Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat – Robert Malley has one of the toughest jobs in Washington; he is responsible for getting the struggling campaign against ISIS on track and is also the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Malley gives a unique perspective on the US Administration’s views on and objectives with regards to the Syrian conflict, the situation in Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Malley emphasizes the importance of destroying ISIS and achieving sustainable success through enabling local partners on the ground in Syria and Iraq to wage the fight. He stressed that Russia has to stop its indiscriminate strikes against civilians, push the Assad regime to stop the use of barrel bombs and engage in a more thorough discussion of a meaningful political transition.
Malley’s interview with Asharq Al-Awsat appears below:
Syrian Peace talks will start in Geneva today ( Friday). What is the US administration’s expectation and advice for both sides in order to avoid failure?
We know this is an extraordinarily difficult enterprise – and we know how sceptical the Syrian people are after so many years of bloodshed and destruction. But our expectation – or our hope – is that the negotiations can start showing the Syrian people that this process is not simply about talks but about real, practical improvements in their lives.
So, yes, the talks must deal with the political transition and they must deal with a ceasefire. But they should also deliver humanitarian steps quickly – from prisoner releases, to the lifting of sieges, the cessation of attacks against civilians, humanitarian access. Without that, it will be hard for them to be taken seriously by the Syrian people who have seen so many of these conferences come and go
What is the likelihood of the administration working directly and jointly with Russia to persuade both sides of the Syrian conflict to reach a political solution to end the crisis?
If your question is whether Russia and the U.S. should work together to end the violence in Syria, advance a political transition and ensure that we can focus on the threat of ISIL, then the answer is absolutely yes. As I mentioned, our belief is that while any solution to the Syrian conflict will have to be forged and endorsed by Syrians, outside actors that have played a key part in sustaining this conflict can and must also play their part in ending it. That’s the logic behind the International Syria Support Group – to get regional and global actors on the same page to persuade and prod their respective allies on the ground to help halt a conflict that has ravaged the country, caused unspeakable harm to its citizens, mushroomed into a regional proxy war, and facilitated the expansion of ISIL and other terrorist groups.
We have made some progress, as the ISSG set a timetable and milestones on the path toward a political settlement, and endorsed the need for a rapid ceasefire as well as for concerted efforts against ISIL and other terrorist groups. That led to a UN Security Council resolution – the first that spelled out such measures. But we have a very long way to go in translating these principles into facts on the ground.
In that context, we have made clear to Russia that we want to work with them toward a resolution of the Syrian conflict, and over the past few days and weeks, you have seen Secretary Kerry engage repeatedly with his Russian counterpart. We do not see this as a zero-sum game, a continuation of the Cold War by other means. The United States and Russia share some important interests regarding Syria: combating violent extremists, preserving state institutions and preventing the kind of chaos we witnessed in Iraq, protecting minorities and ensuring any transition entails a non-sectarian polity.
We’re prepared to work together towards those goals. However, we also need to be clear about those Russian practices that, in our view, run directly counter to those objectives.
If Russia persists in targeting the very opposition that needs to be at the negotiating table and whose buy-in will be necessary for any meaningful ceasefire and for any joint effort against ISIL and other terrorist groups; if Russia continues with strikes that indiscriminately kill civilians; if it fails to press the Syrian regime to end its own indiscriminate shelling, use of barrel bombs and besieging of opposition-controlled cities; and if it (as well as the regime) does not engage in a more thorough discussion of the contours of a political transition, then that raises serious questions about Russia’s goals. Because it is a recipe for continued warfare, for an escalating proxy war, for deepening polarization. And it vastly complicates efforts to defeat ISIL. In addition, if that is the case, we do not see how we can be working in concert with Russia. It just does not make sense. Therefore, the bottom line is, yes, we would like to work together as we did in pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. The potential clearly exists. But it can’t happen without some significant changes.
The US plan is to destroy ISIS; do you think it is time to begin a new phase to intensify the military efforts to achieve that goal?
I think there is a misconception out there that, somehow, we have been restrained in our military campaign, that the White House or others have constrained our military. That is simply untrue. We have carried out close to 10,000 airstrikes, gone after the terrorist group’s economic lifeline, helped our partners in Iraq and ground forces in Syria retake significant territory from ISIL. We also forged a broad coalition of more than 65 partners, with members contributing airstrikes, training, funding, and more. What is true is that President Obama has instructed his team to conduct and win this war in a smart way. That means refraining from indiscriminate airstrikes that would kill civilians and that – aside from being contrary to our fundamental values and to the law of armed conflict – would risk fueling the kind of resentment and alienation upon which groups like ISIL prey. It means avoiding making this a unilateral U.S. campaign or dispatching sizeable U.S. ground forces, which risk fueling perceptions of a Western occupation and boosting the recruitment drive of extremist groups. It means making sure successes are sustainable, which entails ensuring local partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria are willing and able to wage the fight, enabled by U.S. and coalition airstrikes and advice, and then willing and able secure and stabilize the areas they liberate.
It means viewing this as more than a purely military enterprise: we need to work in parallel on a political solution in Syria and toward more inclusive governance in Iraq to address some of the factors that ISIL has exploited, notably the sense of Sunni marginalization; we need to counter the noxious sectarian messaging that has helped shape a climate conducive to the spread of violent extremism; we need to do better in preventing the flow of foreign fighters.
So, yes, we are constantly looking for ways to intensify the military effort, and I’ve heard President Obama more than once ask his military advisers to come up with new, more effective ways to wage this fight – and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him turn one of those ideas down. But we also are mindful of lessons of the past, and how a unilateral, exclusively military U.S. campaign can produce victories that are as quick as they are evanescent.
How does the Administration view the expansion of ISIS activities in Iraq, Libya and Yemen despite the fact that the leaders of these countries are no longer in power?
I think what this shows is that nothing facilitates the spread of groups such as ISIL so much as chaos, the collapse of state institutions, the disintegration of basic governance, and the ensuing security vacuum. It is also a reminder that, while removing a dictator or autocrat can be part of the solution, it is not the solution and that, if done recklessly, it can be a dangerous enterprise.
That is one reason why we have been so insistent that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict: removing Assad through military means would create a security vacuum with an untold number of armed groups awash in weapons, and usher in a period of chaos whose primary beneficiaries would be extremist and terrorist groups.
Negotiating a managed political transition is frustrating, and it takes time, but it is the only way to ensure Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, preserve those state institutions that still exist, protect vulnerable groups and minorities, and unite Syrians against the shared threat of terrorism and extremism.
If the Administration manages to destroy ISIS, how would you ensure that a new terrorist group will not be formed? Is your goal to destroy ISIS or to destroy the ideology and the environment for both Sunni and Shiite extremist groups?
That is a very important question and goes to the heart of what we have been trying to do. It is not enough to look at this through a short-term lens, as I mentioned earlier, and score a U.S. military victory against ISIL. What we need is both a near term and a long-term look at violent extremism.
Yes, we and our partners are fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and we will continue to do so relentlessly until they are defeated. But we are also concerned about the conditions that allowed the group to form in the first place, because the last thing we want is a pyrrhic victory that merely lays the seeds for the next iteration of this global menace.
As I said, that is why we are making sure that local forces – not U.S. forces – are waging the ground war.
That is why we think it is essential to stabilize Ramadi and other liberated areas in the Sunni heartland, to support the mobilization of Sunni tribes against ISIL, and to press forward with a broader reconciliation agenda spearheaded by the central government in Baghdad. That is why an inclusive, meaningful political transition in Syria is so key. That is why putting an end to wars in Yemen and Libya and fostering inclusive governance in both is at the top of our priorities. And, to get to your question, that’s why it is so crucial to address the ideological roots of violent extremism, the pernicious discourse that legitimizes extremism, religious intolerance, or sectarianism. That is above all a responsibility of governments in the region, as well as of civil society, and our hope is that the revival of extremist groups – from al Qaeda to ISIL – has served as a wake-up call and has spurred them to greater action.
With the start of the Implementation of the nuclear deal and sanction lifting, how do you see the impact of that on the region during the remaining time of Obama’s Administration?
Well, I believe the first step is to think about what the region might have looked like in the absence of a nuclear deal: an accelerated Iranian nuclear program, greater tensions in the Middle East, renewed calls for military action, all of which would have benefited the most sectarian, extremist forces, including Al Qaeda and ISIL. Remember, that is the reality we were facing not long ago. Had Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, that picture would have been worse still and all of the problems we face today would have been multiplied several-fold. Of course, that is not to say that the deal in and of itself eliminates all sources of tension and insecurity in the region, far from it. But its principal impact is to markedly reduce risks of a military confrontation and thereby allow us to focus on the rest of a very crowded agenda: defeating ISIL and other violent extremist groups, resolving the Syrian conflict, stabilizing the situation in Iraq, addressing conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere by forging inclusive peace deals.
Do we believe that the nuclear deal alone will result in a change in Iran’s behavior and get Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Iran working together to resolve these crises? Of course not, and President Obama as well as Secretary Kerry have been clear about this from the outset: we were never proceeding under the assumption that Iran would alter its behavior as a result of a nuclear deal. Rather, we were proceeding under the assumption that Iran would not alter its behavior, which made it all the more imperative to ensure it does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
So the premise of the deal is not that Iran suddenly will warm towards the United States or that it will result in an immediate thaw in its relations with its Gulf neighbors. That said, there is at least some room for hope that the nuclear deal and our engagement with Iran could spawn broader discussions about other sources of regional tension, and, over time, lessen hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the noxious spread of sectarianism.
At least, Iran, the GCC and many others are sitting around the same table as members of the International Syrian Support Group. That’s a start on which we should build.
With the increasing tension between Saudi and Iran, how could the Administration assure its Saudi and GCC partners that Iranian expansion policies are not going to threaten them? Do you have any concerns that the Saudi – Iran tension may trigger further conflicts in the region?
First, we think it’s important to try to lower these tensions which only distract from the most urgent crises we face, contribute to continued conflicts across the region, and fuel proxy wars. But as to the larger question, our efforts — from last year’s Camp David meeting between the U.S. and the GCC up to Secretary Kerry’s recent meeting with GCC Foreign Ministers – have aimed at finding more effective ways to work with our Gulf partners so that they can counter all threats, from terrorist groups and from Iran’s destabilizing activities.
We have been enhancing our cooperation whether it is in terms of countering cyber-attacks, ballistic missile threats, asymmetric warfare, and so forth. But to be clear: the goal is not to encourage a confrontation between Iran and its neighbors but rather to make sure the GCC is in a strong and confident position to engage in a necessary dialogue with Iran in which all these issues would be squarely on the table.
Under what circumstances will the U.S. administration engage directly with the Iranians to reduce tension and help solve problems in the region like the situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen?
President Obama has been clear about this from the outset: we are open to diplomacy on all fronts to resolve regional conflicts and, given Iran’s role in the region, it is truly difficult to imagine how we can find lasting political solutions without Tehran’s involvement. As I mentioned, we and many others are already working with Iran to try to end the conflict in Syria as part of the International Syria Support Group- not out of a naive belief that we all share common interests or have the same goals, but because Iran is playing a central role in backing and underwriting the Syrian regime. Whether we like it or not, any lasting political solution will have to involve Iran, as it will have to involve other regional states that are backing the armed opposition. That does not amount to legitimizing Iran’s role, but to acknowledging it.
I’d add that the fact that we’ve been able to reach Implementation Day of the nuclear accord earlier than I think any expert had foreshadowed, that we’ve been able to secure the release of Americans who had been unjustly detained in Iran, and that we settled a claims dispute dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution all demonstrate that there is more room today for productive diplomacy between the United State and Iran.
Considerable differences remain, as does considerable mistrust, none of which will evaporate any time soon. It is not even clear at this point how far Iran’s leadership is prepared to go in terms of engagement with the U.S. But the question in our mind is whether these issues can begin to be dealt with through tough, principled face-to-face diplomacy. That is what will need to be tested.
Do you see any development in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict positively or negatively? Will the Administration address this issue during the remaining 12 months of Obama’s presidency?
This issue is very close to my heart, and one that continues to cause immense frustration and even distress throughout the region. When I said a few months ago that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unlikely to occur before the end of the President’s term, it did not mean that the Obama administration was giving up on this central issue. Not at all. Rather, it was meant as a sober recognition that the two sides remain far apart, and that if they continue along the current path and efforts proceed according to the same paradigm, without a fundamental rethink and questioning of how things have proceeded for the past twenty years, then there is unlikely to be a comprehensive settlement anytime soon and, indeed, the conflict will only get harder to resolve. Indeed, ongoing violence is increasing bad blood and distrust while continued home demolition, displacement, and land confiscation in the West Bank, alongside settlement-related activity, is undermining the possibility of a two state solution. Those trends have to be reversed if we want to prevent an untenable one-state reality from taking hold.
The fact is, most of those who’ve looked at this or worked on this know, more or less, what a sustainable, viable two state solution that meets the two sides’ core needs and aspirations inevitably will have to be. Getting there entails difficult compromises not by one side, but by both. But if either one is unwilling to contemplate those steps, if somehow they think there is some other way, then they need to answer the simple, straightforward questions Secretary Kerry articulated last December, of which the most fundamental ones are: how else does the Palestinian leadership believe it can achieve its people’s legitimate aspirations to independence, sovereignty, safety, and statehood? And how else does the Israeli government hope to maintain Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state, and have true peace and normal relations with its neighbors?
So to be clear: the United States always is ready to help reach a two-state solution, because we believe it is in the best interests of Israelis and Palestinians, and because we know it is in the best interest of the region and its long-term stability. President Obama is prepared to do what he can in this respect. But the parties need to make some fundamental choices. And they need to do it before it is too late.