Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

14-21 June 201

Syria: The G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in the end, changed nothing. It concluded with little more than a pious hope to hold a Geneva II meeting by early autumn. France and Britain remain the leadprotagonists insisting on "doing something”, but Cameron finds himself increasingly isolated at home. He has steadily been walking-back his proposals to arm the Syrian opposition. He faces divisions within hisown coalition government, and is unable muster a parliamentary majority in the British House of Commonsfor arming the opposition. In France, the Foreign Minister persists with his angry and somewhat highly-wraught advocacy of action against the Syrian government. See here for an account, in a similar vein, of Kerry's rather similar demand for the immediate bombing of Syria's airfields, and his 'put down' by CIA and military realists.  Holbrook’s bombing of Serbia still colours western perceptions about how President Assad should be handled in terms of ‘getting to politics’. This notion is also widely held in the international conflict resolution sphere.

But for the subsequent political methodology, the West has locked into the 'Yemen' model as its roadmapfor Syria: that is to say a model in which the external powers  - in Syria's case, the US and Russia – would agree between themselves a ‘fatwa’ for the transition in Syria. This ‘fatwa’ would then be imposed by the external powers upon the two internal parties at Geneva - with little or no consultation. This is regarded by the Europeans and the UN as representing the only real 'entry point' to the existing Syrian impasse (in fact, in the Yemen case, the internal parties became so disgusted at this exclusionary methodology that they secretly made their own compact, by-passing entirely the external powers and their ‘fatwa’). Such an outcome, however, is unlikely to be available in Syria, as there is effectively no part of the western-sponsored opposition that could plausibly refuse or usurp any Great Powers’ ‘fatwa’, because, simply, they lack credibility to carry any real weight of popular support within Syria.  But opposition weakness and disarray is not just the problem -- the problem is that there is no effective opposition grouping, outside of the armed radical Islamist jihadists, who in any case fall outside of the western equation.

Western efforts therefore, unless there is a sudden turn to an embracing of further militarization – see herefor a suggestion that Obama is becoming increasingly isolated in refusing it – seems otherwise stuck with the default option of pushing the opposition towards some token semblance of a unity that could be presented a Geneva as the implementers of a fatwa drafted at 'top table'. We may expect to hear increasing urgent calls for unity directed towards the Syrian opposition in order to have a Geneva II. Of course the 'fatwa' for Western states and their Gulf allies is intended to wholly disempower President Assad and to displace him with a transition executive government. And it is precisely this intent that President Putin forcefully and successfully resisted at the G8. The flaw to all this – now increasingly recognized in the West –  simply is the fancifulness of the notion that a group of Syrian exiles can be parachuted in as the opposition transition government implant, to assume command of the army and security forces in Syria. It is as fanciful as the notion in 2003 that Ahmad Chalabi and two plane loads of his followers could do the same in Iraq.  It misreads the situation badly to imagine that the security forces would simply submit and acquiesce to such a ‘command’.  It is a point that the Russians constantly try to impress onto deaf ears.

In the Gulf, the fall of Quseyr continues to reverberate. A leading Saudi journalist close to Prince Turki has issued an impassioned call to arms by the region in order to topple President Assad - "and fast". In Cairo, the government severed relations with Damascus, and a conference of Sunni Islamic scholars imposed a duty on Muslims to wage jihad in all its forms in support of the Sunni cause as a whole –the cause of "the majority of the Muslim nation" as it impacts on Syria - adding their voice to that of Qatar-based Sheikh Qaradawi and the Saudi Mufti who have called for a Sunni jihad against President Assad and his allies. Behind this sectarian collective Sunni rhetoric, however, Gulf unity is dissolving: Qatar and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a bitter, almost violent, shouting match with each other. The UAE are in deep attrition against the Muslim Brotherhood (see here). Saudi Arabia and Egypt are increasingly at odds. In addition, the two richest Gulf states, are attempting to make leadership transitions which breach their own family conventions on the rights of succession, and are likely to be a source of high tension within those states.  Political arrests in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf states are accelerating sharply, with over 20,000 people, including women, arrested for political offenses in Saudi Arabia during the past year.

In Iran, the presidential elections have produced a surprisingly clear mandate for a candidate of the centre – a genuine centrist, who managed to garner support from the Reformists (though he is not a Reformist); from the circle around Rafsanjani (though he is no longer Rafsanjani's man); and from a substantial section of the Principalists and the conservatives too (though he is not a Principalist). This represents a notable coalescence of political sentiment around a single figure. President-elect Rowhani enjoys both a broad mandate and a close relationship with the Supreme Leader (he is the Supreme Leader's own nominee to the National Security Council, as his representative). But more importantly for the outside world, there can be no doubt that Rowhani was elected, and that the Iranian political system demonstratively has worked, and produced a new political direction.

Even before the election, it was clear that whomsoever won, Iranian foreign policy was set to change, and become more open to improved international relations globally (though not necessarily centered on an improvement with the West. In fact, in the present circumstances, this was more likely to reinforce the Iranian turn towards the East and to Asia). Whilst the reality of this election as a genuine expression of Iranian political orientation will be accepted as such by most of the world, in America, it is already being held to demonstrate that sanctions have worked their effect on a distressed Iranian people, and that the US may nowexpect to reap concessions from the newly-elected president without any requirement for western reciprocity. This is to misread the Iranian mood.  And if such a view becomes embedded in western thinking, it may lose the US a strategic opportunity arising out of Rowhani's election to enter a new relationship with Iran. Any such prospect of rapprochement will be highly unwelcome to the Israeli leadership (see here for Netayahu’s reaction to Rowhani’s election). Some of his election statements have been cherry-picked to lend an evidence to this western narrative of Iranian weakening under pressure, but such statements in isolation do not reflect the fullness of what Rowhani said throughout the campaign. In the early 2000s, Rowhani was hugely damaged by the West grasping at Iranian concessions (the two-year Iranian enrichment moratorium which met with zero western reciprocity). He was then the nuclear negotiation for Iran. He will not make the same mistake twice.  But still he faces a difficult problem in managing western expectations – for if ‘free’ Iranian concessions do not emerge out of the ‘distress’ of the Iranian people – then Rowhani may face a backlash of western resentment and irritation at its non-appearance.



One Comment

  1. Many thanks CF – as perceptive and useful as usual.
    Listening to the statements coming from Kerry in Doha, and the presentation of the enemies of the Syrian people armaments cooperative disertation on bringing the parties to the table of diplomacy and peace it is hard to reconcile the two viewpoints; about as hard as getting the Syrian army to accept orders from George Sabra or Robert Ford.
    I’m interested too that you consider that Putin ‘successfully resisted’ calls for the replacement of Assad at the G8 – we’d never have known! The message we were sold, though we only heard it from Obama or Cameron, was that “Putin was coming round to accepting that Assad had to go”. Something that I could not believe given that this was really the only reason that Geneva never got past the first stage. We heard snippets of what Putin said about the legality of the Syrian gov, and arms deals with it, but these were in a total vacuum because he had no allies at the G8 ( though Angela Merkel appears somewhat sympathetic.
    What I’d really like to know at this moment, is whether the new anti tank missiles being sent to the jihadis in Syria are tipped with DU..