The Nuclear Agreement brought Iran to a fork in the road on Syria. There was a push to implement an American suggestion to form a liaison group made up of Russia, America, and the regional states including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran (perhaps with Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, and Iraq), in order to give political cover to the efforts of international special envoy Staffan De Mistura. Simultaneously, there was a European discussion about forming a liaison group, including an external affairs coordinator and the foreign ministries of the UK, France, and Germany, which would engage with Iran in all Middle Eastern affairs. These are two suggestions, but the most important Arab states of the region still have doubts in both, and warn against trusting Iranian promises.
Following 220 advisory meetings between the special envoy, Syrians, and international and regional players, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon will discuss de Mistura’s report in the General Assembly on August 29. De Mistura is expected to support the outcome of his meetings, the results of the two opposition conferences in Cairo, the papers published by it, and his meetings with the representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition – including military groups – and present a roadmap for Syria based on the Geneva 1 protocol. De Mistura thinks that he has succeeded in regaining the trust of the armed opposition by meeting with some of its leadership and representatives in Turkey and Jordan, and by openly criticizing the random use of “barrel bombs” on civilians.
When a regional-international liaison group is formed, the region is expected to make do for the time being with a Russian-American guarantee and the support of the Security Council. The special envoy is therefore expected to set up the Geneva negotiations between the representatives of the government and the opposition as a whole, so that the region will not accept the Syrian National Coalition’s monopolization of representing the opposition, as happened in early 2014. There is now an Russian-American focus on Geneva 3, and a hypothetical Moscow Forum 3 has been cancelled, which had been intended to leave the door open for creative Russian suggestions in support of Geneva, given that the Russian capital had been the only place where meetings between the government and opposition had been held.
De Mistura believes that in the Geneva 3 meeting, Iranian backing, representation of the opposition by more than just the coalition, and a Russian-American understanding will eliminate the reasons for the failure of Geneva 2.
One of the ideas that de Mistura is working on and promoting is to call for early presidential elections. He believes that he can sell this idea of the regime and its allies in Moscow and Tehran, who believe that early elections under international supervision will reproduce the regime and “President Bashar al-Assad’s recovery of legitimacy.” Yet the opposition and its allies have also suggested that elections be held with international supervision and UN backing, and that the participation of refugees (whose number has reached five million) and displaced (whose number has reached around seven million) “may lead to Assad’s departure.”
Some Western states wager that in the case that Iran’s interests are “satisfied” – its military logistical link to Hezbollah and a gas pipeline through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean – Iran will be amenable to a political solution. Western officials say that Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the nuclear discussions in Vienna (though the discussions were not supposed to cover regional issues) that Iran “is not committed to any individual in the regime, but to its interests, and that Syrians will determine their own future.”
Currently, serious thought is being put into a solution, and into vital and shared interests. One proposal is that a “transitional government” or “national unity government” be formed in which political figures from the Coalition, the Cairo conference, and the “Moscow Forum” participate, alongside the Southern Front, Free Syrian Army, and some moderate Islamist battalions (including Ahrar al-Sham, which recently published an article by one of its officials in the Washington Post); that the regime army be integrated with opposition fighters and preserved as an institution; and that some changes be made in the most prominent figures in the regime and some of the security services.
The liaison group would agree upon the principles of a political solution, its duration, and the political or sectarian shares distributed in the new structure, which would be imposed in a political process that ends with free presidential elections and international supervision as the baseline for the local, regional, and international parties to the conflict. There would also apparently be a two-year transitional stage. The agreement produced by Geneva 3 would result from dialogue between the representatives of the regime and the opposition and be artfully formulated by the special envoy and the results of the dialogue, and would include an international resolution that guarantees supervision, steps for reconciliation, economic support, and reconstruction, so that this government and army will have the necessary political legitimacy and sectarian representation to “unite against terrorism.” This would come as a suggestion “presented” by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to form an international-regional alliance against terrorism, with the participation of the new Damascus.
The Second Choice
The second choice is for Iran to consider the nuclear agreement a blank check for its policies in the Middle East, and to take all or part of Syria’s territory and people to control as Iran sees fit. Conservatives and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard understand that any political solution in Syria will deliver victory to the majority, and that Sunni Syria is not Shiite Iraq. Thus retaining a portion of Syrian territory that safeguards the interests of Iranian expansion is better than Iran sharing all of Syria with others. Some Syrians fear that in Iran, the nuclear agreement is being seen as the equivalent of a deal to include it in the alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, since this is a Western priority. Iran will therefore benefit from the Western fear of terrorism, and Hezbollah will become more deeply embroiled in the war against “takfiris” in what it considers an “existential conflict.” This will leave the regime and what remains of the Syrian state to bleed the country.
Iran’s military and economic control over Syria will grow, and after sanctions are lifted, more money and petroleum aid will flow, Iran will build itself a regime. Its militias in the region will take what they want, from Damascus to Tartous. This entity alone will play the role of the Syrian national, putting pressure on Israel, signing alliances, and acting as a military extension for Hezbollah – all in the capital of the Sunni Umayyads. Two-thirds of Syria will be left in chaos, in the “caliphate” of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and in the “emirate” on the verge of establishment by the leader of Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani. Iran will abandon most of Syria, including Aleppo – the second-biggest city and the economic capital of the country – to chaos, extremism, and struggle between Islamist factions, in order to be America’s ally in the region in fighting extremism.
This means that until the end of Barack Obama’s term in the coming year, there will be discussion of opposition conferences in Cairo and Astana; meetings between representatives of the government and the opposition in Geneva, Moscow, and elsewhere; secret negotiations, a second track, and a liaison group; and regional barters will be made: Yemen in exchange for Syria, or Iraq in exchange for Syria. All the while, Syria will become more divided – into a Jordanian region in southern Syria, a Turkish region in northern Syria, an Iranian region in the heart of Syria, an ISIS region in the middle of Syria, and a Nusra region on Syria’s shoulders.
Comparison with Lebanon
Here, we can make a comparison taken from modern history. After the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the eastern bloc, Syria’s entry into the Gulf War, and the Arab-Israeli peace process, America charged the Syrian regime with administering Lebanon. Syrian military and security forces remained in Lebanon until 2005, and the regime governed two countries with two political and economic systems. Iran plays – with international acceptance – the role played by the regime in Lebanon for a quarter of a century. In Syria, the conditions of the Syrian protectorate over Lebanon have been reproduced: Iran regards regional and international conditions as favoring its interests, as was the case for the regime in Lebanon in the early 1990s. Syrians are now seeing the rules of the game change, just as the Lebanese waited for the rules of the game to change. On this subject, a European official passed along a statement by an Iranian official that “the Syrian regime is a red line for us,” and that “Syria is 1,000 times more important than Yemen, or any other place.” The bet is that when the new American president begins his or her term in 2017, he or she will find facts on the ground, and Iran will be a critical part of these facts.
The first path might be the more likely of the two, since the second is not just a creation drenched in Syrian blood and a dangerous recipe for the region and its neighbors – it could also result in a surprise that would be too grave for the great powers to take: a terrorist explosion in a European capital or an American city, a surprise collapse of the regime, or an unexpected expansion of ISIS toward Damascus or toward Homs and the cutting off of the route between Damascus and the coast. The first choice is more likely, since the geographical location of Syria makes waiting costly, the second choice entails leaving two-thirds of Syria to chaos, extremism, and the geographical and ideological expansion of ISIS into something that threatens the depth of Western interests, and carving up Syria will defer the conclusion of the campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
The competition has become heated. Some regime officials believe that the regime will win and that time is on their side. They wait for victory to eventually come to them. Some opposition members are “afraid that the nuclear agreement comes at the expense of the blood of our people.” Finally, some regional states warn how unrestrained Iranian behavior will be.
Iran wants to be the regional “inheritor” of America, and to benefit from Obama’s withdrawal from the region. Yet its role as a “partner” will clash with the factors of geography and demography that do not allow Tehran to exercise any more than a “role” whose continuation depends upon the legitimacy of the rest of the players and sectarian elements in the region. The survival of Iran’s role will be determined by its behavior and the route it chooses at the Syrian crossroads: Damascus-Beirut or Damascus-Aleppo.