Lebanon, Syria

What Can Iran Deliver on Syria?

barack-obama_hassan-rohani_0There’s been some speculation in the press this week about what a possible thaw in US-Iranian diplomatic relations (the product, no doubt, of an extensive public relations campaign) might mean for several big-picture issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of an American strike, the territorial and strategic balance of power in the Persian Gulf, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and so on.

Syria is part of the discussion but it’s not clear what Iran can deliver on this front, assuming that the negotiations on the larger and more complex issues develop productively. Last week, I argued at a teach-in we held at Brown that if the Obama administration is serious about a political solution to the Syrian crisis (or a “political outcome,” as my friend Nadim Shehadi puts it), then the US should be talking to the Iranians, not the Russians. Unlike Moscow, Tehran has an enormous strategic, financial, and military investment in its alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and so has more to lose from the current state of affairs.

Iran exerts considerable leverage over its client, but having leverage means little without a workable political settlement in view. What can Iran actually deliver? A couple weeks ago, we had a debate in the comment section about what a Syrian Ta’if Accord might look like, once the principal combatants agreed to lay down their arms. Very few readers could see their way to such an agreement in the near term, citing geopolitical factors as the main obstacle.

But if the geopolitical environment is looking more amenable to a regional agreement over Syria’s fate — what with Iranian smoke signals and White House pen pal letters — it’s worth asking the question again: What kind of agreement by outside powers can be imposed effectively in Syria, in the way that Ta’if (for all its warts) managed to end Lebanon’s Civil War and has kept the peace for nearly a quarter century?

Steve Walt believes that “the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients.” My regime contacts’ views on what a potential compromise should involve envision a more ambitious process.

If we take Walt’s more limited position as a base line, could Iran help broker such an agreement? Would they commit troops to enforcing a ceasefire, or lend support to a UNIFIL-type force to do the job? Do they have the leverage to force Assad to step down and sponsor a new power-sharing arrangement in Syria? At this point, it may not even be sensical to speak about a “political solution” in Syria without some form of military involvement to enforce it, just as Syria enforced the Ta’if Agreement in Lebanon.

And, of course, assuming one can even separate the Syrian file from all the larger issues involved, how to square the Resistance/Hizbullah circle? Rouhani is in no position to sacrifice a major strategic asset in the service of better relations with the United States. Unless, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict is solved in the process.

Surely that’s what President Obama’s plan was all along.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “What Can Iran Deliver on Syria?

  1. When does Steve Walt join Rand Paul’s presidential bid as his foreign policy adviser?

    Anyway, Walt’s hand’s-off approach mirrors Dan Pipes’. Let’em die, keep the thugs in power.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | September 18, 2013, 3:39 pm
  2. Iran is rethinking its foreign policy and there are many disagreements inside Iran on what to do. Having said that, Iran can live with partition of Syria in which Assad stays in power over a much smaller state, but they would never agree to a transition deal since any realistic deal would inevitably lead to Sunni control over Syria. Having said that, the Assad state would not be viable without massive Iranian support because the rebels have taken over the oil fields and the West would not support any rebuilding of Assadstan. So this is going to become quite costly for Iran to maintain. The Iranians are in a no win situation in Syria.

    As for Hezbollah, it is becoming more a counterweight to Sunni Islamists than a threat to Israel by the day. It is really a much bigger problem for Lebanon as a state than for Israel at this stage and may even be an asset and help stability. Seven years and counting of a quiet Lebanese-Israeli border is a great outcome for both countries.

    Posted by AIG | September 18, 2013, 5:16 pm
  3. A US-Iranian accord on the nuclear issue and sanctions may pave the way for a US-Iranian understanding on Syria, just as the US-Russian agreement re Syria’s chemical weapons has apparently encouraged the recent Obama-Rouhani exchanges. (I.e., these exchanges would have been far less likely to develop in the event of direct US military action against the Assad regime.)

    But a neo-Ta’if for Syria? I don’t know. The Lebanese parties at least recognized each other as “legitimate political players.” It’s hard to imagine the Assad regime and the Islamist rebels finding common ground. At this point there doesn’t seem to be any. Perhaps Kurds would be more amenable to some kind of an agreement, though, that recognizes their regional autonomy.

    It’s possible that the best one could *realistically* hope for at this stage would be be a reduction of violence and stabilization of various zones of demarcation, rather than a full-blown “settlement” in the manner of Ta’if.

    Posted by Jim Reilly | September 19, 2013, 7:27 am
  4. Jim

    That’s true, and I don’t think it’s by accident that there are no “legitimate political players” on the opposition side. The only credible organizations that could step into that role (like the MB for instance) have been eradicated and are still rebuilding.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | September 19, 2013, 8:18 am
  5. In his new movie “Ladder to Damascus” (shown in Toronto last week), director Muhammad Malas has one of his characters (a retired military officer who speaks with a coastal accent) talk back at the television screen while the Ra’is lisps through a vacuous speech. (The film is set in 2012 or 2013.) “You have booby-trapped the country,” the character hisses. Indeed.

    Posted by James Reilly | September 19, 2013, 10:45 am
  6. AIG’s comment of September 18, 2013, 5:16 pm is spot on.

    Can we get him an honorary Phd at Brown University?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | September 20, 2013, 8:19 am
  7. Why the Iranians “instead of” the Russians? It seems that what is emerging is a coalition against al-Qaeda. The Russians have at least as great a vested interest in this as Iran, Syria, the US, and (by the way) Israel.

    Posted by samadamsthedog | September 21, 2013, 11:51 pm
  8. Here are two questions that i have no insight into, but wish i did. Does anyone have any information that goes beyond wishful thinking?

    1. The secular liberals of Syria: Which is more important to them: unseating Assad or creating something resembling a secular liberal society? If the former, alliance with al-quaeda affiliates makes makes sense, to the extent that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” To me, though admittedly iOAD™ (i’m Only A Dog), it seems naive to imagine that such an alliance will lead to anything but a greater tyranny. If the latter, however, I should think that at this point, they would see alliance with Assad as the larger hope. Theorem: Tyranny by a majority is worse than tyranny by a minority. (The proof is left to the reader.)

    2. The Sunnis of Syria: What fraction of them really long for the overthrow of Assad, or did in, say, 2010? That is tied up with the questions: (a) How many of them are secular liberals? (b) How many of them sympathize with the jihadi world view? Of course, even if a large majority would trade “all of their tomorrows for just one yesterday” — say, one drawn at random from 2010 –, the jihadis almost certainly have enough support to prevent anything like that from taking place. Still, it would be good to know.

    Posted by samadamsthedog | September 22, 2013, 4:45 pm
  9. Sam,

    “Which is more important to them: unseating Assad or creating something resembling a secular liberal society?”

    I think these two points go hand in hand. There is no way that Syria will head towards any resemblance of a Democracy or ‘ Secular Liberal society’ with the current regime. For one, there is no forgiving Assad and his clique for what has transpired. Even the die hard supporters of Assad have to some extent come to the realization that he has lost legitimacy to govern. The war will continue even if he declares victory.
    This is an issue- replacing Assad- that Iran/Russia have bypassed or even rejected, unless they are using that wild card for the final round (wishful thinking).
    Two, if the regime remains, the totalitarian Baath system will be consolidated further. Insignificant reforms will be implemented as a smoke screen. The police state will come back stronger than ever, freedoms will be further curtailed and the oppression would be twice as much as before the revolt. There is no power sharing with a totalitarian system. The Realists in the opposition know this, and some of them know exactly how it feels (with physical and mental scars to show)when having a different opinion than that of the regime.
    I don’t see any other way than the total eradication of the Baath system. Keep some of the old guard if it achieves some kind of peace, the individuals are not that important. The vital thing is to rid the Syrians of that black plague of a system.
    To do this, the international community must provide military assistance to the FSA and in the diplomatic arena, try pushing for a settlement with Iran/Russia over the removal of Assad and creating a new Socio-political contract.
    The Jihadis can take a back seat for now.

    Posted by Maverick | September 22, 2013, 6:08 pm
  10. Rumors of the death of the US-Iran conflict have been greatly exaggerated. We’ve seen uptakes in positive stories about Iran in US media before, and we’ve seen the bubble burst. There have been no fundamental changes in the physics of this conflict, and what were seeing play out is more sizzle than steak. I predict we’ll all be back to square one, or worse, by the end of the year.

    As for Syria, it is not a ‘client’ of Iran any more than Hamas or Hezbollah is or was. Iran tries to avoid interference in the internal political process of it’s partners. True, it has gone to great lengths to support the Syrian government against the onslaught it’s facing, but the only quid pro quo Iran gets back from it’s efforts is the maintenance of Syria as a front line state of the resistance. On matters relating to military strategy and Israel, Iran will have a lot to say, and will expect to be heard. On specific political questions such as weather Asad steps down or not, Iran won’t say a word. On more general political questions such as the overall principles of reconciliation, Iran has and will advocate it’s strong preference for multilateral cross sectarian cooperation, resort to democratic processes to decide crucial outcomes, and above all, keeping Syria in tact as single coherent state. Iran sees the ‘small states strategy’ as a Zionist plot, and will oppose it in Syria just much as it did in Iraq.

    I think that the most likely ‘political outcome’ in Syria will be more or less the same as the ‘political outcome’ in the inter sectarian violence that consumed Iraq. One side will eventually realize that it’s lost, and stop going on the offensive. I think that side is going to be the ‘rebels’. And I think the biggest difference between Syria and Iraq will be that when that happens, the Syrian army will be in a much stronger position to ‘mop up’ remaining opposition elements, while the most the Shia militias in Iraq could do was to consolidate their positions on their ‘own territory’.

    Posted by masoud | September 22, 2013, 11:02 pm
  11. The funniest, PRESS TV like statement I read is the one denying Iran’s interference in the “internal political affairs”. Iran has been working very hard to develop client states and non-state actors using terrorism and coercion as a base-line.

    The ability to influence the fate of the Syrian conflict depends largely on the ability to influence the actors on the ground. In that regard, Iran has the ability to influence the action of its terrorist paramilitary forces (HA and Al-Abbas as well as its own Iranian terrorists). However, the US influence has been largely negative in the sense that the US has no measurable influence on any of the multiple of groups fighting against Iran’s clients. Nor does any single state in the region have a sufficient leverage over a sufficient number of groups to affect their decision to lay down arms or to agree to ceasefire . To the contrary, the US, and despite of nearly a Billion dollar spent on relief, has preempted any potential influence it could have by the confused indecisive policy Obama has adopted in Syria.

    Furthermore, before talking on whether Iran “can deliver” one must question whether the “terror-sponsor” extraordinaire has interest in changing the situation in ways other than achieving decisive military victory for its terrorist clients over the other “terrorists” but more so against the Syrian people, their desire to be free, and to develop a state unencumbered by the theological/racist backwardness of Iran and its chief regional rivals.

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | October 20, 2013, 3:24 am
  12. And by the way, I disagree with AIG that HA is becoming a counterweight to sunni militant groups. In fact its presence and actions in Syria along with other Iran owned terrorist groups has been fueling an increasingly radicalized conflict and has completely sent its reputation to the sewer. That reputation was behind much of the political support this terrorist organization received over the past. In the end, conflict between HA and sunni militant groups will also backfire against Iran, which has also relied on many of these groups as tools, wittingly or unwittingly on their side. Their animosity to Iran is not something the terrorist state can afford over the long run.

    As for the emergence of anti-alqaida axis theory, i think that such theory is both naive and unverifiable. What is was emerging was an Iranian brigades of death attempting to maintain a regime that has lost any pretense to belonging to the country it rules. The battle in the eyes of many syrians is increasingly a battle of liberation against an Iranian occupation with Assad, remaining a laughing stock dummy in the hand of its Iranian handlers. Naturally, and before some Iran propagandists go beserk, the presence of groups like Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is changing the nature of the conflict and making it more like middle-ages conflicts where two occupiers vie for the land of others. Neither one is a liberator, and both are despised and hated by the locals.

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | October 20, 2013, 3:44 am
  13. IN conclusion,
    Spare us the PRESS TV propaganda about Iranian diplomacy. It is a smoke screen. Facts on the ground point to an aggressor with backward empirical dreams. Facts on the ground clearly demonstrate that Iran is liable for much Syrian blood. Facts on the ground say that, no matter what happens, Iran is following on the same path of destruction. Many of the elements are there: a weak army, but strong ideological paramilitary forces that are not concerned about the state as institution but as mere tool, a political structure that is above all institutions of the state and a weak economy that will not be rescued by mere lifting of sanctions. It may take time, but it will happen.

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | October 20, 2013, 3:56 am
  14. Syrian Hamster,

    I agree with what you say. What I meant was that just as Hezbollah is loath to provoke Israel since the Sunni extremist would use that opportunity to attack them, the same applies to the Sunni extremists. Neither party can afford to attack Israel and fight a war on two fronts or to be weakened by a struggle with Israel only to be attacked by the other.

    Iran is on a bad path for one simple reason: it is facing economic meltdown if it does not get rid of the sanctions. Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes can still rule failed countries profitably (for the regime) while the people suffer. North Korea and Zimbabwe are two examples. So while Iran as a country is on a downward alopw, that does not mean it will not still have the same regime in place and will continue playing its destructive geopolitical role for years at the expense of the Iranian people and others in the region. I think that is the likely scenario since a bloodless revolution based on civil disobedience will not work in Iran and no one can match either the fire power or the ruthless ideology of the ayatollah regime.

    Posted by AIG | October 20, 2013, 5:55 pm
  15. AIG,

    No, I think Obama and the EU will ease santions to give Iran the breathing room they need. Just like the bluff against Assad’s use of CW.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | October 20, 2013, 6:33 pm
  16. Sanction alleviation ‘premature’

    Over the weekend, US officials said the White House was debating whether to offer Iran the chance to recoup billions of dollars in frozen assets if it scales back its nuclear program. The plan would stop short of lifting sanctions, but could nonetheless provide Iran some relief.

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4443235,00.html

    Posted by Akbar Palace | October 20, 2013, 8:19 pm
  17. AIG
    I see your point. Iran has a very strong interest in crushing the Syrian revolution as well as in replacing it with sunni fanatic groups. There are two benefits in that. 1. Demonstrate to Iranian that they have no path not even an armed rebellion, let alone peaceful revolution. Second is to maintain an apparent enemy that would be acceptable to the west as enemy, but one that can not really deal a real blow to Iran inside Iran as Israel can.

    I do agree with you concerning the “profitable sanctions”. Over the long run, sanction-based economies do and have emerged in the countries you mentioned. Such economies do support the existing regimes. Just think of Syria in the 1980s when assad imposed self imposed sanctions on Syrians. A government car was a guaranteed loyalty to some, and these self-imposed sanctions were crucial in strengthening the assad klan mafia in the coast and coastal mountains.

    Posted by SYRIAN HAMSTER | October 22, 2013, 5:22 pm

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