Naive to think airstrikes can stop bloodshed – ex-deputy UN envoy to Syria

The Western coalition has struck Syria with missiles, following allegations of a chemical attack. How serious will the consequences of this move be for Syria and the world? We ask Mokhtar Lamani, former deputy UN envoy to Syria.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Mokhtar Lamani, former deputy UN envoy to Syria, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you with us today. Lots to talk about. The Syrian government, the Russians and the Iranians expressed their condemnation of the Western missile strikes on Syria, that was last week. But even the Syrian opposition leaders have also called them a farce, called them too weak and even dangerous. So have these strikes been pretty much useless then, if they didn’t make anyone happy?

Mokhtar Lamani:Well, it shows how things are getting very complex. The two major things are scaring me there. The first one - it shows how everything in Syria is becoming a war of proxies, so everybody is becoming involved locally, regionally and internationally and the huge part of it is becoming by proxy linked to other crises. The second element is sectarian dimension. It was already there when I was still in Damascus, but now it’s there because, you see, a lot of militia from one side are Shia and from the other side are Sunni, and with this kind of complexity it can go very bad.    

SS:But these particular strikes that I’ve just mentioned - do you feel like they were useless? 

ML: They were not legal, for sure. I know that there is a blockage in the Security Council. But according to the Charter, anything that involves military should be approved by the Security Council resolution. For sure, this is why I use the word ‘complexities’. It shows the complexities we’re having on the ground: everyone is challenging the other part and, you know, we know when we can begin a war but we don’t know when it is going to end and how it is going to develop. 

SS: The United Nations Secretary General also hinted that the Security Council should have been asked first but abstained from open criticism of the U.S. and its allies. You worked at the UN for a while - does it bother you that the United Nations Security Council is being sidelined, not asked, not referred to? 

ML: Well, it expresses sometimes the will of the strongest that are controlling their parts of it because this is the will of the members of the Security Council. Thank God, sometimes it can be balanced by some principles in the Security Council. But, for sure, we’re facing one of the worst crises now and they are not going to agree to find the way... I don’t know how is it going to happen: will it be through the Security Council or do we need much more than the Security Council. When I saw the latest proposal of the French President to make some contact - is it going to be an international conference or whatever? You know, everything can happen. But what we need first is a political will of all parties to resolve this question and to end the drama the Syrian people are living.      

SS: So these strikes were not extensive or particularly damaging, were they undertaken more for the home audiences of the participant countries, than to actually solve problems inside Syria? 

ML: They were not that important, for sure. But strikes were there. So as a precedent it can go, as I said, anywhere. Whether it’s according to the development - we’re going to see in the coming weeks. So, for sure, we need a good will from all parties, and when I say ‘all parties’ I include everybody locally, regionally, internationally. We are still living with a lot of conflicting agendas when you link the situation in Syria to the rest of the Middle East, to the problem between the Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now the American President is trying to withdraw and they are asking some Arabs to go there. We heard, the Saudi are ready to go there and the Iranians are on the ground. So it can in the end fail the whole region. The situation is very dangerous. 

SS: The rhetoric surrounding the strikes was very heated, but the strikes themselves were limited and didn’t escalate, just like we emphasised. Does that mean that behind the scenes there are diplomatic forces at work, that are more constructive than Trump’s fiery tweets and mutual threats? Do you feel like the diplomats are working backstage without us knowing it? 

ML: You know the situation in Syria is including not only the military side, diplomats but also secret services. So, for sure, there are a lot of contacts between them through different channels. That’s why it stopped that way and there were no casualties. And I’m happy for that. But what I see after that, the Russian Minister was talking about the possibility of reconsidering positively the Syrian government’s request to give them some S-300 missiles. When you see the situation with Israel, with everybody there, you know, it can explode in a very bad way. 

SS: Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said that the airstrikes were aimed at getting Assad to the Geneva negotiation table. Will these airstrikes make Assad more keen to talk, really make him come back to this format? 

ML: I don’t think this is the best way. The best way is to put more pressure from the Russians and from the Iranians on the Syrian government. I worked with them when I was there and one of the things that shocked me all the time - I’m talking about the Syrian government - I kept asking them ‘you have to develop a political vision’. The country is getting destroyed and still out of the security vision [the government is] kidnapping and arresting people. But in the end I realised that the only vision they have is the security vision. So that should be changing in a way to save Syria. The country is totally destroyed, more than 15 million people left their homes. Refugees, internally displaced people, the situation is very bad. I think, it’s time to resolve this question and to sit very seriously at the negotiation table to find a solution.   

SS: So far the Geneva peace process hasn’t been very effective... 

ML: No. 

SS: The Astana talks organised by Russia, Iran and Turkey at least pushed forward de-escalation zones which significantly reduced the level of violence in Syria. So now we have two parallel peace processes which basically pursue one goal - would it be more rational to focus on the more effective one? 

ML: I’m not sure it was effective. Everything is very relative. Of course, if you compare it to Geneva, Geneva was much wider, and to discuss the future of Syria - that was not the case of Astana. It was some limited thing because there was no real ceasefire in Syria and everywhere it [fighting] continued to happen. From August 2013 until now the chemicals have been used, even though in a very limited way. According to some reports it was used more than 100 times. So we really cannot talk about some positive development. I think, since we have some Security Council resolution on Geneva, it should be strengthening Geneva and making all the pressure to have everybody with a good political will. 

SS: I’m not talking about positive progression. I’m talking about the fact that the only process that brought concrete facts was the Astana process. And the UN envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, takes part in the Astana process, surely that means the UN finds it useful? 

ML: But we saw after that that the West didn’t accept it and the latest thing happening is this strike. I think, the best way is to be very inclusive because everybody has his own agenda in Syria, and to include everybody except, of course, terrorist groups. We know who they are and they should not be part of any process. But the rest - the armed groups, the government of Syria, the regional powers, the Russians, the Americans, the members of the Security Council - should be. This is why I’m wondering if it can be much wider and if we can have an international conference for peace in Syria.   

SS: So why are France, the UK and the U.S. eager to use force if necessary, but unwilling to sit down and do the tedious work of organising talks, why is that job left to the Iran, Turkey and Russia team, are the Western allies not willing to break a sweat and do some actual negotiating? 

ML: The Westerners sometimes (and I find it very ridiculous as position) keep insisting, I heard the news, the message was very clear that the use of chemicals will not happen any more. But people are still getting killed in Syria by hundreds every week. They have a lot of sufferings. And it’s not only the use of chemicals, you know. I’m talking about all kinds of things that were used in Syria, and also besieging some areas and using hunger in the humanitarian situation is very... It is not that simple that, you know, ‘ok, we’re going to strike, they are not going to use and if they use the chemicals again, we’re going to do it again’. It’s a very simplistic analysis in my personal view.     

SS: Mr. Lamani, you’ve conducted an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria before, in Khan al-Assal, in 2013, and you saw evidence pointing to the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra was in possession of chemical weapons. Why is the fact that the Syrian rebels have chemical weapons ignored, why is everyone only talking about Damascus? 

ML: No, I didn’t conduct any mission. I was in Damascus, I was receiving the group that came to do that when the huge one [use of chemical weapons] happened in August 2013. But since the beginning of my mission in 2012 I used to move very often, every Saturday to different areas of Syria, trying to keep contacts with all actors, with all armed groups, with everybody who was involved, and trying also to get information when it’s happened. You receive a lot of conflicting information and the hardest part was to verify it because when people are at war they try to use everything against the other, even lies and a lot of other things. This is why I said several times that anyone involved in the war in Syria can use the chemicals...  

SS: That was my question - do you think, all sides can have access to the chemical weapons and not just Damascus? 

ML: Yes, definitely. 

SS: So why is only Damascus blamed for it? 

ML: Well, you see sometimes the kind of chemicals (I’m not an expert on chemicals) that can only be in the hands of the government. But all secret services are involved in Syria, so there are channels to give to anyone this kind of chemicals. 

SS: The OPCW is starting their fact-finding mission in Douma to establish if the chemical attack did take place. So how legitimate were the U.S. coalition strikes - undertaken before real facts were on the table? 

ML: I don’t know. If you go to all the missions… First of all, I would definitely prefer that if this mission was backed by the Security Council resolution, it would give it a political will, which is not the case. And we know from the different experience of the UN, I just remembered what happened during the mission in Iraq - all the governments tried to put within this mission a lot of their agents. And we remember the question of David Kay, the senior American guy who after finishing the mission wrote a book and recognised that he was there in the name of the CIA. We saw it with one of the latest missions in Syria when the chemicals were used four times by ISIS and two times by the government. Of course, it was rejected by the government of Syria as well as by the Russians that the Syrian government did it. It’s very hard to know who did it.  

SS: Does America and its allies’ actions actually defeat the purpose of the OPCW mission? I mean, they are basically sending the message to the whole world that the mission doesn’t make sense. What is it - do they assume that they know the results beforehand? 

ML: There’s a huge lack of mistrust between the parties. Everybody was talking that the mission is going to be in Douma. When a problem happened everybody was talking that it was not because of them.  We heard the Westerns saying that the Russians and the Syrian government didn’t allow the mission to go there. From the other side they are telling ‘no, it’s on people who tried to fire at the mission, there is a security problem’. Sometimes what is reported and the position expressed officially and openly are so far from realities on the ground. 

SS: What happens if violence flares up again in Douma, are we going to see the OPCW mission leave - and then we’ll never find out the details of the matter, right? 

ML: As I said, I’m not an expert on chemicals. The Westerners were telling that they [the Syrian government] are making a lot of problems to the mission to have enough time, and all the evidence will disappear. I’m not sure of all these technicalities. But what I’m sure of is the huge level of mistrust between the parties. 

SS: Last year, we had a similar situation - the Americans announced that they are not insisting on “Assad must go”, and Damascus was having success on the front lines; then, the alleged chemical attack made America strike. This time around, Trump announces the imminent withdrawal of American troops, and a deal to end hostilities in Ghouta in the works, and then all of a sudden a chemical attack happens and missile strikes follow. If Damascus is indeed behind the chemical attack, tell me, why would it shoot itself in the foot -  twice in a row? 

ML: From one side we know that during the negotiations with different groups in Ghouta some of them agreed to leave the area, other refused, especially those who were part of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Army in Douma particularly. So to make them leave immediately or not or whatever... I can’t point at any party who could do it in case we really had some chemical attacks. But, again, it shows the high level of mistrust and everything is used to win by all parties. 

SS: Iraq’s Foreign Ministry says the airstrikes can give terrorism ‘another opportunity to expand’. Do you think Baghdad’s concerns are justified? 

ML: You know, one of the agreements in Astana, especially between the three co-sponsors, was that the Turks should take care of Idlib, especially of Al-Qaeda that is very strong there. That’s the reason to bombard this area if they are still strong. Until now it was not resolved and Al-Qaeda is still there, and they are still in other part with other groups. That is the major thing that can make the war continue because they know they are not involved in the political process and they will do everything to continue [fighting]. And I know, on the ground, even when I was there, a lot of groups and people inside these groups keep changing from one group to another because no Syrian could have expected the war to go that long and to be that complex. They have families to feed, so it’s becoming in a way a very Kafkaesque situation.   

SS: There were demonstrations of support for Assad after the strikes. You know that, right? It seems that the strikes’ limited nature only made the Syrian president more popular… 

ML: I’m not sure. 

SS: That’s the way he’s portraying himself at least. He’s seen now as resisting Western aggression. Do you feel like maybe these strikes, indeed, backfire in terms of their political impact on the Syrian war? 

ML: I’m not sure it’s going to make him very popular. There’s a huge part of propaganda which is traditional in the whole Middle East, especially in Syria. But when I take into consideration the other part of it, that the country is destroyed, 15 million have left their homes, of course, everybody is unhappy - pro- or against the government. If you compare it to the situation before the Arab Spring and before 2011, of course, the situation was much better for everybody and I’m not sure it’s going to be resolved and get some popularity or bring the solution. It’s not that easy, it’s much more complicated and it’s going to take much more time in case Syria remains one country.   

SS: The rebel enclaves around Damascus are all but taken by the government - do you think that Damascus will keep going, and attempt to take the remaining opposition areas in the country by force, one by one? 

ML: No, when they take part by part they ask the population to move. That’s why I mentioned in the beginning the sectarian dimension, if it’s true that there are huge parts of moving population. We know from outside, that those militia that are supported by the government - Hezbollah or Nujaba from Iraq or from Afghanistan - all of them are Shia. And the major part, 99% of the rebels are Sunni. And if you are asking people to move that way or this, I’m not sure, Syria will remain one country or it’s going to stop or to help stopping… It’s going to continue. Now there is a possibility of some other interventions. And I’m strengthening what I said in the beginning that it [Syrian conflict] is becoming a war of proxies. 

SS: Ok, like you say, Syria is now de-facto divided into several parts but seeing how sectarian tensions are running so high during this war, is a federal or a partitioned Syria the only good way out? 

ML: No, I hope, it’s not going to happen. I hope for the Syrian people, they are wonderful people, that they will remain one country, all of them together, to be the example of positive changes in the whole area which are strongly needed in that part of the world. But, unfortunately, the Syrians, all of them, the government and the opposition groups, made a huge mistake: instead of humanizing their country from inside by finding a solution, they opted for foreign interventions that it’s getting very hard to get this situation right. The danger of partition is still there. Look, what’s happening now between the Turks and the Kurds. For the Turks it was not ISIS but the Kurds that are the priority to fight. What is going to happen there, Americans have installed so many bases in that part, if the Saudis are going to come or the countries from the Gulf, Iranians are always there, you will see all kind of wars and all the partition. And the only one who are paying a very high price are the women and kids, and the people of Syria.    

SS: Mr. Lamani, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Mokhtar Lamani, former deputy UN envoy to Syria, discussing whether peace is going to come to the war-torn country any time soon. 

ML: Thank you for having me.