Anton Mardasov, a military affairs expert and journalist and head of Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Moscow-based Institute for Innovative Development, sat down with IRAS for an interview about different aspects of Astana Talks and what role Iran, Russia and the US have played since the beginning of the Talks. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To what extent, the Astana Talks have been successful?
“Some of the negotiating rounds held in Astana proved clearly unsuccessful. Even during talks, areas under the control of opposition groups, officially invited to negotiate, were under attack. However, holding such rounds gradually provided the opportunity to discuss the issue of the violation of the ceasefire by the opposition groups or the government forces. In addition, in the course of these negotiations, not only the issue of identifying the positions of the parties, but also the issues of finding the appropriate mechanisms for resolving disagreements, coming to an agreement and imposing the necessary conditions for agreement were raised.
“Before the May talks in Astana, we witnessed the mentioned incidents. The next decision to determine the de-escalation zones was somewhat unexpected for current trends in Syria. Since the late March, the conflict had been intensified on many grounds, and it was in no way compatible with the responsibilities that Iran, Turkey and Russia had assumed. Probably the idea was completely crude.
“The two sides then tried to develop this idea, and add other concepts to it. The content started to form, although the initial idea seemed more like an exaggeration.
“Changes in the process of the Astana talks have been recognizable throughout the Syrian crisis. The first meetings had small gains. In the third round, the opposition groups created problems, and disrupted the meeting, and in reaction [to what happened], the Russian Foreign Ministry did not approve of the decision made (and called it deceptive). On the other hand, there was really a pretext for disrupting the meeting. During the Geneva talks, the opposition said that if the ceasefire had been violated, it would not have taken part in the negotiations, and it acted accordingly. Nevertheless, the mechanism for resolving disputes was gradually being formed.
“Relations between Iran and Russia have experienced some changes during the Astana talks. The two sides learned to find the points of convergence, and reach consensus.”
What are the main differences and disagreements between Iran and Russia?
“First, it should be mentioned that Russia’s positions are not that uniform and constant to be formally expressed. In 2013, Russia said that it did not approve of Bashar al-Assad as its ally, and despite the fact that all the Moscow military measures were done to consolidate the Assad regime, Russia has still left the door open for replacing him without any force and through negotiation and political talks.
“For Iran, Bashar al-Assad is an important and a key figure as well. Tehran has invested much in the family of Assad, and since the start of the Syrian uprising, despite [the fact that] the protesters had been suppressed, Iran supported the Assad regime. The main purpose of Tehran is to preserve Damascus as a gateway to Hezbollah, and to maintain the opportunity to stabilize Lebanon. In addition, the vacuum of power in Iraq has added another goal to this goal. Currently, Iran is seeking new logistical routes to transport material and human resources to Syria via air route. The situation in the region has made it possible to create a land transport corridor from Iran to Beirut.
“In addition, Tehran is trying to maintain its multi-level presence in Syria to be ready if the Assad government suddenly collapses. The formation of the National Defense Forces like Iran’s general mobilization forces has from the outset even worried Damascus, because it meant creating a parallel army. The organization, with more than 50,000 people, is sponsored or supported by Iran. In addition, there are other local groups in Syria that began to circulate Imam Khomeini’s ideas in the midst of conflicts.
“It can be assured that the strategic interests of Russia in the form of coastal military bases, that were once wished for by Soviet admirals, would be preserved even in the face of significant political changes in the Syrian regime. But if this scenario is implemented, Iran’s position will be weakened [in Syria].”
What is the existing role of the US in Syria? How is the Astana Talks seen by Washington?
“The deterioration of relations between Russia and the US is in the interests of Iran. Under such conditions, Tehran can maintain the ruling regime without serious changes in Syria. In this case, Russia will have to show a more serious reaction for supporting its allies.
“But Moscow is not willing to accept this option. To avoid being in a framework with Damascus and Tehran, the Kremlin needs to hold talks with the United States. This factor helps to peacefully resolve problems.
“The agreements reached between the United States and Russia on [establishing] the de-escalation zones in southern Syria indicate that Washington is also willing to continue the talks. Another issue that is still unclear is the US actions. One cannot understand whether they are strategies or tactics. The Trump’s administration has an adventurous behavior, so it is rather hard to talk about long-term plans with the United States. At the current stage, Washington wants to keep the conflicts contained, and begin a peace process. On the one hand, it keeps its presence [in Syria] to control the borders of Iraq and Syria in the southern Syria, and on the other hand, it calls for its presence in northern Syria to control the Syrian area of Kurdish settlement.
“The idea of [establishing] de-escalation zones is largely derived from American projects. That is why this choice is favoring a scenario that the United States will willingly accept it.
“Washington wants to play the role of the country who punishes other actors for violating [the agreed terms]. Therefore, theoretically, the existence of such an actor will not allow the forces in Syria to make any mistake.
“It is possible that, without the pressure of the United States and the efforts of Russia, the two countries will directly engage with each other only due to the Syrian conflicts, and even cooperate on other international issues of the day. Otherwise, Moscow will get nowhere for implementing the idea of [establishing] de-escalation zones. Therefore, the role of the United States is both destructive and disruptive for the stability [of the region].
“In general, in my idea, Syria is going through a positive situation. But there are many problems, including the imbalances between ethnicities and religions, which have remained unresolved until today, and they would lead to the reincarnation and revival of the ISIS. Meanwhile, it should also be borne in mind that Sunni radicals will also use the Iranian corridor to promote [their own ideas], and prepare their followers.”
To comment on this interview, please contact IRAS Editorial Board