Chances for Assad
Interview by Maria Sidelnikova. Exclusively to Vestnik Kavkaza
Interview with the director of the Center for Public Policy Research Vladimir Yevseyev about the situation surrounding Iran and the Syrian conflict
- Vladimir, you have just recently returned from a trip to Iran. Please tell us about your impressions.
- I participated in the 21st Conference on the Persian Gulf. This time, it was decided to hold the conference in the city of Bandar Abbas, previously all of the conferences were held in Tehran. I can say that the Gulf creates a completely different sensation in the city of Bandar Abbas than in Tehran, because it's really close, you can see it. We had a sea tour, we were on the island of Hormuz and the island of Qeshm. I saw firsthand what it is. I saw Iranian ships, which were not in port because they were waiting for something. In fact, they have been waiting for two years for the restrictions on cargo insurance to be removed. And there are a lot of ships, it catches the eye. Actually, I think the further away from Tehran, the more pronounced is the lack of organization of Iranian society.
Surprisingly, I expected there would be a lot of propaganda, a discussion of what they call the Zionist entity, i.e. Israel, that the United States would be discussed. This was not the case. Real problems of the Gulf were discussed. I realized that Iran has strong experts. I do not know how this affects decision-making.
It was for the first time that I was at a conference attended by clergy. For me, it was unusual. There were these three men. But I can say they were very respectable men. One of them used to be an ambassador, you can imagine, in six states in Africa. Now he is a clergyman. You can imagine what his level of knowledge was. In general, I can say that Iranians are not in a state of depression.
- All these constantly-imposed sanctions, are they felt in the country?
- The ships are docked in port, and the climate here is warm, to say the least. In such circumstances, if a ship does not sail, they are very easily damaged, they must be replaced. This is a palpable problem. At the same time, to say that the Iranians are depressed by sanctions, that they are just waiting for them to be liberated - this is not the case.
I communicated with young Iranian people. They are quite relaxed about Islam. Young girls wear the hijab, and that doesn't create any problems. This is a different generation. You know, the revolution took place in 1979, and this is a new generation. But to say that they are opposed to the presence of, say, a religious state, an Islamic state - this is not correct. Apparently, the society is quite stable. And to count on the fact that this society would give in after the introduction of new sanctions is wrong.
But there is another side. They somehow religiously believe that Israel will necessarily disappear. They very strongly believe that Israel will cease to exist, that the United States will cease to exist, It was unusual for me, this perception of the world. I think, it seems, they overstate or accelerate the processes that are probably on the way.
- Iran, due to its multi-millennial history, perceives America as something momentary. But if we are to speak of another state with a long history, which is next to it - Syria. Do you think further escalation of the Syrian conflict could affect its neighbors and Iran in particular?
- The situation is difficult for Bashar Assad. And here I can say that there are both positive and negative factors that affect whether he will be able to retain power or not. In terms of the negative factors, we can say that in general the situation is deteriorating. The border between Syria and Iraq is largely blocked, which makes transportation of fuel difficult, and fuel is needed for troops in the first place, for tanks and aircraft. And the arrival of supportive replenishment, from the the Iraqi Shiites, I mean. In addition, the situation is worsened because many of the Palestinians sided with the opponents of Bashir Assad. This has happened in Syria. As you recall, there was fighting in the Palestinian camps. And that is bad - those Palestinians who crossed into Lebanon, and those who were there - they also largely support the opponents of Bashir Assad. And these last fights that are happening now, these people have come from Lebanon. Lebanon is strongly influenced by Qatar. Qatar is giving a lot of money to break Bashir Assad. And in Qatar large amounts of weapons are received, especially from Libya. That is one of the channels. The second channel for help to the insurgents is coming from Turkey. Here, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in action. In general, there are three forces in Syria now. One force is the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey. Then there are the Salafi groups, which are supported by Saudi Arabia. And there's the Muslim Brotherhood, which is supported by Qatar. But, you know, there is no unity between them. And the fact that there is no unity between them gives a chance to Bashir Assad. Besides, there is the technical superiority of the army, the army is not broken. It is still, in its third year, fighting the enemy. And the fact that the army as a whole supports Assad also creates a chance for him. In addition to this, you know, Bashir Assad has another chance - called time. If Assad can hold out until the summer, for example, tension among the external enemies will increase. Much of the population of Syria sees no alternative to Bashir Assad, because there are no such figures. And they are afraid of the arrival of the Islamists, especially the religious and ethnic minorities. I'd like to remind you that in Syria, if we are talking about national minorities, live not only Kurds, but also many Armenians, Circassians and others. Among the religious minorities are of course not only Alawites, but also Druze and Christians. In general, if all is summed up, it probably can be up to 40 percent. Probably not all support Bashir al-Assad, but at least some of them do. This creates certain stability for the regime. Plus, as long as it is supported by external forces from Russia, Iran and China, it has a chance. Therefore, in favorable conditions Assad can survive until the end of the year. But that is under the right conditions. In bad conditions, probably, his departure could be sooner.
- What might happen in Syria after Assad's departure?
- We could probably speak of the disintegration of Syria into several parts. In any case, the Kurds are already de facto independent, there may be some Alawite part, such as Latakia for instance. In any case, Syria could fall apart, and there will be something similar to what we see today in Iraq. The area of this instability will be extended to Syria. And look what appears here. First, Lebanon, in fact already embroiled in the war, as periodically there is fighting between Shiites and Sunnis and Shiites, for example, and the Palestinians in Lebanon. A huge flow of weapons and refugees goes through Lebanon, the wounded rebels are transported there for medical treatment. So it turns out that Lebanon has been actively involved in the matter. I think that negative consequences will be inevitable for Turkey. According to the estimates that I have, about twenty-five, maybe even twenty-seven million Turks - a third of the population - are Kurds and Alawites. Alawites can be found among different nations - it is a broad category of people. If there are to be mass killings of Alawites in Syria, it may spill over into serious discontent from within Turkey. In addition, the Kurdish factor - after the Syrian Kurds become de-facto independent - could get worse. That was regarding Turkey. Jordan to some extent, will be drawn into the conflict. Here - it is not clear how. Firstly, because there are many Palestinians who can start working against the authorities, i.e. against Bashir Assad. On the other hand, it may cause internal instability. But here, it seems, the US will do anything to keep Jordan together, to maintain stability. Be sure it will affect Iraq. Particularly as already today there are predictions of a worsening of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq, in connection with Syrian conflict. This is something that concerns the neighboring countries, which really could be affected. When it comes to Iran. I think Iran will not be directly affected. But Iran is ready for any eventuality, I can clearly tell you, even to the point that the option of Bashir Assad's forced departure is not excluded. But Iran, like Russia, will try to stay in Syria. What will happen? I think that if Assad goes for some reason, in this case, the influence of Russia and Iran will be reduced - this is obvious. Now I do not see a doomed situation, but I can see that it gets worse with regard to Bashir Assad. In addition, because Iran sees Syria as a front in the fight in the first place with Israel. And from this point of view, the fall of Bashir Assad for them would be a blow, but I think that they will withstand the blow, but will do everything to make this attack happened. On the other hand, I do not believe that Iran will bring troops into Syria to protect Bashir Assad. I think this direct invasion will not happen. Russia, too, can go for a limited deployment of troops, but only to save the Russian-speaking population, for the process of evacuation. This development is possible, and Moscow and Tehran have prepared for it, but we all hope that the situation will somehow stabilize.