The Syrian crisis has taken a drastic turn due to a series of developments. The first was the fall of the city of Qussayr, which revealed the extent of Iran’s intervention via Hezbollah; the second was Washington’s recognition – following a period of abstinence or elusion – of the fact that the regime used chemical weapons; and the third was the victory of moderate reformist Hasan Rohani in the presidential elections in Iran, thus turning the page on eight years spent by the conservatives in power. These transformations naturally require change at the level of the rules of the game. The American administration has decided to arm the opposition upon the wish of its many allies in Europe and the region. In the meantime, a religious and political Sunni alignment is starting to surface, calling for confrontation with the Shiite Crescent in the region. And this heralds a new situation on the Syrian scene, i.e. the existence of an inclination to fuel religious sectarian war between Iran and several Arab states – in addition to Turkey – but also the cold war between America and Russia that wishes to maintain its military presence in the Middle East at whichever price.
Syria is facing three types of war, and there is nothing new about that. The internal fighting has led to deep domestic alignments and consequently summoned foreign interventions and alignments, whether regional between Iran and its allies on one hand and a number of Arab countries headed by the Gulf states and Turkey on the other, or international through American, Russian and European intervention. But the latter intervention by those states and powers is not limited to supporting one team over the other. It rather aims to enhance the positions and cards of the interveners in the ongoing conflict in the region, one which is mainly between the Islamic Republic and the United States, and the parties standing behind them. But regardless of the acuteness of the foreign factors, the final say belongs to the powers on the domestic arena.
The transformations around the world following the end of the Cold War two and a half decades ago and the eruption of the storms of change in the Arab world, led the populations from the sidelines to the heart of the action and allowed them to influence the making of their decisions and future. Therefore, regardless of the extent of regional and international presence on the Syrian arena, the internal forces will continue to enjoy the last say in directing the events and determining their course and outcome. Hence the difficulty to push these forces around a negotiations table to seek a political settlement which might remain distant, at least until the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s mandate mid next year. While the support offered by Russia, Iran and their allies to the regime facilitated its military advancement over its oppositionists, the decision adopted by America and its partners to arm the opposition might not extend beyond the restoration of balance on the ground, a process which will take a lot of time.
The regional and international calculations might not achieve their goals as fast as expected by some. They might have even hastened an unprecedented armament race, although all the players are aware of the fact that the crisis will not be resolved on the field or through military settlement, no matter how long it takes and how much war escalates. Indeed, the wager on previous experiences is misplaced, considering that the rules of the Cold War and the religious wars have drastically changed, or rather the Afghanistan experience and the Soviets’ defeat in it. Neither Russia is qualified by its geography and economy to repeat the experience of the Soviet Union, nor is the United States – in light of its economic crisis and that of its European partners, in addition to the rise of influential international powers in Asia and Latin America – capable of performing its old role. This is not to forget the new circumstances generated by the new weapons of globalization, from the technological revolution to the intertwinement of the states’ economies and the collapse of traditional borders and national sovereignties among other factors.
Moreover, the circumstances and nature of the crisis in Syria are not similar to the ones which existed in Afghanistan and in Vietnam before that, even if the entire region turns into an arena of confrontation. Indeed, neither Iran and its allies can annul the major and influential Sunni component in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon no matter how much the Revolutionary Guard, the Asaeb, and the Parties are mobilized, nor is the Sunni religious or political calling capable of repeating the Jihad experience in Afghanistan and annul Shiite and Alawite components – among others – in these three countries, regardless of how many extremist forces and weapons are channeled to them. This is due to the fact that none among the latter are foreign nationals or occupation forces. So how can the situation be settled in favor of this or that team? How can a sect, from Beirut to Baghdad going through Damascus, defeat another sect threatening it with total eradication? And consequently, how can the American project for example fully defeat that of Russia and Iran? Or how can Tehran defeat its numerous opponents or dream about controlling the Arab Levant and Gulf?
The winds of change in the Arab world uprooted the pillars of the regional system and changed the political scene at the level of the relations, interests and alliances, knowing it would be too soon to predict the new image which will take shape. At the beginning, it was clear that two main poles in the region, i.e. Turkey and Iran, will be the greatest beneficiaries from the outcome of the transformations that rocked the pillars of the Arab states, whether those swept by the storm or those affected by their repercussions. This pushed the major states to reconsider their strategies and their network of relations and interests. To the Islamic Republic, the fall of Arab regimes loyal to Washington constituted a blow to the American project in the region, while Ankara started promoting the model of the Justice and Development Party as an example to be followed from North Africa to the Levant. But after two years, the Syrian crisis altered all the calculations and expectations.
During the last few years, Turkey constituted a strong dam in the face of Iranian expansion, from its involvement in the Palestinian cause to its rapprochement with Kurdistan, its support to the Sunnis of Iraq and its backing of the new regimes in the Arab countries that witnessed change. It also went back to being a key part of NATO and was the first to host its missile shield. But today, it has started to be shaken by the protesters on Taksim Square in Istanbul and on the squares of other cities, while sectarian voices are being heard in the speeches of its political powers. Hence, the Justice and Development Party will have no choice but to turn back to the domestic arena to face the winds of change.
Iran on the other hand has a different problem. For a while now, it has been trying to emulate the Soviet experience by looking beyond the border instead of towards the internal scene and its economic, social and developmental ability to engage in a wide-scale regional and international confrontation. It was ecstatic about the collapse of the Taliban regime which kept it preoccupied in its backyard for a long time and limited its role in the Central Asian republics. This joy reached its peak with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with which it sensed the collapse of all the obstacles that hindered its progress towards Iraq and from there towards the Gulf and the Mediterranean shores. There is no doubt that what is witnessed today in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon constitutes an ongoing depletion of its military capabilities and faltering economy due to the siege and the sanctions. And in light of the American decision to arm the Syrian opposition, it will find itself more preoccupied with the Syrian swamp. This will be the first file tackled by new Iranian President Hasan Rohani. Will he turn the clock backward, repeat his experience at the level of the nuclear file during the days of President Muhammad Khatami, and handle the domestic affairs? Or will he remain the hostage of the previous policy led by the extremist conservatives under the command of the Guide and the Guard, which will push the Islamic Republic to face the same fate as the Soviet Union more than two decades ago? Will President Rohani continue to rely on what the conservatives used to dub a combining political or Islamic project? Or will he resort to greater flexibility with the West (at the level of the Syrian crisis and the nuclear file) and to possible direct talks with the United States as promised in his electoral campaign? The opponents brandished their crescent – with its sectarian and political angles – in the face of the Shiite and nationalist crescent. So will the region slide towards sectarian war or will Rohani approach the Arabs with a different rhetoric and policy in regard to the nuclear and Syrian files?
The moderate and reformists were able to lead their candidate to the Iranian presidency. But it would be too soon to expect a drastic and critical change at the level of Tehran’s policy. On the other hand, the pressuring powers were able to push President Barack Obama to change his reluctant stance towards the Syrian crisis and establish balance on the military arena. Will these two transformations force Russia to reconsider its positions? The Syrian spring altered the rules of the game of change in the Arab world, considering that military settlement is neither on the table nor allowed, while the settlement between the close and distant players is not imminent. This is due to the fact that these major powers should firstly start implementing what they are requesting from the fighting Syrian parties among themselves. But until the transformation is complete in Iran and Washington, will Syria move towards change, stay the hostage of the stalling and ongoing killings along with Lebanon and Iraq that are implicated on its soil, or turn towards the confederacy option and division on the beat of foreign intervention?