Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat—Against the backdrop of the Russian–US agreement on the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the US State Department’s Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre, about the deal, what will happen if Bashar Al-Assad fails to go through with it, and future prospects for Iranian–US diplomacy.
The appointment of Alan Eyre as a Persian-language spokesman in 2011 was part of new efforts by the US State Department to engage with Iran and Iranian people. Eyre is also part of the State Department’s Persian-language social media brand, USAdarFarsi, which is active on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. He also writes a Persian-language blog.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How optimistic are you about the Russian plan?
Alan Eyre: As Mr. Obama, the US president, has said, we witnessed encouraging signs following threats of military action, as well as constructive talks between Obama and Putin. Bashar Al-Assad used to deny the existence of his arsenal of chemical weapons, but now he has acknowledged possessing such weapons. He has even agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. This plan is capable of neutralizing the threat of chemical weapons without resorting to force. But it is still too early to make judgment about the outcome of this proposal. Cross-examination of evidence to reach any agreement is also a must.
Q: What guarantees can Syria make to dissuade the United States from taking military action? Will the military option be on the table once again if Syria ignores these guarantees?
Mr. Obama has asked Congress to delay voting on military action as long as the diplomatic route is followed. He has also asked Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with his Russian counterpart [Sergey Lavrov]. President Obama will also continue his talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Moreover, we will hold talks with our allies in view of submitting a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council. Such a resolution will require Assad to hand over his chemical arms, so they can be destroyed under international supervision. In parallel, in order to maintain pressure on the Assad regime, Obama has ordered our military forces to be ready for action in case diplomacy fails.
Q: What does Obama mean by a “limited and punitive” strike?
If such a military action happens, it will be target-oriented and limited. It means preventing chemical weapons from being used again and reducing Assad’s power to do so.
Q: What if the Syrian government ships out these arms?
President Obama announced on September 14 that he welcomed the progress made through talks between the US and Russian foreign ministers in Geneva, [where they agreed on] international control of Syrian chemical weapons as they are destroyed.
This framework provides an opportunity for the quick annihilation of these weapons, and also for testing [Syria’s] honesty. Many measures have already been implemented to that effect, but there is still much to be done. We [the US], along with Russia, Britain, France, and the UN, will continue this trend until we ensure that the Assad regime is acting in conformity with this agreement. In the event that Assad refuses to act within this framework, he will face consequences. If—God forbid—diplomacy fails, the US will be ready to take action.
Q: What are these consequences Mr. Obama referred to? Will he again seek Congressional approval if the military option is put back on the table?
On this issue, John Kerry said on September 14 that Mr. Obama, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is entitled to defend the nation [i.e., the US] and its interests. He has made it clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution. This structured agreement could not have happened without the US’s threat of military action. As Mr. Obama said on September 14, the US will be ready to act if diplomacy fails.
Q: It seems that the Syrian crisis will not end even if this agreement is implemented. Do you agree? Some believe that Mr. Obama agreed to the Russian proposal under pressure from the public, who broadly oppose more wars. Is that true?
Since August 21, we have been saying that our response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons will be the destruction of the regime’s ability to use these arms in the future. The best solution to that effect will be to locate those arms so they can be annihilated. This agreement also sets a framework to that effect. If this agreement is implemented successfully, the Assad regime’s chemical stockpiles will no longer be a threat to the people of Syria or to the region. The ground will be prepared for further cooperation, and an end to the two years of massacre and bloodshed which has gripped Syria. As Secretary Kerry said, the US and Russia prefer a political solution over a military solution for Syria.
Q: What do you think about Iranian foreign minister Mohamad Javad Zarif’s remarks that the Islamic Republic had warned against the transfer of chemical weapons to Syria and their possible use by jihadist forces nine months ago? Do you think the opposition in Syria could have had access to such weapons?
Our administration does not reveal the contents of diplomatic exchanges. What we say is that chemical weapons were used on August 21. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have also noted this point. It has become clear that the Syrian regime has been behind this savage act. Based on the existing evidence, nobody can deny these facts.
Q: Do you see any connection between the recent visits to Tehran by Omani monarch Sultan Qaboos and Jeffrey D. Feltman, the UN under secretary-general for political affairs, and the delayed military action on Syria?
Not at all. As Mr. Obama said, he was authorized to order military action, but he decided to seek approval from Congress. Such an action strengthens our democracy and makes any military action more effective.
Q: Do you think that the threat of military action against Syria will harm the Geneva II conference, which seeks a political solution to the Syrian crisis?
We should not forget that the horrific events of August 21 were not only a violation of international conventions, but a serious threat to our security. We have to keep in mind that our objective was never military action. It was a tool to undermine Syria’s power to use chemical weapons.
The agreement reached in Geneva with Russia is a must for our final objective, which is the annihilation of chemical weapons. We will continue our diplomatic exchanges and our dialogue with Congress about authorizing military action, because threatening military action against Syria forced Assad to acknowledge his stockpile of chemical weapons and agree to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Russia and the US have long agreed that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. They prefer a political solution reached at the [negotiating] table. We deeply believe in such a solution. In the last round of talks held between Secretary Kerry, Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN–Arab League special envoy to Syria, the significance of a political process was underscored.
Q: How do you predict that Syria and its allies, including Iran, would react in the event of a military strike in Syria?
Since the new agreement was reached, we are focusing on its implementation. We never underestimate any threat, but the Assad regime could not pose a serious threat to our military forces.
Q: Does the US government link the resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program to the removal of Bashar Al-Assad?
The international community believes Iran’s commitment to its international obligations, to allay concerns about the nature of its nuclear program, is the solution to Iran’s nuclear dispute. We hope that Iran’s new administration will soon move in that direction, so that sanctions will be relaxed and eventually lifted.
Q: Some believe that a possible military strike is only aimed at changing the balance of power in favor of Assad’s opponents. How would you respond to that?
Our government knows quite well that a military solution is not realistic, and that the only genuine solution is political. As Mr. Obama said, any potential military action will be aimed at preventing the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again.
Q: Would a possible military action against Syria benefit Al-Qaeda extremists?
Mr. Obama has already answered this question. He said that Al-Qaeda would seize power in a chaotic Syria, if the world takes no action in the face of the deaths of innocent civilians in a chemical attack. The crimes committed by the Assad regime—backed by Iran and Hezbollah—against the Syrian people have attracted foreign militants, who are trying to sow sectarian strife in Syria. As we have already said, the Assad regime has given rise to this cycle of sectarian violence and bloodshed in the region.