The Unpublished Interview with the Labor News Agency of Iran (ILNA), March 12, 2019
On March 22, 2018, the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) published an interview with me on the prospects of war between the USA and Iran (https://www.ilna.ir/.../698979-current-political... ). on March 12, 2019, ILNA interviewed me regarding various matters relating to the international struggle over Syria, but for some reason that interview did not see the light. I presume that it did not pass through censorship. Below is the interview in its entirety:
The Struggle over Syria
ILNA: What do you think about the current Middle East situation, and how do you assess the future of this region?
MARK TOMASS: The Middle East is one of the most socially diverse regions in the world that projects competing value systems; the proponents in these competing value systems, at times, strive to co-exist, but at other times try to dominate each other.
Furthermore, the Middle East is rich in many natural and human resources while its geography links the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Those three factors combined make the Middle East an object of geostrategic interest to regional and superpowers, whose interventions often exacerbate previously existing conflicts among Middle Easterners and therefore threaten world peace. The current situation cannot be truer today than ever before, and the Syrian conflict is a good example of this.
Today, in Syria we have three nuclear powers and many powerful regional players, all fighting on the ground. The United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are all physically present with ground troops. There is an unofficial presence of Qatar and Saudi Arabia via the Jihadi fighters and frequent aerial bombardments carried out by the Israeli air force (more than 200 to date were officially admitted). Israel has also, in the past, armed Jihadi rebel groups. This is not to mention the Syrians who are engaged against each other in mortal conflict. Therefore, anyone who evaluates the current state of affairs in Syria without feeling alarmed about the future of the Middle East would be unreasonably optimistic.
ILNA: What role does Iran play in the battle against terrorism and crisis management in the region?
MARK TOMASS: Iran helped the Syrian state regain control of much of the territory that it lost to various Jihadi groups including, but not limited to, al-Qaida and its daughter ISIS. Iran also provided financial support that maintained the functioning of state institutions, thus preventing their collapse and the total chaos that could have emerged from the lack of central state power.
That said, the term terrorism is highly politicized and is used in the Middle East by various parties to describe the activities of different groups based on the nature of the threats that they pose. For example, although the professed aim of fighting terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria is clear and specific, the long-standing dispute between the United States and Russia about whom to fight in the “War on Terror” reveals their different interests; it reveals also that the “War on Terror” is a cover for achieving those separate interests.
In the case of Iran, while al-Qaida and ISIS are now acknowledged worldwide to be terrorist groups, Hizballah, Iran’s strongest Arab ally and one that previously fought those two groups, is also considered by the United States, Israel, and now Great Britain to be a terrorist group. Moreover, Hamas is another peculiar case. When Hamas’ identity as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers (aka Brotherhood) trumped its identity as a resistance group to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it decided to participate in 2012 alongside the Syrian Muslim Brothers to topple the Syrian government. This prompted the Syrian government to label Hamas as terrorist after it had long provided it with political cover prior to the Arab Spring Uprisings. Hamas was considered a resistant movement in the case of Israel, but then became a terrorist group when it began fighting the Syrian government.
The case of the Kurdish armed groups, such as the PKK/YPG should also be mentioned in this context. While the Syrian government considers them separatist insurgents and limits the terrorist label only to describe the takfiri (Salafi Jihadi & Muslim Brothers) groups, the Turkish government refers to the PKK/YPG as terrorists. The same logic applies regarding the United States’ attitude regarding the PKK/YPG. Prior to the US military intervention in northeast Syria, the US considered the PKK a terrorist group.
Although it is well known that the YPG is the Syrian franchise of the PKK, the US Army relied on the YPG for their ground operations and still deals with them as faithful allies. Thus, armed groups are terrorists when they threaten our interests but are freedom fighters when they serve as our tools.
ILNA: How much do you think the triangle of IRAN, Russia, and Turkey helped to improve the situation in Syria compared to the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel alliance, and how do you evaluate their success?
MARK TOMASS: The two triangles have different aims, albeit dismantling ISIS is an exception as it is a strategic aim that both share to a certain degree. However, tactically, some of the parties would have liked to maintain ISIS for a longer period. That said, and following up on your previous question, the Iran, Russia, and Turkey triangle has different strategic interests than the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel triangle. In addition, we also must admit that the parties within each triangle also have conflicting interests. Iran and Russia want to maintain the status quo in Syria, as it was prior to the Arab
Uprisings, while all the others want to extract different concessions from Syria. Therefore, to answer your question directly, if we define “improving the situation” as returning to the status quo prior to the rebellion and foreign intervention in Syria, then the answer is yes because the Syrian state could not have restored its control over much of Syria without Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia’s help. Turkey, however, wants a change in the Syrian leadership to one that is in its own image. Turkey also wants to maintain its control of the entire northern region of Syria, including Idlib. Additionally, Iran had unofficially suggested, through its intelligence-affiliated media figure Amir Moussawi, the idea that Syria should cede the northern region to Turkey in exchange for Turkey’s halting support of Jihadi rebel groups to topple the Syrian leadership. The challenge is how long Iran and Russia can maintain their current constructive engagement with Turkey to prevent a military conflict.
Conversely, the US, Saudi, Israel alliance first aims at weakening the Syrian state. Their second aim is curbing Iran’s projection of its power into Syria, which seeks the return of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. The problem is that those two aims are contradictory, and that is why the tactics of this alliance failed to accomplish them. The aim of weakening the Syrian state was intended for the Syrian leadership to cede Golan to Israel in exchange for maintaining the Syrian leadership in power. In response, instead providing concessions to Israel, the Syrian leadership called for more Iranian involvement to ensure it remained in power. The more Syria has been pressured by the US, Saudi, Israeli alliance, the more it has relied on Iran to resist it; hence the expression “the resistance axis” came into use.
ILNA: How much did the Warsaw Summit's failure prove that the Middle East problems should be solved by its own countries, without foreign interference?
MARK TOMASS: There can be no peace in the Middle East from foreign-imposed solutions. The inhabitants of the Middle East must communicate to each other directly to solve their disputes.
ILNA: Recently, there have been rumors that Russia has already started negotiations for a withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria. What do you think about that? Some say that a Task Force has been formed to deal with this matter. What is your assessment?
MARK TOMASS: Because Russia has made a commitment to restore the Syrian state’s control over all the internationally recognized Syrian territories (except the Golan Heights), it has been calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops for some time, but what Russia means by ‘foreign troops’ are the ones uninvited by the Syrian state, such as the US and Turkey. However, Russia has not put any plan into action because it does not want to confront the foreign armies militarily.
ILNA: What do you think about Russia’s role in Syria? While Moscow tries to have a strategic partnership with Iran, it has also started a very serious negotiation with Israel. What is your assessment?
MARK TOMASS: The Syrian army could not have restored its control over much of Syria without Russia’s air support because much of Syria’s air force has been grounded for lack of spare parts. That said, Russia’s military commitment in Syria is limited to backing the Syrian state militarily against the takfiri-Jihadi armed groups, not against Israel in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Quite the contrary, Russia has had an agreement with Israel to let it bombard whatever targets it wishes in Syria, providing it does not harm the Syrian leadership. That agreement reached a critical stage after a Russian military plane was downed in September of last year near the port city of Latakia, where the Russian air base is located, killing 15 Russian personnel on board. Russia blamed Israel for lack of coordination. In analyzing Russian-Israeli relationship, we must take into consideration that many of the Russian oligarchs and business tycoons have dual Russian and Israeli citizenship, and indeed many of them moved to Israel. This is in addition to an estimated one million Israelis who emigrated from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Those factors together show the political calculus of the Russian leadership. The last thing Russia wants is a confrontation with Israel. Therefore, Russian leaders must tread carefully as they manage the Syrian conflict.
ILNA: Can Iran trust Russia to be a reliable ally?
MARK TOMASS: That depends on what Iran expects from Russia.
ILNA: Some say if it wasn't for Iran, ISIS would have spread to other countries. Do you agree with this logic?
MARK TOMASS: Yes, I agree that Iran played a major role in defeating ISIS in western Iraq and western Syria. It would be difficult to assess where else ISIS would have spread if it had managed to occupy Aleppo and Damascus the way it occupied Mosul and al-Raqqa.
ILNA: What do you think about Iran’s role in rebuilding Syria?
MARK TOMASS: That is a difficult question to answer without having concrete information on what Iran is willing to sacrifice to engage in a project that is estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Most importantly, it is not clear what Iran would gain from such a massive investment in a politically unstable region.
ILNA: How do you assess the US withdrawal from Syria? How much does this affect Iran, Turkey, and Russia’s roles in Syria?
MARK TOMASS: A US withdrawal will reduce the chance of an unwanted military clash between the US versus Iran, Russia, or Turkey. That said, if, and when, the US withdraws, the question is then whether Syria and Turkey would be able to reach an agreement allowing the Syrian army to take over the Syrian region east of the Euphrates without a military confrontation with Turkey.
ILNA: What is the real reason behind Mr. Trump’s decision to withdrawal troops from Syria?
MARK TOMASS: Money. President Trump does not see any financial gain from having the US taxpayers spend billions in the Middle East, and he does not see Syria as a threat to the United States.
ILNA: Trump claims that he is using Iraq to watch over Iran, but this allegation has been denied too many times by Iraqi government. What do you think about this?
MARK TOMASS: Maybe he is echoing the Neo-Conservatives around him who are paranoid about Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East.
ILNA: Bashar al-Assad recently traveled to Iran. What do you think was the reason for this trip? An unannounced visit?
MARK TOMASS: The trip was unannounced for security reasons. I believe he intended to offer gratitude for the sacrifices that Iranians made on Syrian soil, both financially and in human costs. Moreover, his visit was in harmony with a long-standing position that he and his father had taken vis-à-vis the Iranian revolution. The late president saw Iran as an ally to the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran.
IRAN: Some say Assad's trip to Iran was more successful than Trump's Christmas trip to Iraq because Assad met with high ranking officials. Do you agree with this logic?
MARK TOMASS: Publicly, they were both unannounced visits but for different reasons. President Trump visited the US troops stationed in Iraq; thus, the Iraqi leadership did not feel obliged to meet him without having first invited him. I believe the two visits cannot be compared.