Just a few months ago, we saw the United States nearly get dramatically involved in yet another Middle Eastern adventure; this time in Syria. President Obama may, or may not, have been bluffing about a missile strike, but in his rejection of military intervention, he consented to Russia and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) gaining the upper hand in Syria. This is an important shift; it signals the start of a post 9/11 era and the abandonment of the notion that the United States can ‘export’ democracy. Moscow’s plan has provided for NATO and Russian collaboration on supervising the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal under a UN mandate. Syria acceded, on 14 September, to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In addition to the Convention, the legal basis for Syria’s chemical disarmament is based on an accelerated program under the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which aims to eliminate Damascus’s chemical weapons by mid-2014.
This is the first time that this form of collaboration has taken place so openly and with the cooperation of government authorities. However, the other, and much more important result of Russian diplomacy and Obama’s Syrian bluff, is the enabling of the ‘5+1’ (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) Iran negotiations, which overshadow in geopolitical significance the Syrian civil war itself. It has also, of course, paved the way for the Geneva II peace conference, which has been scheduled for January 22. The latter will likely go ahead even though many rebel groups have been reluctant to attend, and it may well see the participation of Iran, Turkey and possibly Saudi Arabia as well as the United States. As oddly progressive as it sounds, President Obama and President Rouhani have already spoken on the phone – not since the Shah has a US president spoken to an Iranian leader at the official level.
The new Iranian president has sent a clear message to the world that Iran is changing and that dialogue is possible. Syria has served as the vehicle of this transformation. This diplomatic renaissance has enabled Rouhani to buy some time for the Islamic Republic, which has been crumbling under the weight of economic sanctions and strict limits on the amount of oil it can sell. Iran will have to pay some kind of price for this rehabilitation. Surely, it will not be the severing of ties with Syria (and hence access to Hezbollah in Lebanon). It will more likely involve recognition of Israel – or at least a significant reduction of its anti-Israeli rhetoric – as well as a renunciation of its nuclear military ambitions. At any rate, the path to Geneva II, even if it fails, has already brought a return of diplomacy, even if stability and peace do not return to Syria. In a sense, ordinary Syrians have been put back in charge of their civil war and to them alone belongs the decision over their sovereignty and independence.
The foreign masters, whether France, Iran, Turkey or the United States, have been deprived of their legitimacy to write Syria’s future unilaterally. Unfortunately for the rebels, Bashar al-Assad can afford to be intransigent with them because, in the local logic, he has emerged victorious by averting confrontation with the United States. If Assad has been essentially granted ‘permission’ to challenge the insurgents – so long as it doesn’t involve the use of chemical weapons - the opposition forces appear as non-credible as ever, offering no solution and certainly no prospects for democracy. In this context, Assad can freely discuss conditions needed to ensure the success of the peace conference. One of those is for the opposition forces to attend the conference in order to represent the Syrian people rather than the foreign powers that support them. The opposition sees the peace conference’s purpose as the resignation of Bashar al-Assad and the handover of all power to a transitional government in charge of organizing new elections. If the opposition were to attend the meeting, it logically follows that it would not be to organize a democratic transition; rather, it would give Assad a ceasefire to ensure the survival of his regime. However, while nominally NATO and some Arab countries support the opposition, at least in their leaders’ public statements, if there are to be any talks at all, it is because of Russia’s position; and Russia has a big voice in the matter. Moscow would sooner agree to Assad resigning, only to present himself as the architect of peace and then regain his status as the inevitable leader.
The opposition has thus far rejected participating in the talks, but their Western friends are now constrained; they cannot back down from Geneva II because of the agreement with Syria’s main ally Iran.
The prospect for a comprehensive ‘5+1’ agreement over Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva represents more than just a victory for Iran; it is a victory for all Shiites in the Middle East in the enduring dispute with their Sunni counterparts. In Syrian terms, the agreement all but ensures the Ba’ath party’s survival in the longer term and the fact that President Bashar al-Assad will remain in command. The more traditional Western allies in the region, Israel and especially Saudi Arabia, will emerge as losers in such a deal. Having opposed the Iranian nuclear deal from the outset, failing to suggest anything more strategic and thoughtful than a military strike against Iranian nuclear targets, which would only have served to raise regional and international tension, they have been left out of the talks. Jerusalem and Riyadh, in fact, are the true isolated parties in the ‘Iranian nuclear deal’ context. Bashar al-Assad, as he did before in the forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 after the Hariri assassination and after the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war, has managed to remain in control despite incredible odds; and all thanks to the overconfidence, even conceit, of his regional rivals. Naturally, Israel and the Gulf states were hoping for a breakdown of the Geneva talks, which would have achieved the very opposite of the present situation, that is to embarrass Iran, weaken President Rouhani and the reformists vis-à-vis the Supreme Leader, Khamanei, and effectively extinguish all momentum for a more constructive relationship between Iran and the West.
Alessandro Bruno is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com