The Syrian Conundrum and the Need for Regional Actors to Strategize

The Russians flocking to Syria, a ‘lame duck’ American President, and a more daring Iran after the implementation of the nuclear deal with the west all imply that the ‘Islamic Alliance’ proposed hastily and clumsily by Saudi Arabia deserves more serious thought than it has hitherto been granted.

Abstract

The Russians flocking to Syria, a ‘lame duck’ American President, and a more daring Iran after the implementation of the nuclear deal with the west all imply that the ‘Islamic Alliance’ proposed hastily and clumsily by Saudi Arabia deserves more serious thought than it has hitherto been granted. Heightened geopolitical exigencies may force Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, and Israel to transcend their differences in opinion on certain issues and work towards a comprehensive order and stability plan for the region.

As things stand in the Syrian war impasse, three scenarios are on the horizon as regards how the war may come to an end. Some observers suggest partitioning Syria (or even Iraq) as a model to bring the war into an end. This plan more or less proposes to leave the southern and southwestern belt in Syria, mostly Alawite-populated, to the regime. The northern part would be reserved for the Syrian Kurds while the Sunnis are left with somewhere around the center.1

Needless to say, for such a scenario to bear fruit, a major deal between parties on resource-sharing and population swaps will be necessary.2 However, the ‘model’ that it envisages for Syria would not bode well for the region. It is very much doubtful if this scheme would be sustainable and stabilize a region beset by conflict, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Yemen and Libya. Any political status given to Syrian Kurds that amounts to more than a ‘loose autonomy of sorts’ will certainly meet stiff resistance, first and foremost from Iran and Turkey, because it may set a ‘wrong’ example ahead.

The solution proposed most often is a negotiated settlement to end the war. In this framework, a central national government in Damascus continues to rule the country, though certainly without the same level of control over the regions. This is the idea that has underpinned all Geneva conferences and international meetings up until now as well as the latest Security Council resolution 2254. However, the resolution itself displays all the things wrong with this idea. Under ongoing war circumstances, a negotiated settlement remains so far-fetched that the Security Council resolution is not even able to touch on any of the real issues. It strikingly leaves unexpressed which groups will be included in the Syrian opposition in the negotiations and the eventual fate of al-Assad. Worse, the Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis already started to hijack the deal, as evidenced by the assassination of Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad regime.

The contest over the composition of the Syrian opposition which will sit at the negotiating table already undermines the credibility of the roadmap. Negotiations were supposed to start on January 25, but had to be postponed due to uncertainty and disagreement between the regime’s backers and the Syrian opposition over the composition of the latter. As an American face-saving measure in the face of the possibility that the meeting could not take place, expectations are so low now that Geneva-III will not even be composed of ‘negotiations’, but just proximity talks without any preconditions whatsoever, including ceasefires or humanitarian access to besieged towns and cities.3

The third option is military victory for one of the warring parties, which the literature on civil wars indicates is the best option for long-term stability. However, if the winning side is the Assad regime, nobody has yet figured out a way to fight ISIL without further radicalizing the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. As Rtd. General John Allen, former Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command, pointed out recently, it is not easy to ask Sunni tribes in Iraq to trust the Iraqi government and army to fight ISIS. It is not likely that the Syrian Democratic Forces, largely consisting of the Kurdish forces of the YPG/PYD at their core,[4] will make much difference on that score either. At the same time, even if such a mission was successful in Iraq, but especially in Syria, this would only cause further mistrust and apprehension in other powers in the region, starting with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council members.

 If the winning side is the Assad regime, nobody has yet figured out a way to fight ISIL without further radicalizing the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

Therefore, military victory against both Assad and Daesh is what is needed. Yet, instead of trying to defeat Daesh first and then starting a political process to decide Assad’s fate, as suggested by President Obama, Russia, and Iran (supported quietly by the Europeans and China), Assad must be defeated first. Only then can Daesh be targeted. No actor can accomplish this task with more legitimacy and precision than the Sunni-majority states in the larger region. The U.S. is in fact aware of the fact that ISIL cannot be fought out on the ground without the involvement of Sunni-majority powers in the region. This is why current U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, General Joe Dunford, said he “would like to see particularly Sunni nations in the region, GCC States, contribute to a greater degree on the ground” because these powers would not carry “some of the baggage of western forces.”5 Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has made similar remarks.”6

An Idea Hastily Announced, Prematurely Dismissed

Under current conditions the ‘Islamic Alliance’ proposal pitched by Saudi Arabia must be given further thought than it has so far. This proposal has been tossed aside far too fast by the hastily enlisted regional powers. With some adjustments to its name and composition it could actually be used to make a strong case for other powers in the region, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Egypt, to take such an action. For it to happen, however, all interested parties must be ready to reach a large compromise, to give up some of their their previous commitments and be willing to work out their differences for a common goal. Egypt must be the first topic of discussion.

The U.S. is in fact aware of the fact that ISIL cannot be fought out on the ground without the involvement of Sunni-majority powers in the region.

Saudi Arabia, which is the most vulnerable to detrimental effects of Iranian expansionism in the region because its political system is not conducive to ‘democratic openings’, must stop seeing the kind of nexus between political Islam and democracy that the AK Party and the Muslim Brotherhood represent in the region as a threat. It must also understand that Egypt has already become a huge liability economically, politically, and morally for Saudi Arabia and is unsustainable.7 Decriminalizing the Muslim Brotherhood will provide a big boost in this regard. Rekindling Turkish-Egyptian ties will also give Turkey the inspiring and confidence-building move that it sorely needs in the region. In return, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey must rethink how they view the Kingdom and ‘wrap it in cotton wool’.

It is no surprise that Pakistan has reservations about joining such a group, given its bourgeoning economic and political relationship with China. It also has a Shi’ite minority and Iran is its next-door neighbor. Although the Pakistani civilian and political elite have promised a ‘strong response’ if the territorial sovereignty of Saudi Arabia is violated,8 they will not be able to provide ground troops,9 except perhaps to Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom as they did during the First Gulf War. Pakistan should still be reminded that a more assertive Iran in the region will carry considerable internal leverage in Pakistan that is potentially destabilizing.10

This will not be enough, however; because Russia, which has turned up in Syria, will be indispensable to bring in Israel to try to push the Europeans—chiefly the British—and the post-Obama administration in this direction. Though Israel may currently not feel too much of a heat from wars in Syria and Iraq, it has long been dreading the expansion of Iranian power and the American propping up of an Iranian hegemon in the region.11 The pro-Israeli pundits and neocons in the U.S. are already fuming over the Iranian nuclear deal.12 Israel knows very well that as Iran is poised to be in Iraq, Syria and even more so in Lebanon for the foreseeable future, arms trafficking between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah will certainly intensify, if it has not started already.13 Some add to this the transfer of Russian know-how to Hezbollah.

14  Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said recently that “Iran determines the future of Syria and if it leads to perpetuation, Iranian hegemony in Syria will be a huge challenge for Israel” and that “the main Iranian actor against us is Hezbollah.” Israel may rest assured that targeting Israel, rhetorically first and militarily through Hezbollah next, is the first and easiest thing for Iran to do to shore up whatever will be left of its legitimacy in the larger Muslim world.15

This means that Israel and Turkey must work out their problems as well, including lifting the siege on Gaza. While Turkey and Egypt put their relations back on track, a clear, private message must also go to Israel, assuring it of continuing Egyptian respect for the Camp David Treaty, which actually was not at risk under President Morsi’s rule either. It seems both Turkey and Israel already understand the urgency of updating their relationship under the current geopolitical circumstances.16

Pinned Hopes on post-Obama

When the U.S. realizes that we must hit or force out Assad first and then go for ISIS, it will have to confront Russia in one way or another. Although nobody expects the U.S. to go to war with Russia for Middle Eastern order and stability, it still possesses the means to bleed Russia—a country already stretched too far, with wars in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria—to death. Unfortunately, nothing will come from President Obama, who seems to have been a ‘lame duck’ President all the way, not because the Senate was controlled by the Republicans but because he seems to have been subverted and weakened by the military and intelligence establishment since the onset of rebellion against Assad.17 This Administration has also been fraught with internal divisions.18

If the alternative track to win against both Assad and Daesh detailed here is not pursued, the unwise current plan to fight only ISIS while continuing the futile and already-doomed talks in Geneva may create serious troubles for Europe too.

When the U.S. realizes that we must hit or force out Assad first and then go for ISIS, it will have to confront Russia in one way or another.

If Turkey’s border-monitoring capabilities are too stretched (it certainly will if the current refugee wave due to Russian-regime-Iranian assault on Aleppo continues) as it continues to fight terrorism at home due to the Syrian conundrum, the inevitable spillover in the form of further waves of refugees and the return of radical fighters from the prolonged war or the Sunni backlash in Iraq and Syria may hit Europe hard as well. The EU must realize that “given the proximity of the Middle East (notably the Levant and Libya) to Europe and the calamity that refugee and other migrations represent for the EU and the region, this is Europe’s problem as much as the US’s or Russia’s.”19

The deepening and widening of Russian and Chinese inroads in the Middle East20 may additionally catalyze the hand of the next US president to look for options other than just diplomacy, engagement and dialogue with Russia, China, and Iran. The aforementioned alliance should work out their differences as wide a range of issues as possible (including the future political system and Kurdish rights in Syria) and strike out a grand, long-term bargain between themselves before January 2017, to be able to knock on the doors of the White House with this brand-new strong proposal. This way there will at least be one solid, credible action plan for the next US President to go back to when the current plan, based around Iran, goes bankrupt, as it will sooner rather than later.

Endnotes

1.  James Dobbins, Jeffrey Martini and Philip Gordon, “A Peace Plan for Syria” RAND Corporation,http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE182.html

2.  Barak Mendelsohn, “Divide and Conquer in Syria and Iraq: Why the West Should Plan for a Partition”https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2015-11-29/divide-and-conquer-syria-and-iraq

3.  Natasha Bertrand, “The Obama administration just ‘made a scary retreat’ in its Syria policy, and negotiations are quickly unraveling”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/john-kerry-syria-russia-iran-peace-talks-2016-1; “U.S. presses Syrian opposition to attend Geneva talks without preconditions”, Reuters,http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-idUSKCN0V52L0

4.  Andrew Tilghman, “This is the Pentagon’s new strategy to defeat ISIS”, MilitaryTimes,http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/war-on-is/2016/01/14/pentagon-strategy-islamic-state-iraq-syria/78269180/

5.  “Gen. Joe Dunford: U.S. Has Asked Allies to Increase Pressure on Islamic State”, The Wall Street Journal,http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/11/17/gen-joe-dunford-u-s-has-asked-allies-to-increase-pressure-on-islamic-state/

6.  Aaron Mehta, “Carter Hits Gulf Allies for Prioritizing Air, Not Ground, Forces”, Defense News,http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/policy-budget/policy/2015/12/01/carter-gulf-allies-jets-turkey-europe-isis/76616400/

7.  Mohamed Elmasry, “Another Arab Spring is Coming to Egypt”,http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/01/arab-spring-coming-egypt-160124051544977.html; AlJazeera, “German Think Tank Pulling out of Egypt Over Restrictions”, ABC News,http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/german-tank-pulling-egypt-restrictions-36393285

8.  Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Threat to S. Arabia will evoke strong response, says army”, Dawn, http://www.dawn.com/news/1232221

9.  Mateen Haider, “Govt to take parliamentarians into confidence over talks with S. Arabia”, Dawn,http://www.dawn.com/news/1232255/govt-to-take-parliamentarians-into-confidence-over-talks-with-s-arabia

10.  “Iranian leader threatens neighbors with Shiite cells”, the Daily Sabah, http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2016/01/14/iranian-leader-threatens-neighbors-with-shiite-cells-1452713736

11.  “Netanyahu: Without our Efforts Iran Would Have Had the Bomb”, Haaretz, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.697871; “New Mossad chief: Iran deal ‘significantly increases’ threat to Israel”, The Times of Israel,  http://www.timesofisrael.com/new-mossad-chief-iran-deal-significantly-increases-threat-to-israel/

12.  “Charles Krauthammer commentary: Iran deal has more problems than prisoner swap”,http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/editorials/2016/01/25/1-iran-deal-has-more-problems-than-prisoner-swap.html

13.  Jesse Rosenfeld, “Russia Is Arming Hezbollah, Say Two of the Group’s Field Commanders”, The Daily Beast,http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/01/11/russia-is-arming-hezbollah-say-two-of-the-group-s-field-commanders.html

14.  Amos Harel, “Senior IDF Officer: Russian Know-how in Syria Will Improve Hezbollah’s Offensive Capabilities”,http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.698015

15.  “Khamenei Releases Holocaust Denial Video on International Holocaust Remembrance Day”, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/5285.htm

16.  “Netanyahu: Türkiye ile İlişkilerden Umutluyum”, Sabah, http://www.sabah.com.tr/dunya/2016/01/22/netanyahu-turkiye-ile-iliskilerden-umutluyum” Erdoğan: Türkiye ile İsrail’in birbirine ihtiyacı var”, Dünya Bülteni,http://www.dunyabulteni.net/haber/350668/erdogan-turkiye-ile-israilin-birbirine-ihtiyaci-var

17.  Seymour Hersh, “Military to Military”, London Review of Books,http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military

18.  Dan De Luce, “Hagel: The White House Tried to ‘Destroy’ Me”, Foreign Policy, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/18/hagel-the-white-house-tried-to-destroy-me/; Josh Rogin, “Assad is Reaching out to Washington Insiders”, BloombergView,http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-12-22/assad-is-reaching-out-to-washington-insiders

19.  John Jenkins, “No one knows what they’re doing in Syria – but standing back is not an option”, NewStatesman,http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2015/12/no-one-knows-what-theyre-doing-syria-standing-back-not-option

20.  “West-wary Iran deepens China ties as sanctions end”, AlJazeera,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/west-wary-iran-warms-china-sanctions-160124054336143.html; “Egypt, China sign 21 investment deals to foster mutual cooperation”, Ahramonline,http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/183547/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt,-China-sign–investment-deals-to-foster-mutu.aspx;

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