The Syrian Civil War is reshaping the Middle East, as the Islamic State’s influence and shadow is cawing Europe and the United States into inaction, and Saudi Arabia and Iran polarize the region into armed camps. The latest move to execute prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia and the retaliatory burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran has led to many severances of diplomatic relationships in the Gulf, and protests in Shia-dominated Iraq. In the background, the growing feud between the two countries is endangering the prospects of peace in Syria, which is in danger of permanently fragmenting into rump states, relegated to puppets of Riyadh and Tehran. While domestic solutions to the war are necessary, solutions must be supported by acquiescent regional powers that accept a neutralized Syria not aligned with either Saudi Arabia or Iran, and with the expectation that Syria in the long-run might be partitioned on the basis of individual self-determination by residents living in its constituent regions.
The Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah Axis
One of Iran’s cornerstone policies is to export the values of the 1979 Revolution across the world, which also tied its destiny culturally and politically to protect the Shia Islamic populations in the region and abroad. The reward of 20 years of Iranian foreign policy driven by the revolution and the Ayatollahs is the Shia Crescent, the network of national governments and non-state actors stretching across the Middle East and the Levant. Like Islam as a whole, Iranian (Persian) culture is deeply rooted in “empire,” making the country an obvious rival for regional dominance in classic, multipolar contest of power. Since the 1980s, Iranian leaders have fostered Islamic radicalism among Shia and Sunni groups, sponsoring Hezbollah in Lebanon and even Hamas in the Palestinian territories to confront the United States and its Arab allies. The removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq allowed Shia parties to remove Sunnis from power, and shift orientation towards Tehran. The sponsorship and support of the Houthis in the Yemeni proxy war with Saudi Arabia would complete the near encirclement of the Gulf, decisively tipping the balance of power in Tehran’s favor.
For Iran, the Syrian outcome will decide the viability of Iran as a great power as opposed to its Saudi rivals in Riyadh. Assad is not only an ally for Iran, Syria is the geopolitical centre of the Levant, a support base for Hezbollah, and access to the Mediterranean and regional natural gas markets for the so-called Shia Pipeline. Saudi Arabia’s support of Sunni opposition groups to Assad (and the presence of ISIS) has dragged the conflict outward to point of exhausting the Iran. Only the continued support of Russia has allowed Assad, Tehran, and Hezbollah to continue their campaign against the militants and gradually reclaim lost neighborhoods in Aleppo and Damascus. Hezbollah bolstered the regime’s defense since 2013, seeing the regime’s survival as essential to their own, should a new Sunni regime in Syria invade Lebanon. The investments in a new natural gas pipeline that spans Iran-Iraq-Syria to European markets would be endangered by a pro-Sunni Syria.
Saudi Arabia and It’s Gulf Marionette
The Gulf States, specifically Saudi Arabia, the resurrection of a Persian (albeit Shia dominated) Empire that surrounds them geopolitically is a foreign policy crisis. The prospect of a dominant Iran without US assistance has prompted Saudi Arabia to become a stronger leader in the Arab world, though not without perils to the security of the region. Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has been active to crush sectarian conflict in its borders, as it did in the wake of the al-Ahsa Massacre. However, the Kingdom’s history of supporting extremist movements, including Al Qaeda, has generated sectarian violence across the region. As Steve Coll addressed Saudi foreign policy aims in his book Ghost Wars, the Kingdom’s motivations for exporting terrorism was to counter Iranian and Soviet influence, through its trained agents from Wahhabist madrassas expanded radical religious and political footprint globally. While quelling sectarianism, the Saudis intervened regionally in neighboring states, including Bahrain and Yemen, where Iranian supported Shia groups attempted to overthrow the Sunni-based governments supported by Riyadh. Thus Saudi foreign policy at this stage is reactionary, and growing more aggressive as of Al-Nimr’s execution.
Despite their tendency distrust one another’s motives in the seemingly fratricidal Arab community, Riyadh and the non-ISIS Sunni rebels share a common interest to establish a pro-Sunni regime in Damascus. Riyadh is hardening the lines of sectarian violence in the country to preserve freedom of movement geopolitically and in continuance with post foreign policy goals. Closer to home, in the wake of US retreat from the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has moved to a closer union of its Arab neighbors and stronger support of its allies in Syria. The Riyadh Conference this past fall continued the Saudi push for a Gulf Union, an emergent policy aim since the Arab Spring threatened to topple the monarchy in Bahrain. They seek security from encirclement, and an opportunity to redress the balance of power in their favor in the absence of the United States. The Saudi call for an alliance against terrorism is an overt expression of their work in Syria and Yemen, and they certainly will not feel secure as long as the prospects of Iranian encirclement persists.
How US, Europe, and Russia Should Team Up
Internationally, the US and Europeans want to stem the flow of refugees leaving the region, which is placing greater domestic pressures in the form of the extreme right. The recent near victory by the National Front in France and the rise of Donald Trump from Tea Party standard bearer to potential GOP nominee are the results of domestic pressures place on government to address the issue. The longer Washington, Paris, Berlin, and other western governments wait to address Syria, the more we spurr the extreme right to power. The pressure placed on the European Union should especially worry US policymakers as Britain considers Brexit, Hungary becomes a closed dictatorship under Viktor Orban, and France becomes the victim of a far right takeover, threatening the legitimacy of the enterprise itself.
Russia’s position in unique in Syria and the Middle East, because, as Stephen Kotkin remarked in an interview with Foreign Affairs, its decline as a world power has not accompanied it maintenance of military power within Eurasia. No country other than China can boast military strength to counter Russia, while Moscow’s influence is limited to Eastern Europe and its former Soviet Republics. But Washington’s refusal to become more involved in Syria has opened the doors for Vladimir Putin to directly engage Russia in the role of a great power by reinforcing Iranian ambitions in the Fertile Crescent and break western encirclement by NATO and the European Union. Russia has earned its seat at the negotiating table and will be a strong advocate for non-interference, a hallmark of its post-Soviet foreign policy aims, in Syrian internal affairs.
Ultimately, the US wishes to restore the balance of power in the region, forestall a takeover in the country that would embolden both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and end the “Cold War” between the two countries. Previously, I discussed implementing a Dayton-style peace. However, we will need that need an international treaty regime to enforce it. Therefore, negotiators from Washington should consider the following policy prescriptions:
1) Binding Agreement by all regional and international stakeholders (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, the United States, and a Representative of the European Union) to enforce a peace agreement in cooperation with the Syrian Presidency Council.
The weakness and ultimate downfall of the Libyan peace, and success of Bosnia and Kosovo, is a supportive group of stakeholder countries that will enforce, counsel, and support the government and people of the country. Syria has been at war for 5 years, and each of the countries or groups listed had a role to play in the war. Now there is an opportunity to support reconciliation, and begin a peaceful transition into the New Middle East, which may or may not include the united state of Syria. But great benefit is to reduce conflict to a constructive, negotiating environment, and reduce tensions between both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
2) Call for a national unity force to destroy the Islamic State
Ultimately, the key to peace in Syria is the removal ISIS, whose main base of support is the Syrian-based Sunni population, fueled by years of sectarianism and discrimination from the Assad regime. ISIS feeds and gets stronger from increased sectarian violence propagated by Riyadh and Tehran, and continued international inaction will allow the group to persist, and possibly resurge. Therefore, the United States should commit troops at the head of national unity force, supported by Russia, France, Iran, and the Saudis, and destroy the organization following consensus on Syria’s post-war future.