Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos

Of Iran, Syria and regional chaos

Iran’s teaming up with world powers to hammer out a solution to the war in Syria does not mean an end to regional conflicts, writes Salah Nasrawi

For more than four years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have rebuffed persistent appeals to let Iran join peace-makers in Syria by arguing that Tehran is a key ally of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s bloody conflict and that it would be unthinkable to grant it a seat at the table.

The price of a ticket to the talks to find a durable political settlement in Syria, Riyadh has long insisted, would be an unequivocal commitment from Tehran to endorse a plan backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies that calls for a political transition and the departure of Al-Assad from power.

With Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict turning the tide against Al-Assad’s opponents, Riyadh finally relented and gave Tehran a free pass to an international peace gathering in Vienna on 30 October.

However, inviting Iran to attend the Vienna summit raises questions far beyond the problems and promises of Iran’s acting as a mediator in reaching a political settlement in Syria.

Will Iran’s participation guarantee greater connectivity between regional powers stalled by decades of rivalries and can they now work together to prompt peace and security?

For many Middle East watchers, the political and security impact of the conflicts that have played havoc with many of the countries in the region shows that they have been damaged beyond repair. If regional stakeholders are keen to end the entangled hotspots, they should adopt a new and common approach to their shared stability.

As expected, Iran has proclaimed the Saudi U-turn in letting it join the international peace efforts in Syria as a triumph for its regional diplomacy. “Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif boasted after receiving the invitation.

But while Tehran celebrated the Saudi and the world’s recognition of its regional diplomatic capacity, it also showed pragmatism, and probably realpolitik, by expressing its preparedness to shore up the country’s “soft power” to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian said that “Iran does not insist on keeping Al-Assad in power forever,” a declaration Saudi Arabia quickly met with scepticism. “If they’re serious, we will know, and if they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said.

Of course, it is too early to judge if the talks in Vienna have made any headway in efforts to bring peace to Syria. The group of nations with opposing stakes in the Syrian war have agreed to ask the United Nations to start a process that could lead to a ceasefire and new elections.

In an announcement following the meeting, the participants also asked the United Nations to launch a political process that would involve overseeing the rewriting of the country’s constitution and then new elections.

For many analysts, the statement, designed to show that the participants have narrowed their differences over the Syrian conflict, seemed more like wishful thinking than a realistic outcome. The controversial issue of the future of Al-Assad has remained unresolved.

What drove Saudi Arabia to drop its opposition to allowing Iran, which it has always accused of being part of the problem and not part of the solution, to participate in the direct talks is a matter of speculation.

While pressure from the United States on the kingdom may have played a part in its showing flexibility over Iran, Riyadh’s realisation that it has been misreading the game Tehran is playing in the region cannot be excluded.

Still, the unprecedented decision to permit Iran to join the talks on Syria has sparked old fears that giving Iran a seat at the regional negotiation table will reinforce Tehran’s emerging status as a recognised regional powerhouse.

Tehran’s diplomatic breakthrough comes three months after it struck its landmark nuclear deal with world powers in exchange for removing the international and US economic and financial curbs that had throttled its economy.

The deal was made to show that Iran has complied with specific obligations to reduce its capabilities of stockpiling enriched uranium and address concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

Yet, the agreement was also seen as a signal of willingness on the part of Washington, the main power behind the deal, to engage Tehran in Middle East issues and to work in concert with it to confront regional challenges such as those in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and the threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups.

Though Saudi Arabia and its allies reluctantly supported the nuclear deal, they raised concerns about Iran’s rehabilitation and expressed fears that the US would turn away from their worries about Iranian activities in some of the region’s flashpoints.

Given Saudi Arabia and its allies’ deep-rooted mistrust of Iran, it is clear that these countries want to make Iran’s participation in international efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict a testing ground of Tehran’s intentions.

The sticking point remains the future of Al-Assad and whether Iran is prepared to reverse its support for its Syrian ally and back a political process that includes replacing him. Iranian officials still say that “it should be up to the Syrian people to decide on the country’s fate.”

Yet, the predominately state-controlled media in Iran, routinely employed as a proxy to spread the message of Iranian diplomacy, may have expressed Tehran’s real view on the subject.

“With the participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals, reaching an agreement [in the Syria talks] could be difficult,” wrote Tehran newspaper Ebtekar in an editorial.

While there has been no sign that Iran will come around to the Saudi view on Al-Assad’s future, the Islamic Republic has never hidden its desire to be a partner with international and regional powers in any diplomatic push to deal with other regional flashpoints.

Here again the Iranian media may provide an insight into Iranian official thinking. “If they succeed, [the talks] can serve as an example for the international community in managing other regional conflicts in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon,” wrote the Farsi-language Iranian newspaper.

“Some of the countries in the region will gradually start recognising Iran’s regional status. Iran’s responsible behaviour on regional crises could help reduce the tension between key players,” it wrote on the eve of the Vienna talks.

Of course, the idea of a platform to discuss, or to resolve or manage, these and other conflicts on the regional level is very tempting. But that is not how the Middle East system since it came into being following the First World War has worked.

Today’s Middle East problems are not simply the result of the ongoing bloody conflicts that threaten to tear it apart, but rather are the consequences of both foreign interventions and the failures and follies of its regimes over some 90 years.

A closer look at the new diplomatic process to solve the Syrian crisis would reveal it as just another gambit that Western strategists hope will push Russia, and in Saudi Arabia’s case Iran, deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue this weekend, Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, revealed his government’s thinking. It was only a matter of time before Moscow realised that its military intervention and its ardent support for Al-Assad’s continued rule were mistakes, he said.

Saudi Arabia’s assessment of the Iranian role was not much different in hoping to see Iran failing to sustain its military intervention in Syria for long and being obliged to change course.

Al-Jubeir, who spoke at the Manama Dialogue after Blinken, said that in order for any real political process in Syria to begin Iran must withdraw its forces from Syria and agree to a date and means for Al-Assad’s departure.

Such a gamble not only ignores the deep-rooted problems in the Middle East, but also the new regional dynamics. While the turbulence created by the Arab Spring since 2011 is still affecting the regional order, the rise of non-state actors is also shaking the foundations of the state system in many of its countries.

The sad truth is that the failure of the Vienna process will give Syria the final push to tear itself apart and plunge the region further into bloody chaos.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Nov. 5, 2015

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