Media and officials in Iran have hailed the two days of talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, between the Islamic Republic, Russia, and Turkey over the Syrian civil war.
The talks were mostly collection of words rather than actions. However, Iran’s state mouthpieces projected the meetings as a success and emphasized Iran’s positive role in nearly six years of the Syrian civil war. Iran’s Press TV wrote that Bashar Ja’afari “brushed aside Syrian opposition’s anger about Iran’s presence at the talks, praising Tehran for its positive role in Syria”.
The distinction between Astana talks and the Geneva process, led by the United Nations and the US, was the exclusiveness of the Astana talks that included a cherry-picked number of parties. The Iranian government and its staunchest ally, Bashar al-Assad, scored a victory, and Tehran had more to gain than to lose from the Astana talks.
Iran showcases its power and legitimacy
First of all, the Astana talks were a critical platform for Iranian leaders to showcase their power, increasing influence and predominant role in Syria’s political affairs, and further advance their regional hegemonic ambitions.
Secondly, Iranian leaders achieved their main objective of giving legitimacy to Bashar al-Assad and Tehran. From the perspective of Iranian leaders, the fact that opposition groups and heads of states sat on the same table with the Syrian government officials and Iranian officials, grants Assad’s forces and Iran more legitimacy. It also recognizes Assad’s delegate as official representatives.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and head of the Expediency Council’s Center of Strategic Research, emphasized this issue in his remarks to reporters in Tehran.
“The Astana meeting showed that all sides, including Turkey and those groups, which follow this country and even countries not present there (in Astana), have acknowledged the Syrian government’s legitimacy either directly or indirectly,” Velayati pointed out.
Even if Russia shows a willingness to accept a political transition to serve its interests in Syria, Iran’s Shiite militias would more likely continue the war to totally ensure the hold on power of the Alawite-dominated state of AssadDr. Majid Rafizadeh
Third, Iran has used the talks to firm up its “diplomatic” role at a global stage in resolving the Syrian conflict. But, Iran attempted to conceal its role in the humanitarian tragedies that occurred recently in Aleppo, or its role in other humanitarian catastrophes unfolding on a daily basis in various parts of Syria.
Furthermore, by not inviting the US, European countries, or other regional Arab powers, Tehran is sending a signal that no other players have stakes in what direction the Syrian civil war takes. Iran is stating that Syria is its red line.
The meeting ended with a final joint statement, which is mainly a collection of words rather than a plan of action. The Syrian government, Iran, or other parties did not sign the agreement. There were no nuances laid out on what mechanism would be used to enforce the final joint statement regarding Iran’s military role in Syria.
The joint statement is aimed at increasing Assad’s and Iran’s legitimacy. It is also ironic that Iran holds the conviction “that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be resolved through a political process.”
The Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies have been militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. Since the nuclear agreement, Iran has been publicly acknowledging its military, intelligence, advisory, financial and political assistance to the forces of the Syrian government.
Iran used the Astana talks to justify its military adventurism in Syria by arguing that it is fighting “terrorism”. The Iranian government also attempted to increase the significance of Astana talks by claiming that all sides of the conflicts were presents at the talks. Nevertheless, only handpicked number of opposition groups and state supporters of Bashar al-Assad attended the meeting.
The final joint statement stated that it would “observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocation and determine all modalities”. But, the proposed ceasefire would mainly preserve Iran’s strategic and geopolitical interests.
Iran tends to advocate for a short-term orientated ceasefire after its forces, with the assistance of Assad and pro-government forces, make significant territorial gains through hard power, shelling and bombings. This kind of timely ceasefire allows Iran and its Shia militia forces to consolidate power, reorganize, recruit, and hold on to the gained territories.
A political game
Iran is exploiting these talks to increase its leverage and strengthen Assad’s and Tehran’s position in the upcoming Geneva talks. The Astana talks reaffirmed Iran and Russia’s strategic and tactical cooperation in Syria as well.
Even if Russia shows a willingness to accept a political transition to serve its interests in Syria, Iran’s Shiite militias would more likely continue the war to totally ensure the hold on power of the Alawite-dominated state of Assad.
Finally, Iran used a much harder line in the talks in comparison to Russia. The rebels appeared more hopeful about Moscow listening to their grievances.
Iran highlighted the fact that it will not politically compromise, but will use every opportunity to robustly support Assad, strengthen his position, and advance Tehran’s regional ambitions.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist, is president of the International American Council. Harvard-educated, Dr. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.