US-Iran Dialogue Could Have Positive Influence on Syria

29 August 2013 | 21:56 Code : 1920594 Interview General category
An interview with Francesc Vendrell, the former Personal Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Special Mission for Afghanistan
US-Iran Dialogue Could Have Positive Influence on Syria

August 28th, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

History is repeating itself in Syria. It is said that the government of Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, has passed the red line of Barack Obama, his American counterpart. The political crisis in Syria has been moving towards militarism day by day. The final blow was dealt by the chemical attack which took place in Damascus as UN weapons inspectors were planning on visiting Syria. The central government in Damascus has denied any involvement in this attack, but it seems that the West is rushing to take advantage of this issue to carry out a military attack on Syria, albeit limited. In an interview with Iranian Diplomacy, Francesc Vendrell, an adjunct professor of international relations at John Hopkins University and the former Special Representative of the European Union for Afghanistan and the former Personal Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Special Mission for Afghanistan, states that an attack on Syria would be limited and apparently just intended to punish Bashar Assad, not to overthrow his government.


You have had experience in sensitive international cases for over three decades, from Afghanistan to Cambodia and East Timor. Considering this experience, what do you think are the reasons for the failure and inefficiency of the international strategies in the current international crises? Do you think this failure will lead to the reconsideration of the UN's structure and functions in such crises?

I am not sure that the world is in worse shape than it has been since the UN was established in 1945; in fact I would say that the international situation is somewhat better if you look at the world as a whole. The UN is largely a reflection of the world's realities. Beginning in 1946, the Security Council was paralyzed by the Cold War. The UN scored its biggest success between 1986 and 1992 when the Cold War had ended but there remained a certain bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union. This is no longer the case now that the US is the sole super-power (some have called it "hyper-power") left. It is always an interesting intellectual exercise and a wonderful conversation topic at diplomatic dinners to envision how the UN, and particularly the Security Council, could be reformed, but given the enormous difficulties in amending the Charter, I very much doubt whether this will happen any time soon.

In 1950, when the Security Council was paralyzed because of the Soviet veto, the General Assembly and the Security Council passed the Uniting for Peace resolution providing that, where the Council was unable to act because of the veto, the matter could be referred to the Assembly which could adopt by a two-thirds majority binding resolutions on the issue. This instrument was invoked on several occasions during the Cold War but has fallen into disuse, perhaps because the US realizes that it could also be used to overcome its own vetoes to Council resolutions critical of Israel.

The situation in your part of the world is very bad and I wouldn’t say that it’s any better than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. But apart from that the region –to mention that it goes in the light of control between India/Pakistan all the way to Algeria things are better than they used to be. Thus it’s a combination of a lot of factors including the reason why the situation is so bad now…the consequence of the approach followed by the Bush administration and the West in the wake of 9/11. It has been also linked to US foreign policy being largely at least for this part of the world made in Tel Aviv.  But it’s largely made up in Tel Aviv which has all sorts of consequences for the world. Then of course the spread of Islamic terrorism has been a major worry. But having said all that and even if I were to say to change the  way the world is run, I really don’t see any possibility, certainly not in the way the UN operates, simply, because you can’t really amend the charter of the UN. It requires a 2/3 majority of both the Security Council and General Assembly. It’s technically difficult; it requires 2/3 of the majority, there is a possibility of veto need to any amendment of the Charter. And it requires 2/3 of the national parliament to pass legislation to ratify amendments.  So it’s so complicated that it has only happened once in 1961.  I don’t see any new permanent members to be added. I certainly don’t think it would be good to have more countries added to the veto. Of course veto holders won’t change their approach.  And they will not accept relinquishing the veto.

Now that we're facing the accusation against Syria of using chemical weapons against civilians, what is the UN and the Security Council's solution to condemn this strategy and prevent the repetition of such an act?

The Syrian government's decision to allow the UN inspectors access to the areas where chemical weapons have allegedly been used is a positive step which will hopefully lead to establish the facts and, if chemical weapons were indeed used, who was responsible for the attack, although that may be more difficult to ascertain. I find it troubling that just as the inspectors have begun their visits, the US and governments in Europe choose this particular moment to announce that chemical weapons have indeed been used and that the Syrian government is responsible. One would hope that in that case the Security Council would find the political will to take appropriate action against the perpetrators, for this is something that the international community should not tolerate. It may be appropriate to recall that former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar dispatched a group of inspectors to Iran around 1986 who found evidence that Iran had been a victim of a chemical attack by the aviation of Saddam Hussein.

Is it possible that Europe or the US could think of a military option regarding Syria?

Yes, it clearly is not only possible, I think it is likely at the moment and it will be both; the US will not go alone and obviously Europe will not go alone either and so I think it will be a western military operation with the US, the UK, and France at least. I hope it will be a more limited operation than in Libya because in Libya it led to a regime change and apart from what we hear from the Americans and the British, apparently this is not the intention. The trouble is that once you start down that road, you want to win and I’m not sure that the government/foreign minister of these countries have sorted out what the consequences of what they may embark on are.

Considering the US experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, do you think a military operation is the solution to end the conflict in Syria?

No, absolutely not, particularly in the case of Syria. I think by now it has become a complicated issue which is not an internal problem but has become a regional issue. And the opposition in Syria is terribly fragmented; the extreme Jihadists and the al-Nusra Front and other parties sympathizing or linked to al-Qaeda are clearly doing better militarily than any of the so-called moderate groups.  And there are a variety of countries in the region and outside involved, so what we need is a political solution.

The problem is that the opposition is so divided that it is hard to see how they could sit together at a political table and whether any agreement which one could reach would be implemented.  So I don’t really see how. So in my view what is really needed is an international facilitator  to really attempt to get the main countries involved and interested in the issue of Syria to reach a common understanding and conceptual approach and this requires an enormous amount of shuttling among main capitals, by which I mean Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the US, the UK, France, the EU (I may have forgotten some) anyways because I don’t see how the Syrians by themselves could reach a political solution . The only way would be for all these eight /nine countries that have done a lot of preliminary work and bilateral shuttling to eventually reach a common formula which the Syrian parties have to be persuaded to accept.

Yesterday, Foreign Affairs published an article which suggests that the Obama administration should use strikes to get talks. Do you think Bashar Assad will come to the negotiation table after limited strikes?

I don’t think that limited military strikes on Syrian facilities will make it easier to bring Assad to the negotiation table. I think it has the risk of having the opposite effect.

Considering the chemical attacks, why do you think the U.S refuses to use military force in order to protect civilians in Syria?

There is no popular support in either the US or Europe to become involved in another war in West Asia. This does not exclude the increasing likelihood of some kind of limited air operation, should the US, the UK, and France decide that they wish to teach the Assad government a "lesson" for its alleged use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, any increase in armed assistance to the opposition is likely to benefit al-Qaeda-affiliated groups which, like the al-Nusra Front, are increasingly dominating the armed conflict against the government of President Assad.

Do you think the US will use Iran‘s influence on Syria to end the crisis or not?

I think one of the reasons until now why the West has been so opposed to President Assad is not only because President Assad is an autocrat (I would agree with that) but it is because he is perceived of having the support of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The approach until now, certainly before President Rouhani took over, was confronting Iran through Syria and the Israelis don’t want Assad to entirely disappear. Because they are afraid of having an extreme and al-Qaeda-linked government next door but at the same they do not want to lose the position they have against Iran. Thus I think part of this anti-Assad approach is aimed at Syria and Hezbollah. Now, in the last couple of months the western countries reflected that there is a good chance of reaching some kind of understanding with Iran on a variety of issues which should not only be the nuclear issue but should also involve other issues which are easier to resolve. Until last month at least, Israel and the US said that Iran should not even sit at a round table with other key countries to discuss the future of Syria.  In fact, one of the reasons that the Geneva meeting two years ago failed was because the US didn’t want Iran to be present. So now I hope one could start some sort of confidential dialogue between the US and Iran on a variety of issues including Syria. There is no doubt if such a dialogue occurs, just as we had in Afghanistan in 2001, it could have a positive influence on the situation in Syria.  

Syria is somewhat similar to Afghanistan back in 2001, as a center of al-Qaeda recruitment and developing radicalism and a place where military success is not expected. Considering the September 11 attacks and America's long war in Afghanistan, why can't Europe make a right decision for fighting terrorism and radicalization?

There are certain parallels between the conflict in Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001. Between 1979 and 1992, the US, in its efforts to support the opposition to the PDPA regime in Kabul and its Soviet allies, ended up funding the more militant Jihadi elements among the Mujahedin including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden and this is what could happen with the military support extended to the Syrian opposition by some regional countries. Later on, the West lost interest in Afghanistan and only woke up to the consequences of its passivity when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.

European nations, like the UK, do take measures to minimize the chances of terrorist acts on their soil, but some of these measures sometimes prove to be either inadequate or even counter-productive.

The Middle East is descending into crisis; Egypt experiences unrest, Libya is experiencing instability, peace is gone in Lebanon, Syria is at war in the region, al-Qaeda's activity is intensified in Yemen. Can you come to a conclusion and call this the end of the Arab Spring? Can we see al-Qaeda and radicalism as the winners of this condition?

At this point in time, it is tempting to compare the "Arab Spring" with the 1848 liberal revolutions in Europe when absolutist monarchies were overthrown only for the same or similar regimes to be back in power two years later. But even the old regimes, like Prussia and Piedmont (the respective nucleus of what would become a united Germany and a unified Italy), were forced to evolve forms of representative government by the mid-1860s. So, I don't think you can permanently put the clock back in the Arab world, even if as is the case in Egypt at the moment the authorities seem to be acting as or more repressively than under Mubarak.

For the first time, signs of a connection between radical movements in Pakistan and similar events in the Middle East have been seen. Could this link be related to the transmission of the Middle East crisis to West Asia?

As transport communications have improved, so have the links between governments, organizations, and groups, particularly among those who share a similar ideology. In the late XIXth and early XXth centuries, various anarchist groups collaborated or found inspiration from each other. Later it was the same among Communist parties. After the Soviet intervention, Afghanistan became the magnet for Islamist groups and individuals, largely drawn from Arab countries, which converged there and shared similar experiences and views. After the Najibullah government was overthrown, many of them returned home or found refuge in other countries. So there is little doubt that there are interconnecting blood vessels among the various militant groups operating in countries to the west of the [Indo-Pakistani] Line of Control.

tags: syria chemical iran Afghanistan assad security council un US obama rohani

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