Monday, September 2, 2013

What to do on Syria.

The intractable conflict within Syria has finally reached a point where it is no longer possible for it to be ignored on the world stage. Certainly, it should've been addressed a long time ago in some fashion, but many of the parties outside of the country (on both sides of the conflict) have gained substantial benefits from the protracted conflict. 

Russia has been significantly enriched by arms sales at the expense of the Syrian government, while at the same time enjoying a prominent position on the global stage where they can flex the power of their position on the United Nations Security Council. Russia loves to publicly say "no" to the US - it makes them feel like they matter.

The US and Israel have also seen some significant benefits from this drawn-out stalemate - Hezbollah has suffered more casualties over the last two years then over the previous ten, and has been severely restricted in their ability to carry out anti-Israel activity. Additionally, although they have been receiving dramatically increased amounts of arms and funding from Iran, their resources are largely tied up in Syria at the moment. Furthermore, they have alienated many of their constituents in Lebanon with their insistence on direct engagement in a conflict that has nothing to do with Israel.

Iran's gains from the conflict are less clear, but they are deeply invested in the situation, partially due to the potential loss of one of their few stalwart allies in the Arab world, and partially due to the very real possibility that this conflict in Syria is simply a precursor to a larger region-wide Shia/Sunni conflict. (note: Although the Allawite sect of Islam has only been formally affiliated with Shia Islam for less than a century, thanks to the careful relationship-building of Hafez Assad, particularly following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, most of the Muslim world sees little or no difference between Allawites and the rest of the Shia community.)

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also deeply invested in the conflict, though the benefits to them have more to do with long-term regional power. A weakened or collapsed Syrian state would, by extension, diminish Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, thereby providing opportunities for the continued growth of Saudi and Qatari power.

How, then, can this horrible situation be resolved?

Although no options are ideal options, there is a clear and (I feel) attainable path forward.

Right now, Pres. Obama is engaged in a two-pronged persuasion campaign - he's attempting to convince the United States Congress that the Syrian government was directly and unequivocally responsible for the massive use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. He is also, to a lesser extent, attempting to convince the American people that this is the case, and that it merits a clear response.

Although this course of action is, of course, necessary for the strategic path that he has chosen, Obama is working to convince the wrong people. A best-case scenario resolution for this entire situation is attainable, and the key to all of this is Iran.

The number one goal of the White House right now should be to present clear and convincing evidence of the Assad regime’s deliberate large-scale usage of chemical weapons against civilian populations.
Regardless of the tactical necessity for Iranian support of the Assad regime, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for high-level political, military, and religious officials in Iran to disregard the magnitude of Assad’s actions, particularly given their own experiences, and the deep physical, emotional, and psychological scars that much of the population still bears from their own encounters with chemical weapons.

A convincing case can then be made that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons is clear grounds for his negotiated removal, and responsibility for his removal falls squarely in Iran’s lap. Assad, and most of the members of his senior leadership (i.e. family) would need to leave the country and go into exile, presumably in Iran or Russia (there's probably nowhere else on the planet where they'd be safe). Negotiations surrounding this issue will provide all active military groups (on all sides) a reasonable justification for a temporary cease-fire on the ground.

This is a win-win for many of the involved parties, particularly because it removes the specter of a zero-sum game from the conflict. If mid-level military Syrian leadership was actively engaged in the process of removing the high-level military leadership it would provide them with some measure of credibility in the eyes of the Syrian rebel groups. Similarly, if a temporary cease-fire holds, it could provide some measure of reassurance to the minority Allawite communities that this conflict was, at its core, a rejection of Assad’ legitimacy as a leader, rather than a sectarian war.

Certainly, any state that Syria will find itself in post-Assad is going to be a horrible one. There are substantial numbers of hard-line Islamists, many of whom are foreign fighters, and many of whom will see a resolution of this type as an unacceptable compromise. Additionally, there are civilian victims on both sides who will never be able to forgive the things they've suffered at the hands of the rebels and the Syrian government. The intensity and ruthlessness of the conflict is staggering, with casualty numbers that can only be estimated and the refugees returning from neighboring countries will face an overwhelming task of reconstruction.
In spite of that, there is still the possibility that this conflict can be slowed or stopped. The alternative is a continuously growing Shia/Sunni sectarian war that could ultimately stretch from Lebanon to Pakistan.

The question, then: is this possible?

There is some cause for optimism. Last week Iranian president Rouhani stated that the use of chemical weapons in this conflict was unacceptable and that the world should take immediate action to ensure that it did not happen again. A few days later, former Iranian president Rafsanjani publicly stated that he believed the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapon usage (though the statement was taken off of the Internet within hours of being made). Additionally, Sultan Qaboos of Oman recently visited Iran to discuss a variety of issues. The country of Oman is one of the few regional entities enjoying excellent relations with both the American and Iranian governments, and the Sultan has served as an intermediary in conversations between the two countries in the past.

If Iran can take the lead in negotiating an abdication of leadership by Assad and a formal cease-fire on the part of the Iranian military and Hezbollah, then Turkey and Jordan will certainly be willing to come to the negotiating table to ensure compliance with the cease-fire on the part of the various Free Syrian Army groups that they are connected with. Some participation on the part of Saudi Arabia would be necessary to obtain cease-fire compliance by many of the hard-line Islamist groups, and some of those groups (particularly the al-Nusra Front and other groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda in Iraq) might refuse any cease-fire negotiations altogether, but even this limited transformation is dramatically better than what we see on the ground right now, and may well be a best case scenario for the entire conflict.

Even marginal stabilization would provide an opportunity for engagement by UN peacekeeping forces, and though it cannot be denied that some entities would use the cease-fire as an opportunity to rebuild their capacity for a future conflict, it's important to remember that every day that passes without shots being fired increases the odds that the next day will also pass without shots being fired.

1 comment:

  1. If it would work, Allah only knows. But this is one of the most sensible sounding analyses I have read.