Ever since Washington put together an international anti-ISIS coalition, the situation in Syria and the region has become more ambiguous and blurry. The Syrian position has been to accept US airstrikes against the terrorist group as a fait accompli, while Iran continues to object to them and Moscow criticizes them sharply. What is happening inside the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance?
The question would disconcert most diplomats, let alone Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who usually weighs his word very carefully. But, to my surprise, the minister spoke unreservedly, and at the end of our meeting, he told me, “Publish whatever you see fit from what I said. I will let you judge the situation.” Thus, I will have to choose what may be published from a long conversation with Syria’s top diplomat that was not meant for publication, but for “comprehension.” Below is what I judged to be appropriate to publish.
At the end, I came out with a thorough understanding of the workings of Syrian policy. This policy works in all circumstances in accordance with Syria’s own criteria and traditions, based on the fact that it is a pivotal state in the region, a principle that Syria does not compromise on, though it manages its battles with maximum flexibility and caution, in light of the priorities of the stage.
At this point, the priority is to defeat terrorism in Syria.
Muallem, who had just undergone heart surgery, has regained some of his vitality, youthfulness, humor, and cigarettes. His vision is panoramic, without any filters or retouching, and there is no room in it for anger, emotion, impulsiveness, or weakness: it sets out priorities carefully, and manages the international and regional chess game skillfully. It loses in some instances to win in others, and proceeds with caution and confidence towards the goal.
The dangerous game initiated by President Hafez al-Assad in 1970 continues, and the Syrian player remains in position. This is the impression that one gets after an open discussion with the minister, who has been involved in all the difficult and near-impossible chapters of the Syrian crisis, fulfilling his duty quietly and with confidence; Muallem is reminiscent of the Soviet epoch, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in particular.
We asked Muallem about his relationship with his Russian counterpart. It goes beyond the political and professional to the personal, he said. They are friends in every sense of the word, and are candid with each other and never withhold – friendly of course – criticism where appropriate. In their most recent meeting, Muallem openly expressed to his friend his annoyance over the Russian diplomatic use of the term “our Western partners.” He told him, “Those are not Russia’s partners, but her enemies.” This reflects the depth of the historical relationship between Damascus and Moscow. Let this be our first stop then.
Syrian-Russian relations, as demonstrated during the years of crisis and war, are excellent and special. Damascus is different from other friends of Russia in that it does not use this relationship to blackmail the West. Rather, Syria, culturally and emotionally, leans towards the Russians, who in turn see Syria not just as an ally but as a part of the family. Russia owes its Orthodox faith, that is, one of the key components of its national identity, to Syria. Russia owes Syria at present, just like Iran does, for the regional and international resurgence they achieved, which would not have been possible in the near term were it not for Syrian endurance.
Syrian diplomacy stands on solid ground, represented by the resilience of the republic, and the strength of its army, yet without the implication of arrogance or adventurism. Its current priorities are to manage all issues, so as to ensure continued resilience, to protect Syria from an aggression it cannot cope with, and to secure more arms for its military.
Damascus has made clear to its allies, Russia and Iran, its position on the US-led coalition against ISIS. The coalition put Syria face to face with two options: Rejecting it – without being able to translate this position into a successful military move – would give the hawks in the US administration and Washington’s regional allies the pretext to wage a US-NATO war on Syria, “and we will not give them that pretext,” Muallem says. The second option is political acceptance, which contradicts “our strategy on sovereignty and our political vision.”
Thus we went for the third option, Muallem declared: “realistic acceptance,” without going into the adventure of a losing confrontation, but also without political recognition. Muallem said, “There is no coordination between us and the Americans, or a deal; they notified us, directly, through our envoy to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, and through Baghdad and Moscow, that the Coalition strikes will be directed exclusively against ISIS, and will not affect the Syrian army. Do we trust this pledge? For the time being, we are aware that US President Barack Obama, for internal reasons, wants to avoid war with Syria, and wants to intervene only against ISIS through air strikes. We benefit from this, but we do not know how Obama will act, under mounting pressure, which will be more effective if the Republicans manage to win a majority in the US midterm elections. Therefore, we have to be ready. This is what we have explained frankly to the Russians, and asked them to use this time to provide us with advanced weaponry.”
Al-Akhbar: Do you mean the S-300?
Walid Muallem: Yes, and other advanced weapons that would allow the Syrian army to face the challenges ahead.
AA: Have you received the S-300?
WM: No, but we will and other advanced weapons in a reasonable timeframe. Russian defense companies operate under a slow bureaucracy, but the main issue is going to be resolved quickly – that is, the Kremlin’s political approval. This could happen very soon.
AA: Have the Russians approved a $1 billion loan?
WM: We have not requested such a loan. I do not know what the source of this information is, but it is not true. We have sufficient credit facilities from the Iranian ally. As for what we asked for, which was met with understanding and responsiveness by the Russians, it was more important than the loan: a series of economic and trade agreements that will boost the Syrian economy, and enhance [our] resilience and [help in] reconstruction.
AA: Despite your disputes?
WM: There are no disputes, but a different assessment of the situation to face the common challenge. It is us who are running the war, and our positions are governed delicately by the balance of power on the ground. The Russians and the Iranians can take tough positions vis-à-vis the US-led coalition. We are pleased with these stances, and we want them to be sustained, because they hinder aggressive tendencies in the West.
AA: Do you expect a Turkish military assault? Would you confront it?
WM: Our strategic decision is to confront any Turkish aggression militarily. We hope to have, as soon as possible, advanced weapons capabilities that would ensure we could thwart the aggression. However, we do not see a possibility for aggression by Turkey against Syria in the foreseeable future. Turkish conditions for intervention in Syria are still rejected by Washington. Moreover, such an intervention is not approved by Saudi Arabia, Turkey's main rival in the other camp. This camp is marred by contradictions, of which we benefit. In addition, Turkey’s internal situation is very fragile in light of a possible Kurdish rebellion. The steadfastness of our Kurdish compatriots in Ayn al-Arab thwarted Erdogan’s policy, and gave President Obama, on the other hand, meaning for his air campaign. The Turkish position on ISIS’ assault on Ayn al-Arab rallied the Kurds everywhere against the Turkish government. Kurds, not only in Turkey, where they number 15 million, are increasingly rallying around the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, as well as Iraq's Kurds; with every additional day of steadfastness in Ayn al-Arab Massoud Barzani and his ally, Erdogan lose.
AA: But where does Damascus stand on the battle in Ayn al-Arab?
WM: Ayn al-Arab is Syrian. Its citizens are Syrian. We have supplied and continued to supply it with aid, weapons, and munitions, and will continue to do so. Before the Americans started their air strikes, the Syrian air force was carrying out daily air strikes against ISIS concentrations around Ayn al-Arab. But this had to stop because there is no coordination with the Americans on the field.
AA: Is Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party, a separatist?
WM: No, he is not a separatist. The party has established a self-governing administration for the Kurdish areas caught in the war. He was keen for this administration not to be exclusively Kurdish, and to include Arab tribes in those areas. The Kurdish areas in Syria in Hassakeh, Manbij, and Ayn al-Arab cannot secede because they are not geographically contiguous, and are also home to other communities. Furthermore, we will not allow nor recognize any secession in Syria. Syria has a mosaic of ethnic, religious, and regional components, and sanctioning any separatism will fragment the state. This will never happen. The alternative is what the state has always been, a secular, national state with multiple components and cultures represented in one framework, which can be developed democratically in line with its position, regional role, and alliances, etc.
The alliance with Iran
AA: In the context of alliances, the Syrian-Iranian alliance appears deep and controversial at once. What is your take on this?
WM: Tampering with this alliance in Iran is unacceptable for Imam Khamenei and his sphere. The possible hindrances come from the liberal sphere. Each time this happens, the imam, the parliament, and the Revolutionary Guards settle the matter in Syria's favor. Iran has provided us, and continues to provide us, the arms we need, especially Iranian-made munitions. Furthermore, Tehran supports us politically, economically, and financially. We are grateful for this support, and we are confident it will continue, and with it the Iranian senior leadership’s realization of the importance of the alliance with Syria. Sometimes, some Iranian politicians do not appreciate its importance. In my discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, I told him clearly: The steadfastness in Syria is that what allows you to negotiate from a strong position with the West on the nuclear issue.
AA: Does this mean, then, that religious conservatives in Iran are secular Syria’s closest allies?
WM: Of course, because they are aware of Iranian strategic interests, and are free from pro-Western tendencies.
AA: But are there difficulties with this camp? Have they put pressure on you to change the Syrian position vis-à-vis Hamas?
WM: No, that did not happen. Our position on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is clear and well known to our allies. It is not a matter of debate.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt
AA: Does this stance, which is shared with Egypt and Syria, not open the door to reconciliation with them?
WM: For Egypt, we support the state and the armed forces, without any ambiguity, in the face of violence, terrorism, and religious extremism. Syria and Egypt, at the strategic level, are in the same trench, but the position of the Egyptian leadership regarding Syria, despite the positivity, is not yet up to the level of the common challenge. We hope that this will change soon. We understand the pressures faced by Cairo, especially in the economic field, and the need for Saudi support, but we want Egypt to regain its full Arab role; this begins in Syria.
AA: What about Saudi Arabia – is there a prospect for reconciliation?
WM: The Saudi position on the Muslim Brotherhood is in the context of its conflict with Qatar and Turkey. However, it continues to support terrorist groups, and to incite against Syria and President Bashar al-Assad. This policy is adventurous and will ultimately backfire on Saudi Arabia.
AA: Does Saudi Arabia stand to the right of the United States on Syria as a result of blind hatred? Is it because the president described its leaders after the 2006 war on Lebanon as “half men”?
WM: It’s possible. But I remind you that King Abdullah visited Damascus after that famous speech, and accompanied President Assad to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is hostile to us because of our independent policies toward Lebanon and Iraq; it believes that these policies undercut its regional influence. Also, the continued growth of Syrian-Iranian relations angers Riyadh, and pushes it to work against Syria.
AA: Does this mean that if things progress towards an Iranian-Western-Saudi understanding, and a Syrian-Saudi understanding regarding Lebanon and Iraq, that reconciliation may be reached?
WM: We will spare no opportunity to stop the war on Syria and ensure the safety of the Syrians. But it is those who are paying the price in blood who will decide Syrian policy in the end; this is a political reality, which the war produced. It is no longer possible to manage Syrian policy without the consent of the national public opinion. The Syrians have a certain position on Saudi Arabia because of its funding and support for the aggression on their country. The same goes for Qatar.
AA: Has there been a Qatari attempt for reconciliation?
WM: Yes. But we rejected it. The Syrian people will not accept this reconciliation. If Qatar wants reconciliation then it must take the initiative to halt support for terrorists, and to stop the campaign against Syria.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.