Retaking Syria’s Idlib ‘is a red line for Iran’

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THE POTENTIAL massacre of civilians while trying to retake the last major stronghold of anti-government militants in Syria – namely Idlib Province – is a red line for Iran, says the Iranian chief negotiator in the peace process for Syria.

Hossein Jaberi Ansari, senior assistant to the Iranian foreign minister on special political affairs, told Press TV’s website in an exclusive interview on Wednesday, October 10, that Idlib had a special status and had to be dealt with accordingly.

He said armed and terrorist groups have blended into a large civilian population there, which makes a retake of the region complicated and, in Iran’s viewpoint, eliminates the possibility of a quick fix. Jaberi Ansari called the situation in Idlib ‘the epitome of the complexities of the Syrian conflict.’

‘On the one hand, three million people are currently settled in Idlib. About half of that population is native to the region, and the other half comprises displaced persons from other areas,’ he explained. ‘Of the second half, some are people normally displaced by the war, and others are the families of armed Syrian government opponents who have, along with their men, migrated there as part of previous deals, the senior Iranian official further said.

‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘Idlib is the concentration point of numerous armed and terrorist groups’ and as such, could not be left to itself. Conflict erupted in Syria back in 2011, when a small group of opposition forces took up arms against Damascus. Soon, however, a mixture of international terrorists and paid mercenaries mingled with and then largely sidestepped the armed Syrian opposition groups, effectively turning the Arab country into a battlefield for foreign governments opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But the Syrian military, with advisory military help from Iran and Russia — and a Russian aerial bombardment campaign — has retaken control of much of the country, and the conflict is generally believed to be winding down.

Over the past couple of years, armed groups that have been defeated in battles with the Syrian military have been bussed into Idlib under agreements with Damascus.

While those groups have mostly had to leave their heavy weaponry behind under those deals, they have been allowed to take their small arms with them.

Jaberi Ansari said that figures about the number of the armed and terrorist groups present in Idlib varied from one source to another but he said they generally numbered in the tens of thousands.

He also said that the groups had widely different orientations, making it even more difficult to deal with the matter straightforwardly. While the return of Idlib to Syrian government control could hypothetically take place swiftly with a full military assault, such an offensive would only lead to massive collateral damage, the Iranian official said. That, he said unequivocally, was a red line for Iran.

Any such massacre would also have ‘grave humanitarian and moral, as well as political costs, which is unacceptable,’ he stressed. Given the complexity of the matters in Idlib, he said, Iran sought, in negotiations with its partners in the Astana process – a peace initiative for Syria launched jointly with Russia and Turkey – to make the case for a solution that is exclusive to Idlib and its special status.

He said the solution was phased and composite to include security, military, and political components that would have to be agreed upon. Jaberi Ansari said that the Iranian proposal faced ‘initial resistance’ from Russia and Turkey, Iran’s two partners in the Astana process that support the Syrian government and opposition, respectively.

He said Russia was more inclined to resolve the Idlib matter more quickly, while Turkey sought to indefinitely delay any resolution of the issue.

Just as concerns were spiking about an all-out war and a potential humanitarian crisis in Idlib, and to everyone’s relief, Russia and Turkey reached a deal to avert disaster. At the end of a summit in Sochi on September 17, Moscow and Ankara agreed on, among other things, establishing a demilitarised zone in Idlib that would cover an expanse of 15-20 kilometres of land. Militants would have to entirely clear that area by October 15. The agreement was welcomed not only by the Syrian government and opposition but also by international observers. Iran called it proof that ‘diplomacy works.’

• President Hassan Rouhani says the current US administration is in a war against Iran to stamp out the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and bring about a ‘regime change,’ but that Tehran will foil the plot. ‘Over the past 40 years, there has not been a more spiteful team than the current US government toward Iran and the Islamic Republic,’ Rouhani said at Tehran University on Sunday, in a speech marking the beginning of the new academic year.

‘They started with a psychological war; their next goal is an economic war and an attempt to portray (the Islamic Republic) ineffective, and their ultimate goal is to delegitimise the system and change it,’ he added. Rouhani said there was a time when there was one person who had enmity with Iran and the rest were moderate, but now the worst of them have gathered at the White House.

The president said Iran has defeated the US in many arenas before and will thwart all its conspiracies with unity and integrity again. He touched on Washington’s isolation after its withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rouhani said except for a few regimes, all countries view the move as ‘illegal’ and a ‘mistake.’

‘From a political standpoint and a foreign policy perspective, Iran is certainly the winner and America the loser,’ in what has so far transpired. Rouhani said Iran responded to the US withdrawal with ‘prudence’ and refrained from hurriedly walking out of the JCPOA. Iran, he said, can leave the JCPOA ‘whenever’ it chooses but that national interests and security are what come first.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Tehran has always complied with its commitments to the JCPOA, while the US has never kept its part of the deal.

Under the Trump administration, the US has taken an increasingly hostile approach toward Iran.

In May, Trump pulled his country out of the JCPOA, despite objections from the other signatories to the multilateral nuclear accord. In August, he re-imposed the first round of sanctions on Iran, with the second phase due to come into effect early next month, targeting the country’s oil exports.

Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri on Sunday played down the impact of the planned restrictions, saying Iran has been able to find new partners to buy its oil even though some countries have stopped their purchases. ‘America will certainly not be able to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero,’ he said, dismissing a pledge by President Trump to obliterate the Islamic Republic’s oil trade. ‘America thinks Saudi Arabia can replace this oil. But right now Iran’s oil has reached more than $80 and with half the previous exports we will have the same income as before,’ Jahangiri added.