September 7, 2015 - The convoluted regional and international politics affecting the future of Syria



This week, Alpher discusses the impact of the Iran nuclear deal on the ongoing chaos in Syria, including diplomatic initiatives; the Saudi role; ambivalence in the US-Turkish approach to Syria; Given Russia's and Iran's apparent willingness to consider compromising on Assad’s rule if the conditions are right, is Assad willing; and where does all this leave Israel.


Q. With the perspective of several months’ developments, how would you assess the impact of the Iran nuclear deal on the ongoing chaos in Syria?

A. The deal has energized the diplomatic involvement of Russia, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has energized Saudi regional military activism. And it has impacted on Russia’s and Turkey’s military involvement as well as Ankara’s internal politics. Meanwhile, in Syria itself President Assad insists it’s business (meaning wartime atrocities) as usual, while Israel is still trying to “keep its powder dry” in the face of increasingly bold Iranian military involvement nearby.

It is not at all certain that this recent diplomatic and military activism will have any near-term effect on the carnage in either Syria or the Levant in general. Still, neither Washington nor Jerusalem can ignore the situation in Syria, including the massive refugee flow it has produced. Having won the battle to prevent Congress from scuttling the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama is more than willing to help Israel prepare for the consequences in the Levant and elsewhere. But PM Netanyahu insists his war against Obama’s achievement isn’t over.


Q. Let’s begin with the diplomatic initiatives.

A. Here Russia and Iran are the prime movers. They seek to leverage the Iran nuclear momentum to generate a broad international and regional consensus in favor of preserving some form or variation of the current Syrian regime and uniting against the Sunni extremist opposition. To this end, Russian and Iranian diplomats have toured the region, Russia has hosted meetings with moderate Syrian opposition movements, and Moscow has engaged both Washington and Riyadh in conversations. In early August, the Russians reportedly even mediated a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia between young Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman and Ali Mamlouk, a senior Syrian security official.

The Russians hint that Washington is now prepared to compromise on the future of the Syrian regime. Yet both the US and Saudi Arabia continue to insist publicly that President Bashar al-Assad must be replaced as part and parcel of any diplomatic resolution. And the Saudis want Iran and its proxy forces out of Syria. Still, neither Riyadh nor Washington can point to a capacity to field “assets” in the Syria fight that in any way equals the Russian and Iranian asset: their base in Syria under the beleaguered Assad regime itself.

American efforts to train and deploy a moderate opposition movement that could challenge Assad have fallen flat. And the Saudis are finding it difficult to disentangle themselves from the more extreme Islamists in Syria, like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Hence they are not fully coordinated with US efforts managed from CENTCOM’s forward command center in northern Jordan--efforts that in any case have failed in the course of a year to seriously thwart the Islamic State’s conquests.


Q. Can you expand on the Saudi role?

A. Under a new and activist king, Salman, Saudi Arabia has plunged into the Yemen civil war where it believes it can win a proxy contest against Iran and thereby indirectly affect the outcome in Syria. In Yemen we find the Saudis heading a coalition that includes the Egyptian navy, surprisingly skilled and dominant UAE forces, and forces loyal to the deposed Yemeni government. The coalition is dedicated to pushing the Iran-backed Huthis (Zaidi Muslims affiliated with Shia Islam) northward, first from Aden then from Sanaa, to the Huthi mountain redoubt in northern Yemen. To this end the Saudis are prepared to cooperate tacitly with al-Qaeda, a third party in the fight that controls sizeable territory in Yemen.

Yet in parallel, the US continues to target the Qaeda leadership in Yemen. This US-Saudi dissonance takes on particular importance when we see Riyadh trying to woo Palestinian Hamas, a terrorist organization in Washington’s eyes, away from Iran and when we hear well-connected Saudis, encouraged by what looks like the beginnings of Saudi success in Yemen, suggest that after besting Iran in Yemen, Riyadh will seek to do the same in Syria: hardly a recipe for any sort of diplomatic outcome. All these areas of overlapping and conflicting interests were on the table when Salman and Obama met in Washington on September 4.


Q. There seems to be a similar ambivalence in the US-Turkish approach to Syria.

A. Indeed there is. In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal Washington finally persuaded Ankara to join the anti-IS war in Syria and to allow US Air Force units to fly out of strategically-located Incerlik air base in southern Turkey. Ankara had been seen as over-tolerant of militant Syrian Islamists because both they and Ankara vehemently oppose Assad and because Turkish President Erdogan is himself a Sunni Islamist. Now, the US-Turkey agreement is considered a test of Turkey’s readiness to follow the US line of focusing solely on the Islamic State in cooperation with Kurdish, Iranian and Iraqi actors.

Thus far, Turkey seems to have failed that test. The all-powerful Erdogan has turned his military primarily against Syrian and even Turkish Kurds and only secondarily against the Islamic State. He fears the ramifications of Syrian Kurdish conquests along the Syrian-Turkish border. And he needs to brand Turkey’s Kurdish citizens as untrustworthy in order to discredit a Kurdish-led liberal party and drive it below the electoral threshold so his AKParty can win outright in the new elections he has engineered in the hope of avoiding sharing power with his political opponents. In other words, a very nasty version of internal Turkish politics with both Islamist and Kurdish aspects has intervened to interfere with the effort to involve Turkey in a constructive role both against Syrian-based Islamists and in favor of Syrian-based Kurds--a key ally of the US in the fighting.


Q. Russia appears to be willing to consider compromising on Assad’s rule if the conditions are right. Iranian diplomats have also dropped hints to this effect. Is Assad willing?

A. On Sept. 3, Russia’s President Putin announced that Assad had agreed to swift elections followed by power-sharing with elements of the “healthy opposition”. “Healthy” presumably means non-Islamic, which in Syria’s case means weak and ineffective--hardly a threat to Assad’s rule insofar as he can count on Iran doubling down on its support for his regime through its Quds Force and Hezbollah. On August 24 Assad told Hezbollah’s TV arm, al-Manar, that he sees Syria as opposing virtually all Sunni Islamist forces, including IS and the Muslim Brotherhood with which he associates Erdogan. He expressed confidence in the Russians, who have “proven throughout this crisis, for four years, that they are sincere and transparent in their relationship with us”. And he justified Hezbollah’s contribution--meaning Iran’s--to helping “defend the Syrian people”.

So if Moscow and Tehran are sincere in discussing a compromise outcome for Damascus, they forgot to tell Assad. Of course, Assad’s lavish praise for the Russians could be interpreted in a Machiavellian sense as a warning to the Kremlin not to abandon him. More likely, the Russians and Iranians are merely exploiting what they consider to be a favorable outcome of the nuclear talks in order to further advance their interests in the region, bearing in mind that the US is not targeting the Assad regime in Syria even as it insists that in the final analysis that regime cannot remain in place. Recent reports point to the deployment of Russian aircraft and ground forces in Syria, apparently with Washington’s acquiescence, to attack Islamic State militants that threaten Assad--again, hardly a formula for replacing the Syrian dictator. Moscow is also trying to woo the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, two pro-American Arab states bordering Israel, to support its Syria policies.

But enhanced Russian-US contacts over Syria have a context that is broader than potentially sharing the anti-IS battlefield. Russia harbors serious concerns over Sunni Islamist extremism on its territory (Kazan, the Caucasus) and near its borders. Some 2,200 Russian citizens are fighting for the Islamic State, and Chechen Muslim volunteers are reportedly fighting against the Russians in Ukraine. (Shiite Islam is not perceived by Moscow as a threat, thereby explaining one dimension of Russia’s support for Iran.) These concerns at least partially drive Moscow’s support for the non-Sunni Assad regime and could conceivably encourage it to work more closely with the anti-IS coalition in the Levant. Then too, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing combat role of Russians in Ukraine have pushed Moscow into diplomatic isolation even as low oil prices and a European boycott have delivered heavy economic setbacks. All these factors would have to be part and parcel of whatever American-Russian-Saudi-Turkish-Iranian trade-off could conceivably be arranged in Syria.

Finally, even if we assume that Assad is at least theoretically replaceable with some sort of compromise regime if the Russians and particularly the Iranians put their minds to the task, none of this addresses the ongoing and seemingly invincible occupation by the Islamic State of a huge tract of Syrian and Iraqi real estate. The only party in the region seriously willing to fight IS, the Kurds, are hard put merely to hold onto the territories they claim in northern Syria and northern Iraq. The US-led effort against IS is not registering significant victories.

The flurry of diplomatic and military activity over the future of Syria must be seen in this context: the discussion concerns who rules “useful Syria” (Damascus, the Lebanon border area and the Mediterranean coast); it has almost nothing to do with the war against IS in Syria and Iraq or with growing signs of unrest in Lebanon and Iraq and the fighting in Egyptian Sinai and Libya.


Q. Where does all this leave Israel?

A. The Netanyahu government has failed to derail the Iran nuclear deal. Yet, out of a misguided strategic approach it is avoiding discussing with Washington ways to compensate it for any sort of multi-power “deal” regarding Syria that hurts its interests. Such a deal could, for example, promote Iran-backed unrest and even aggression on Israel’s northern borders. At the broader grand-strategic level, Netanyahu is also neglecting the need to cultivate US-Israel strategic cooperation against the prospect that in 15 years there will nevertheless be an Iranian nuclear threat, and regarding monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities in the interim. Washington, for its part, appears to be more than willing to work with Israel on all these issue-areas: President Obama has gone out of his way to declare as much to American Jewish leaders.

Currently, the Palestinian issue is essentially frozen due to the Fateh-Hamas split, the less-than-spectacular achievements of the PLO’s drive to “internationalize” the conflict, and unrest within the Fateh leadership that has spawned credible reports of Mahmoud Abbas beginning to depart the scene. Even the hawkish pro-settler government of Prime Minister Netanyahu with its suicidal impulse to turn Israel into a non-democratic bi-national state should be capable of recognizing that now is the time to acquiesce in the Iran nuclear deal.

Now is the time to sit down with President Obama to discuss a new set of US-Israel strategic understandings regarding Iran, Syria and perhaps even an eventual two-state solution. That Netanyahu is not proceeding in this direction threatens to be remembered as a mistake of grand strategic proportions.