Is the US espying an opportunity in Syria?

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 30 Oct - 6 Nov 2015

When political events deviate from established, past patterns, it is useful to ask ‘why?’ -- for it might be that the deviation from expected patterns signals a more profound shift in geo-politics, than a cursory acknowledgement of the event might suggest.

In Vienna last Friday, the assembly of external states claiming a stake in Syria’s conflict came up with a surprising set of principles:  They adhered (inter alia) to the unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character of Syria (no break-up, long touted, and the institutions of the state to remain untouchable). But even more notably, the joint statement makes no mention of any ‘transitional governing body’. It simply invites the U.N. to convene a political process leading to a new constitution, and to new, free, fair and UN supervised elections. The statement further elaborates that “this political process [though UN convened], will be Syrian led, and Syrian owned, and [that] the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”.  The future role of President Assad simply was put to one side, (and remains in dispute). 

On the face of it, the Vienna principles seem to suggest a singular achievement for Iranian-Russian diplomacy (and John Kerry’s amicable co-chairing of the conference with Sergey Lavrov). So what?  Well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his 1892 ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories about a murder had its plot hinge around one salient fact:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.” 

And was there a dog that did nothing in the night in Vienna?  There was.  And it goes under the name of ‘client-itis’ – the compulsion to speak on behalf of the declared political aims of one’s clients (even if they differ from one’s own interests). It is a malady (in respect to America) that harks back to the first Gulf War, when the neo-con faction in Washington labeled the nationalist, Ba’athist and secular Arab states as ‘Soviet puppets’ –  and Israel haters, too. These vestiges of now faded Soviet power were to be swept aside, the likes of David Wurmser argued, and to be replaced by more pliant monarchs such as the Hashemites, and the Al-Saud (see our last Weekly Comment). Thus by default, Israel and the Gulf States became US ‘clients’ (which had not been the case hitherto – even following in the wake of Britain’s 1971 withdrawal from the Gulf.  The US initially forewent the open invitation to succeed Britain there).

The ‘bargain’ was that in return for assimilation into Empire (benevolent hegemony), ‘clients’ received US protection and stability, and significantly, in return, gave the US the means to project its global ‘order’ through its seeding of military bases and the integration of these clients into the western intelligence network: in short, ‘the clients’ facilitated America, as ‘guarantor’ of its own brand of global ‘order’, and in return have the status quo preserved.

But ‘assimilation’ in practical terms also has led to the US adopting its clients’ political goals as America’s own. Being stuck with adopting your client’s political goals – even when these diverge, and increasingly diverge, from your own - is ‘client-itis’.  The term represents the policy paralysis that arises from not being able to ditch, or disown, one’s clients' political ambitions - from the very real fear of being accused of undermining America’s ability to act as the benevolent global hegemon/policeman - and thus, of being guilty of precipitating America’s ‘decline’.

The “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” in Vienna was that John Kerry (and the rest in the room) did nothing as the Saudi FM, Adel Jubeir, the Saudi FM was savaged by his Iranian counterpart, and neither did the US Secretary adopt Jubeir’s political goals as his own. In short, Kerry, it seems, simply shrugged off the paralytic symptoms of ‘client-itis’.

What does this mean?  Perhaps the fact that Zarif could openly remind the assembly that 15 of the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 were Saudi nationals, and to ask ‘by what right’ did Saudi Arabia assume to itself the privilege to decide who might be the President of Syria – whilst Kerry and his French and British colleagues stood silent – provides the clue. The P5+1 accord already is changing the regional landscape: simply from the fact that Iran is now a power that must be treated seriously.  It must have been quite a shock to the Saudi FM, used to almost complete western deference to Saudi interests (thanks to its money).

Washington may not publicly be able to disown its clients (despite their interests and acts diverging from those of the US), but there are those in Washington who may scent their clients’ weaknesses, and be disposed to let them ‘stew’ a little in their own juices.

Saudi Arabia’s weakening is clear: Yemen is a disaster from which it will not easily disentangle itself.  And even were the kingdom to find some path out of its Yemen imbroglio, that path – in and of itself – will no doubt carry a humiliating price that might involve existential risk to the Saudi (de facto) leader, Mohammad bin Salman. Even the kingdom’s wealth is now looking distinctly finite, and its oil resources more of a threat to America’s domestic oil industry, than an asset.

Turkey, too, is mired in deepening crises, largely of its own making. President Erdogan on Wednesday vowed to continue attacking the PKK until every last fighter was “liquidated”. Yesterday, the PKK responded by ending its ceasefire.

These two states - Saudi Arabia and Turkey - are facing geo-strategic weakening -- which brings us back to Syria. It seems possible that Kerry’s endorsement of the Vienna principles (under Lavrov's guidance?) reflects more the possibility that some in the Administration are beginning to ‘scent’ the prospect of an American ‘achievement’ with which to wind up Obama’s Presidency -- a political settlement in Damascus, plus ISIS degraded in Syria (to add to the ‘notch’ of having taken bin Laden’s scalp).  

It is interesting to note the Administration's anxiety to become, at least symbolically, more involved in the war on ISIS.  Is this simply Washington not wanting to be overshadowed by President Putin, or is Kerry wanting to lay the basis for claiming an American ‘achievement’ in Syria, by suggesting that America can still play a key part both militarily and diplomatically (in tandem with Russia)? Perhaps impelling this re-think is the fact that Americans are said to be “souring” on Obama’s heitherto ISIS strategy, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll published yesterday, indicating that more than 6 in 10 Americans now disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the threat posed by ISIS.

It would not be too difficult (and no doubt part of the Lavrov calculus) for Kerry to ‘spin’ free, internationally monitored elections, inside and out of Syria, to be as ‘American’ as apple pie.  And, who knows? In a few months from now, with a Syrian opposition already deeply engaged in a political ‘process’; with the military offensive possibly degrading ISIS;  and with Saudi Arabia further mired in crisis, Jubeir might find himself more isolated, and with this, Saudi's calls for prior withdrawal by Iranian and Russian forces, and the guaranteed ouster of President Assad, simply ignored. 

Mr Putin knows how to manage things: on Wednesday, he was already reaching out to Erdogan. The trick is to persuade Turkey and Saudi Arabia that there is no hope of getting all that they want, but that if they stay in the process, they may get a little – which is better than humiliation.

As Patrick Cockburn has noted there is another reality: “Though there are far more Sunni than Shia in the world, this is not so in this region. Between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia, and 30 million Sunni”.  The Saudi assertion that all these states (except Iran) were, and are, naturally a part of a Sunni Arab, (Gulf-centred) block, and that this fact needs to be reflected politically, makes little sense. In fact, Syria is the only one of these states with a inherent Sunni majority.  And if the Saudi FM wants to argue in these sectarian, Sunni–Shia terms (which are inappropriate to Syria), what then is the problem with elections?  If the Sunnis are already a majority, they will have their say in the elections.  The Sunnis of Syria can scarcely be portrayed as a ‘marginalized minority’.

Kerry’s general approach would seem to be in line with the US President’s propensity not to challenge established US narratives of US exceptionality or its benevolent ‘mission’, but rather quietly, and administratively, to shrink America’s appetite back, closer in line, to its means. 

In this vein, what else are we to make of America’s stringent warnings to Saudi Arabia to end its Yemen war ("or we will be forced to end it for you”); or John Kerry’s silence in Vienna; or, Tom Friedman’s New York Times explosive article on the eve of King Salman’s visit to the US; or the (new) readiness of the American media to publish lurid details of Saudi Princes' moral misdemeanors?  It seems clear that the Saudis are no longer above censure, or criticism.

All in all, the Vienna vignette suggests that the indirect effect of the P5+1 accord is already re-casting the regional landscape in a dramatic fashion.