Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 21 – 28 February 2014

Conflicts Forum

It seemed irremediable: If we cast back to 2008 and 2009, a small but significant part of the Iranian polity seemed to have cut itself adrift, and were headed toward major dissidence. Commentators foresaw this ‘green’ trend magnifying to engulf the whole nation in bitter polarisation (though others warned that that the (substantively) north Tehran dissidency lacked any real legs among the people). The rifts seemed to some observers to seal Iran’s future as one of heightening internal conflict.

But, as we have seen, this was not to be. Iran came together. Its complex political system worked.  A presidential election provided a clear mandate, and an impulse towards transition. A new government emerged to take forward this new direction – and contrary to external predictions, the dissidents coalesced back into the mainstream of politics, rather than further dig the schism. A settlement was reached.  Iran would give up its spikey defensiveness to the outside world, and would launch back as a major regional power – though not primarily through reaching an understanding with the US, as the Reformists earlier attempted; but rather through a globalapertura, which the Principalists could also accept - as this would lead to Iran resuming its place as a major regional and economic power – irrespective of US acquiesence.  So far, this transition has been a success.  Indeed there are few in the region who now believe that even a complete failure of the P5+1 talks would or could lead to return of the status quo ante.  The mould has been cracked.

Something of the sort is happening again – not so much in Iran, but in the region as a whole, and at the micro level too. A visit to Syria suggests that Syria precisely has begun such a ‘transition’, similar to, but not identical to that of Iran. The mood in Damascus is generally upbeat. Ordinary citizens are not speaking of the Geneva ‘process’ – indeed that is hardly mentioned, or given much attention internally; thoughts rather, are fixed on ‘the reconciliation process’, which is gathering pace around the country. It is the source of much optimism, though of course, it is still at an early stage – and vulnerable to the outright hostility of the rejectionists.

In various locations, in villages and towns, former opposition insurgents are negotiating local settlements with the Syrian army. Under the terms of the various agreements, the former insurgents keep their (light) weapons (and their pride and status as fighters) and formally become a part of the Syrian Army – in specifically designated local units (the National Defence Force). In short, they coalesce into the infrastructure of security - protecting their villages and the State from Takfiri attack – the takfiri jihadists, of course, being against any such reconciliation initiatives.

Of course, this process is not always smooth. Many of the local people who have lost friends or family deeply resent these “criminals” being reabsorbed into society, without penalty or some sort of making amends with those they have deeply injured. But this is the normal fare in all such reconciliation processes. And this reconciliation is not occurring in a vacuum; it is marching in step with a parallel and linked process of national dialogues, asking people at all levels about how the state needs be changed for the future. Just as there is with Syria’s allies – Russia and Iran – there is a strong sense inside Syria that things cannot and will not go back to how they were -- inevitably after such a social and political conflict, there will be a significant transition.

In the last Weekly Comment we noted how the formation of the new Lebanese government had produced a formula whereby the (Sunni) Future Movement and its allies now occupy the key posts of state security and communications (thereby removing any possible western reservations or hesitations about their working with agencies touched with Hizbullah links). This new Lebanese government line-up gives to the Sunni ‘establishment’ the responsibility for protecting Lebanon from Sunni extremism. It is, as it were, a case of ‘setting a poacher to catch a poacher’, given March 14th’s long opaque and ambiguous links to such groups.  We suggested our last Weekly Commeny that the formation of the government, in this way, represented a ‘pilot’ for the region as a whole – and for Syria in particular.

Hizbullah (and implicitly) Iran have in this Lebanese initiative effectively acknowledged Sunni (and Saudi) fears and sense of vulnerability – and, to this end, have offered a ‘pilot’ test concession.  The infrastructure of the region is being re-orientated to test out whether they, who may have used jihadists for their own ends, can and will confront them now. In a sense, it is test of whether a wider regional ‘settlement’ is possible. Syria has begun down this path too: by putting local security into the hands of armed former insurgents (indeed, national security in Syria has always had a large Sunni component).  If this trial works, we may see Iran, Syria and their allies willing to make accommodations to Sunni and Saudi anxieties, in return for evidence of their willingness to defeat the Sunni extremism that they initially fired-up, but which has now become a conflagration threatening to consume moderate Sunnis too.

Some may claim that this is not the ‘transition’ that is being demanded of the Syrian government. The West has framed its transition in the narrow terms of a change at the very top of the state -- and demanding nothing from the insurgency, beyond greater unity. It has maintained this ‘demand’, irrespective of its consequences – oblivious to the risks that this might well deepen civil conflict to the point of anarchy. However, the point is that ‘transition’ in Syria is underway, and if we look to the Iranian example, transition did not occur through the removal and replacement of the top leadership -- on the contrary, it was made by the existing leadership making the political system work. The impetus of a general shift in popular sentiment and mood underwrote a major Iranian transition grounded in consensus around a national apertura in place of pursuing a purely US focussed entente.

It may be that this form of ‘transition’ is what will emerge in Syria (and perhaps Iraq and Lebanon) too: a wider accommodation of Sunni anxieties (and sense of victimhood), will bring, in return, a real shift in Sunni attitudes towards the takfiri jihadists. This may not be what some in the West want, but it is what it may get – if the various tentative feelers in this direction prove positive. The question is, can the American foreign policy establishment and external spoilers tolerate such a regional self-made ‘transitions’?  Perhaps they can. It is in American interest to confront the takfiri jihadists, even if this means the emergence of Iran and Syria as stronger regional powers. 

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