Syria and Iran: The Great Game

Alastair Crooke

Article posted on The Guardian, 04 November 2011

This summer a senior Saudi official told John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, that from the outset of the upheaval in Syria, the king has believed that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.”

This is today’s “great game” – losing Syria. And this is how it is played: set up a hurried transitional council as sole representative of the Syrian people, irrespective of whether it has any real legs inside Syria; feed in armed insurgents from neighbouring states; impose sanctions that will hurt the middle classes; mount a media campaign to denigrate any Syrian efforts at reform; try to instigate divisions within the army and the elite; and ultimately President Assad will fall – so its initiators insist.

Europeans, Americans and certain Gulf states may see the Syria “game” as the logical successor to the supposedly successful Libya game in moulding the Arab awakening towards a western cultural paradigm. In terms of regional politics however, Syria is strategically more valuable, and Iran knows this. Iran has said that it will respond to any external intervention in Syria.

It is already no “game”, as the many killed by both sides attests to. The radical armed elements being used in Syria as auxiliaries to depose Assad run counter to the prospect of any outcome emerging within the western paradigm. These groups may well have a bloody and very undemocratic agenda of their own. I warned of this danger in connection to Afghanistan in the 80s: some of the Afghan mujahideen had real roots in the community, I suggested, but others posed a severe danger to people. A kindly American politician at the time placed his arm around my shoulder and told me not to worry: these were the people “kicking Soviet ass”. We chose to look the other way because kicking the Soviets played well to US domestic needs. Today Europe looks the other way, refusing to consider who Syria’s combat-experienced insurgents taking such a toll of Syrian security forces truly are, because losing Assad and confronting Iran plays so well, particularly at a time of domestic difficulty.

Fortunately, the tactics in Syria, in spite of heavy investment, seem to be failing. Most people in the region believe that if Syria is pushed further into civil conflict the result will be sectarian violence in Lebanon, Iraq and more widely too. The notion that such conflict will throw up a stable, let alone western-style, democracy, is fanciful at best, an act of supreme callousness at worst.

The origins of the “lose Assad” operation preceded the Arab awakening: they reach back to Israel’s failure in its 2006 war to seriously damage Hezbollah, and the post-conflict US assessment that it was Syria that represented Hezbollah’s achilles heel – as the vulnerable conduit linking Hezbollah to Iran. US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor, but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted. Hannah noted that “Bandar working without reference to US interests is clearly cause for concern. But Bandar working as a partner … against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Bandar got the job.

Hypothetical planning, however, only became concrete action this year, with the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mubarak. Suddenly Israel seemed vulnerable, and a weakened Syria, mired in troubles, had heightened strategic allure. In parallel, Qatar had stepped to the fore. Azmi Bishara, a pan-Arabist who resigned from the Israeli Knesset and self-exiled to Doha, was according to some local reports involved in a scheme in which al-Jazeera would not just report revolution, but instantiate it for the region – or at least this is what was believed in Doha in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Qatar, however, was not merely trying to leverage human suffering into an international intervention, but was also – as in Libya – directly involved as a key operational patron of the opposition.

The next stages were to draw France’s President Sarkozy – the arch-promoter of the Benghazi transitional council model that had turned Nato into an instrument of regime change – into the team. Barack Obama followed by helping to persuade Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – already piqued at Assad – to play the transitional council part on Syria’s border, and lend his legitimacy to the “resistance”. Both of the latter components, however, are not without challenges from their own security arms, who are sceptical of the efficacy of the transitional council model, and opposed to military intervention. Even Bandar is not without challenges: he has no political umbrella from the king, and others in the family are playing other Islamist cards to different ends. Iran, Iraq and Algeria – and occasionally Egypt – co-operate to frustrate Gulf manoeuvres against Syria at the Arab League. The transitional council model, which in Libya has displayed the weakness of leveraging just one faction as the government-in-waiting, is more starkly defective in Syria. Syria’s opposition council, put together by Turkey, France and Qatar, is caught out by the fact that the Syrian security structures have remained near rock solid through seven months – defections have been negligible – and Assad’s popular support base are intact. Only external intervention could change that equation, but for the opposition to call for it would be political suicide, and they know it.

The internal opposition gathering in Istanbul demanded a statement refusing external intervention and armed action, but the Syrian national council was announced even before the intra-opposition talks had reached any agreement – such was the hurry on the part of external parties.

The external opposition continues to fudge its stance on external intervention, and with good reason: the internal opposition rejects it. This is the flaw to the model – for the majority in Syria deeply oppose external intervention, fearing civil conflict. Hence Syrians face a long period of externally mounted insurgency, siege and international attrition. Both sides will pay in blood.

But the real danger, as Hannah himself noted, is that the Saudis might “once again fire up the old Sunni jihadist network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran”, which puts Syria first in line. In fact, that is exactly what is happening, but the west, as before in Afghanistan, prefers not to notice – so long as the drama plays well to western audiences.

As Foreign Affairs reported last month, Saudi and its Gulf allies are firing up the radical Salafists (fundamentalist Sunnis), not only to weaken Iran, but to do what they see is necessary to survive – to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism. This is happening in Syria, Libya, Egypt Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

This Islamically assertive, literalist orientation of Islam may be generally viewed as nonpolitical and pliable, but history is far from comforting. If you tell people often enough that they can be king-makers and throw buckets of money at them, do not be surprised if they metamorphose – yet again – into something very political. It may take some months, but the fruits of this new attempt to use radical forces for western ends will yet again backfire. Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, recently warned that the Hillary Clinton-devised response to the Arab awakening, of implanting western paradigms, by force if necessary, into the void of fallen regimes, will be seen as a “cultural war on Islam”, and will sow the seeds of a further round of radicalisation.

One of the sad paradoxes is the undercutting of moderate Sunnis, who now find themselves caught between the rock of being seen as a western tool, and the hard place of radical Sunni Salafists waiting for the opportunity to displace them and to dismantle the state. What a strange world: Europe and the US think it is OK to “use” precisely those Islamists (including al-Qaida) who absolutely do not believe in western-style democracy in order to bring it about. But then, why not just look the other way and gain the benefit of the public enjoying Assad’s kicking?

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