An Interview with Gholamali Khoshroo, Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam, published at IRD on January 23, 2014
Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon on Monday rescinded a previous invitation he had extended to Iran for participation in the forthcoming Geneva II conference on Syria, noting that the conference will be held in the absence of the Islamic Republic. The announcement came after Tehran clearly indicated that it will not support the communiqué that was adopted at the end of the Geneva I conference in June 2012. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed regret over the UN secretary-general’s measure for withdrawing its invitation for Iran to take part in the Geneva II conference, which is apparently aimed at finding a final solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria.
The measure came despite a previous announcement by the secretary-general in which he claimed that the Iranian officials had accepted decisions made in Geneva I conference and, therefore, an official invitation for the participation in the Geneva II conference had been extended to Tehran. However, the Iranian officials moved fast to deny those remarks. At the same time, the foreign-backed opposition groups in Syria set a deadline for the secretary-general to rescind his invitation to Iran and this is why many analysts believe that the latest decision by the UN chief has been made under pressure from the United States and the Syrian opposition groups. At the same time, news services reported that although the incumbent Syrian government has announced that it will send its representative to Geneva II conference, the Syrian government has not officially accepted the Geneva I communiqué which clearly speaks about the necessity for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria and the need for the Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. The Geneva II conference opens on January 22, 2014, though it is quite difficult to predict its final result due to the wide gaps that exist among its participants and the conflicting positions they have already adopted. The Syrian opposition groups have explicitly noted that they will not accept any solution to the Syria crisis which would not have the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s government as a component. On the other hand, the Syrian government has been insisting on the solution proposed by Bashar Assad which includes total disarmament of the opposition groups and holding elections under the oversight of his government. In view of the above facts, such issues as the main reason(s) behind inviting Iran to the Geneva II confab and later withdrawal of that invitation by the UN secretary-general, factors influencing this development, and the future outlook of Geneva II conference in the absence of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been discussed with Gholamali Khoshroo, the former Iranian deputy foreign minister for international affairs. The complete text of the interview follows.
A few days ago, Mr. Ban Ki-moon claimed that in a phone call with Mr. Zarif, the latter had told him that Iran had accepted the decisions made in Geneva I conference on Syria and, therefore, he had extended an official invitation to the Islamic Republic for participation in the Geneva II conference on the crisis in the Arab country. However, after his remarks were rejected by the Iranian officials, his spokesperson told reporters that Ban Ki-moon has decided to exclude Iran from the two-day conference that will open in the Swiss town of Montreux. He mentioned Iran's insistence on rejecting the Geneva I communiqué as the main reason behind Ban’s decision. Some sources have noted that Ban Ki-moon has made the decision to rescind his invitation to Tehran under tremendous pressure from different quarters despite the fact that he was a supporter of Iran's participation in the event. Is this true that external pressures have been behind Ban’s decision or other factors have been at work as well?
It was a totally rational decision to organize an international conference on the situation in Syria and invite Iran to take part in the event which is aimed at finding a regional solution to the Syria crisis. However, it was not rational to both invite Iran, and set preconditions for the Islamic Republic’s participation in the event because the international community does not approve of such behavior. When a country seems eager to take part in a conference, it will make sense to set preconditions for its participation. Now, when for any reason – including not being invited or not being in agreement with the conference – Iran has not been a party to Geneva I conference, what does it mean to expect the country to concede to decisions, which have been made without its agreement and whose contents are not acceptable to it? This is a totally irrational expectation. At the same time, there are many viewpoints and interpretations on the Geneva I conference. The viewpoints of Russia and the United States on that conference are different. It is not clear whether the proposed transitional government will also include the incumbent president or not? Let’s assume that the Geneva I conference’s communiqué has pushed for the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s government. Now, at a time that a military solution for the Syria crisis has hit a dead-end and has been practically a catastrophe – in that it has only fueled armed conflicts, growth of terrorism and extremism, and the possibility of foreign intervention in the Arab country – they have decided to come together in the Geneva II conference in order to find a political solution to the crisis. All these factors have turned the Syria crisis into a human crisis as a result of which millions of people have been displaced and are being threatened by hunger, cold weather, and famine. They have destroyed the economic infrastructure of the country without having achieved the favorable result they were looking for. How come that despite all the havoc that they have wreaked on the country without achieving their desirable result, they have decided to come together in a meeting to announce that Assad must step down?
After the UN secretary-general declared that he had officially invited Iran to take part in the meeting, we witnessed a sharp reaction from the opposition groups in Syria that set a deadline for the UN, noting that the world body should withdraw its invitation for Iran or they will not take part in the conference. Do you think that deadline was effective in making Ban rescind his invitation?
Opposition groups in Syria are affiliated to different countries and are supplied with money and weapons by those countries. These groups and the countries that support them are pursuing their own specific interests. During the past three years, they did their utmost to make Assad give up the power. [They took every measure] from waging outright war to conducting terrorist operations and even infiltrating the country’s security and defense meetings. However, their take on the real situation in Syria has been proven wrong. They wanted to goad NATO to militarily intervene in Syria and repeat the Libya model in another Arab country, but they failed. They also wanted to implement the model which had been previously experienced in Egypt or Tunisia, but they lacked the Syrian people’s support. Even the model applied to Yemen was not effective in Syria. The government of Turkey, on the other hand, was following another model reminiscent of the political changes that had taken place many years ago in Kosovo or Serbia. This means Ankara was trying to convince NATO to take unilateral action by deploying its troops to Syria without waiting for the approval of the United Nations Security Council. However, Turkey’s efforts were also rendered vain as a result of the strong resistance from Russia and China. On the other hand, anti-Syria countries embarked on sending Takfiri and terrorist groups into Syria, but this measure also failed. So, [after so many failures in Syria,] why they are still setting conditions [for participation of involved parties in the Geneva II conference]? These countries [that are against Syria] must get back to a political solution. I believe that the Geneva II conference should have multiple focuses. Firstly, [it should focus on the fact that] a political process in Syria [for ending the ongoing crisis] should be based on people’s votes and democratic mechanisms. The requisite for this is to establish truce and peace in the country. The truce should be both between the Syrian government and the opposition groups, and among various opposition groups as well. It is not clear how many groups, and under what names, are currently operating in Syria. There are even armed opposition groups that do not recognize the authority of those people who take part in the Geneva conferences as representatives of the opposition and do not accept their decisions. Nobody should deliver arms or any other kind of aid to terrorists in Syria. On the other hand, foreign intervention in Syria should be stopped in order to make way for the reconstruction efforts to get under way in the Arab country. At the same time, a solution should be found for the Syrian refugees and asylum seekers to get back to their homes. All residential areas should be spared in all kinds of conflicts. On the whole, the international community should help with efforts that are aimed at reconstructing Syria, instead of infusing terrorist groups operating in the country with financial resources and weapons. On the other hand, such regional countries as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar should stop their intervention in Syria’s internal affairs and own up to the mistake they have made with regard to the strategic game in Syria. They assumed that the Syrian government will fall in a matter of two or three months and they will be able to prevent further increase in Iran's regional influence by expanding their own influence. However, they failed to achieve that goal.
Have all the countries invited to the Geneva II conference already accepted the Geneva I conference’s communiqué? Many of these countries have not been informed of the decisions made in that conference and have not even attended it. Do all of them seek regime change in Syria, or will take part in the Geneva II conference in a bid to help with the reconstruction of the country which is quite necessary due to the huge damages that have been done to its infrastructure?
No. They had based their assumptions and agenda on the regime change in Syria. There are two categories of opposition groups that are taking part in these conferences. Some groups are seeking regime change in Syria while others simply follow in the footsteps of the former groups. The first category of groups, which seeks regime change in the country, is actually trying to change power equations in the entire region. Their ultimate goal is to expand their own sphere of influence in the region while cutting off Iran's contact with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Their second goal is to cut the relations between Iraq and Syria and, on the whole, undermine the entire resistance front in the Middle East region. The second category of Syria opposition groups, which follows suit with the first category, includes those opposition groups that simply take steps only after opposition groups in the first category have taken a specific measure. Without exaggeration, more than 100 meetings have been so far held on Syria in such countries as Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. During the first meeting, the representative of the Saudi government left the meeting in protest and told other participants that instead of sitting and talking, they should send arms to the opposition forces that were fighting against the Syrian government. That attitude and viewpoint has now evolved into a major strategic color blindness for anti-Syrian countries in the region. They are now caught in a dire situation. Other countries that are taking part in the Syria conference are either not very important, or do not care much about what is going on in the conference. In the meantime, the issue of Syria is really important to such countries as Iran, Russia, China, Iraq and Lebanon. The certain point is that the UN Security Council should not repeat in Syria the same mistake that it made in the case of Libya. It allowed foreign military forces to enter Libya conflict on grounds of supplying humanitarian aid to the country and then they destroyed the entire Libyan army. Now, the North African country is under the control of terrorist groups. At present, certain Libyan tribes are training terrorists in special bases before sending them to Syria. Before long, they will be sending those terrorists to European countries as well. In this way, the Western states made their biggest mistake in Libya. At the moment, Syria has turned into a breeding ground for extremism and Takfire terrorists to European countries as well. In this way, the Western states made their biggest mistake in Libya. At the moment, Syria has turned into a breeding ground for extremism and Takfiri groups. Therefore, every effort should be made to prevent the wave of sectarian violence that has primarily targeted Shia Muslims in the region. At the present time, the entire region is grappling with a crisis of extremism and Iran can play a very effective role in this regard. Iran is a stable and secure country which can help to establish peace, security and stability across the region. Iran is taking a very basic stance on these issues and if the opposite side is willing to avail itself of Iran's effective role, it should first own up to the strategic mistake it has made.
Despite the fact that all governments, including Russia and even the United States and the United Nations, have underlined the importance of Iran's role in finding a solution to Syria crisis, why preconditions are set and opposition is shown to Iran's presence in Geneva II conference?
The main problem is the absence of a single voice among them, and the fact that every one of them pursues their own specific interests. Saudi Arabia is doing its utmost to bring about the overthrow of Assad’s government in any possible way in order to expand its influence in Syria. Riyadh, in its bid, only thinks about a military solution while everybody knows that the approach taken by Saudi Arabia will lead to a global crisis if terrorist groups manage to win control over Syria. These groups are much more dangerous than terrorist groups that snatched the political power in Afghanistan. The region is still grappling with the consequences of the war in Afghanistan. These groups may even return to Saudi Arabia, or move into European countries and create very dangerous terrorist groups in Europe. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is treading a wrong path and its current attitude toward Iran is totally hostile. That attitude should change. The course of events in the region should change from one of war and bloodshed to increased cooperation and interaction. The processes that have led to the spread of Shiaphobia and Iranophobia in the region and the world should be stopped. I believe that Iran shoulders a crucial responsibility for getting closer to Arabs and should get closer to regional Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, should give up its Takfiri policies. Saudi Arabia is an established and independent government and should not act like a Takfiri terrorist group.
Since Bashar Assad has announced that he is ready to take such steps as releasing the prisoners, declaring cease-fire and paving the way for humanitarian aid to be delivered to his people, why the opposite parties are not ready to engage in negotiations to find a political solution for the crisis?
The first step is for countries taking part in the Geneva II conference to become committed to finding a political solution to Syria crisis. These countries should note that a military solution will only lead to the destruction of the country and its people and will have no other result but to deal serious blows to Islam and the national interests of an independent country. Therefore, they should put a leash on terrorism and do not allow foreign terrorists to enter Syria. At the same time, measures should be taken to stop both the intervention of foreign states in Syria, and operations by terrorist groups in that country. The United Nations has good experience in the area of peacekeeping and establishment of peace. [The UN-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria] Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi is a very experienced and seasoned diplomat and can find ways for the release of prisoners, the return of refugees to their country, and the initiation of the democratic process in Syria. The Geneva II conference can take emergency measures to resolve such issues as the situation of prisoners and those injured in the armed conflicts, while finding ways to help the Syrian people and do away with the shortage of foodstuff and famine in the country. The new presidential elections in Syria are expected in less than five months. In the meantime, a political solution should be found to the Syria crisis and the country should be helped to get out of the dire straits in which it is currently caught. Every military process should be complemented by a political process.
At the beginning of the Syria crisis, some European countries like Britain and Germany insisted that the entire government of Syria should change. However, by and by, they have modified their stances and now believe that they can accept the current Syrian government and cooperate with Assad, though after some slight changes are made to the power structure in the country. This new stance has its root in previous experiences which have clearly proved that putschist measures taken to change an entire hierarchy of power in a country have generally failed to produce positive results. The current situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia are tangible examples of this reality. Now, why some countries like Saudi Arabia still insist on their position that the entire Syrian government should change in defiance of such tangible experiences?
This is a failed project. The Americans are, for the time being, following on the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, though they may actually have different viewpoints on the situation in Syria. The American officials have admitted that they are currently confused about the situation in the Middle East. They have already failed to establish peace between Palestinians and Israel and have been also unable of having a correct political understanding of the overall situation in the region as well as the ongoing developments in Yemen and Egypt. If they are really planning to go ahead with the democratic process, they have to take advantage of democratic means. For example, they cannot instigate the military in Egypt to come into the streets, suppress the popular protests, hold a referendum under the threat of tanks, and then expect the same people to accept a military commander as their new president. Such measures have been already taken in, for example, Afghanistan and have led to deplorable results. The United States should return to the recognized conventional principles of international law, which include fighting against the violence, occupationism and foreign intervention. It is reminiscent of the law of the jungle that a few neighboring countries would reach the conclusion that they do not like a specific country and then deploy forces to that country in order to change its government. Saudi Arabia is spending a lot of money, but did all the money it spent on stoking unrest in Iraq bear any fruit? Did the investment it made to bring Taliban to power [in Afghanistan] produce any good results? Saudi Arabia has been practically behind all military, political and security crises and challenges in the region and in all cases, it has been the main loser as well. As a result of the strategic relations that the United States has with Saudi Arabia, Washington is, for the time being, following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia.
Now that the UN has rescinded its invitation for Iran and in view of Mr. Lavrov’s remarks that the absence of Iran [in the Geneva II conference] is a mistake, how do you predict the final result of the conference?
I don’t believe that the Geneva II conference is as important as mass media claim to be. This is just a meeting like hundreds of other meetings that have been held so far without reaching a conclusive result. What was the importance of previous meetings [on Syria] which were held in Tunisia or Egypt? Apart from making the situation in Syria more complicated, what has been the result of all other meetings that have been held so far? [This meeting will not be useful] unless the participants in the conference change their approaches and attach more importance to a political solution for Syria. Perhaps, Russia and Syria will be ready to follow this issue on the basis of a political solution, or perhaps [the anti-Syria countries] have become tired with the bloodshed in the country. It is even possible that the issue of terrorism and its growth in the Middle East region will be discussed as an imminent threat to the Western countries. Perhaps, the situation of Syrian refugees has wrenched the heart of the international community. If, in this meeting, all the participants reach conclusive solutions for these issues and decide to act on the basis of a political solution, then Iran will be able to offer its constructive help to them regardless of presence or absence of Tehran in the conference. Also, the countries that have sent terrorist forces and stoked conflict in Syria should be held to account. Here is a crucial question: Has Saudi Arabia taken Syria to the point where it is now, just for the sole purpose of promoting democracy in that country?