TEHRAN, Jan. 22 (Press Shia) – Former US diplomat James Jatras in an interview with Press Shia said Moscow’s decision to replace Washington with Ankara for the upcoming Astana talks on Syria proves to be more promising for a positive result.
At the end of a trilateral meeting held in Moscow on December 20, foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey issued a joint statement that highlighted the revitalization of a political process to end the Syrian crisis. The statement, later supported by UN’s special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, underscored, among other topics, the three countries’ “full respect for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of Syria, the inevitability of a political solution, and the importance of expanding ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian assistance.
Most notably, the statement reiterated Iran, Russia and Turkey’s determination to fight jointly against ISIL and al-Nusra terrorists and to separate them from armed opposition groups. Following this, the three sides became all the more determined to hold a meeting in Kazakh capital Asana, where representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition groups that are not blacklisted as terrorists in the UN, will be given the opportunity to sit down for Syrian-Syrian dialogues to reach a political solution to six years of conflict.
The Astana meeting on Syria is slated for 23 January where President Hassan Rouhani, President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will observe the talks between the Syrian sides.
In an interview with Mehr News Agency, former US diplomat and policy adviser for Senate Republican leadership James George Jatras voiced cautious optimism toward the upcoming Astana talks, noting that the replacement of Washington with Ankara in the talks was a wise move by Moscow that finally decided “the Obama Administration could not be a productive interlocutor” for settling the Syrian conflict.
He further maintained that Moscow, closely working with Damascus and Tehran, have the upper hand in the talks and the participation of the incoming Trump administration could be a positive sign if “Trump keeps faith with his campaign promises to work with Russia and destroy, not just contain, Daesh” and relinquish the policy of “regime change” and “nation-building”.
The following is Mehr News Agency’s interview with this American specialist in international relations and government affairs, James Jatras:
What are the possible points of agreement that the sides will reach at the meeting? Do you think Astana talks would eventually lead to a positive result?
I am cautiously optimistic that there can be a positive result. The key is that after repeated rounds of the “Geneva Process” between Lavrov and Kerry, Moscow finally decided that the Obama Administration could not be a productive interlocutor. They decided to deal with Ankara instead, and despite the notoriously erratic course of Erdogan during the almost six years of war, he’s turned out to be more reliable than Obama and Kerry. The first evidence of that was the relatively quiet wrap-up of east Aleppo, which was far less than the humanitarian catastrophe many in the west predicted, and perhaps were hoping for.
How do you assess the role and impact of each side on the process of the negotiations?
Moscow, closely working with Damascus and Tehran, have the upper hand. Most importantly, the Assad government stays. There will be no “regime change.” Turkey remains the odd man out in the tripartite discussion between Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara. On the other hand, in these talks, Ankara, and only Ankara, speaks for the “opposition” – that is, the terrorists fighting against the Syrian government. If Erdogan has abandoned unreal, maximalist goals, as appears to be the case, he can secure terms that wind the war down in a way that lessens the terrorist blowback Turkey has already experienced.
Besides Russia, Iran and Turkey, what other countries may participate in the Astana meeting and what message would their presence in the talks convey?
Well, Syria of course, but unity of purpose among Syria, Russia, and Iran has been essential to their success on imposing their terms on their adversaries. Turkey has been forced to come to terms, the Obama Administration has been dealt out, and other powers – notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar – need to consider how disruptive they intend to be even though they cannot prevail in their initial goals. Qatar is probably smart enough to figure that out. Saudi Arabia probably isn’t, as its behavior in Yemen shows.
In case of the US, some Western media reported that Russia has invited the incoming Trump administration to Syrian peace talks, interpreting it as a sign of enhanced cooperation between Putin and Trump. How do you evaluate the possible involvement on the part of the US on the course of negotiations?
It’s too soon to tell, but the invitation – as, I assume, only an observer for now – is a positive sign. If Trump keeps faith with his campaign promises to work with Russia and destroy, not just contain, Daesh, their participation could be a big positive as opposed to the Obama approach, which could only be a “spoiler.”
Delving a little deeper into this topic, Donald Trump had strongly criticized Obama’s policy in Syria during his presidential campaigns, saying President Assad’s ouster should not be a primary US interest. Do you believe that, in case of attending the Astana talks, Trump administration would stick to this position or would carry on with the same policy that Obama supported?
If the incoming administration limits itself to those goals, it could be a big success. However, it’s not clear to what extent other “baggage” might complicate things. There are many “Iran hawks” coming into the Trump administration. The ridiculous and false phrase “Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of global terrorism” is commonly heard. Recently, a group of former officials, including many close to the incoming Trump team, issued a letter calling for what amounts to “regime change” in Iran. In effect, it’s a call for Trump to destroy his administration over Iran the way George W. Bush destroyed his in Iraq. On the other hand, Trump himself has noted that Iran, along with Syria and Russia, are fighting Daesh. He has said that the days of “regime change” and “nation-building” are over. As a businessman, he’s smart enough to know that dumping a few trillion dollars down the drain will ruin his primary goal to restore the American economy and create jobs. He has to choose. Unfortunately, even in his own administration he may find himself lonely. We shall see.
How do you predict the fate of Syria in the wake of the Astana meeting and with Russia and Turkey proclaimed as guarantors of the signed ceasefire agreements?
If a tripartite Moscow-Tehran-Ankara agreement that showed a partial success in Aleppo can be replicated countrywide, and if Trump makes good on his pledge to work with Moscow to destroy Daesh (and hopefully al-Qaeda and its many offshoots), we could see this war wind down quickly. To be sure, some resistance will continue in the eastern part of the country. Pacifying Syria also depends to some extent on events in Iraq, notably in Mosul (where lack of reports in our media suggest things are not going as well as hoped). But the prospect exists to liberate and restore peace to the major populations centers, which would be a great start.
James George Jatras is a specialist in international relations, government affairs, and legislative politics. He served for many years (1985-2002) as policy adviser and analyst for the Republican leadership in the US Senate; before that (1979-1985), he was a US Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State, with service in Mexico and in Soviet affairs and public diplomacy. He is currently Deputy Director of the American Institute in Ukraine, a privately funded American NGO.
Interview by: Marjohn Sheikhi