ISIS than the U.S. coalition.
Moderator: Why is that?
Zarif: The reason for that is the U.S. coalition. First of all, you cannot fight terrorists by air alone. You need to have a serious ground operation. Secondly, because in my view the United States is not capable of fighting ISIS because of the concerns that its allies in the region have…And because everything is being seen in that zero-sum mentality and paradigm, it has not been possible to have serious fight with ISIS…
If you look at what the United States is saying, the United States is saying that we are for a political solution without Assad and we will deal with ISIS in no time. That means that there is a political precondition for the international coalition to have a serious fight against ISIS. I think that is short sighted. I think that is misplaced… ISIS is a threat against all of us. It’s not an answer. We have to remember, ISIS is not an answer to anybody. It is an identity. And it is a deadly identity. And it is a deadly identity more for the countries that are supporting it, or have supported it in the past…
Moderator: You presumably have some contacts with the Saudis. Presumably you’ve been able to have some discussions about this, but no mutual understanding on these issues?
Zarif: Unfortunately, the Saudis are not prepared to discuss these issues with us. And, unfortunately, the recent tragedy in Saudi Arabia has…strained our relations.