Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 4 – 11 October 2013

Conflicts Forum

CF reads widely and follows events in the Middle East and beyond.  Today, however, in spite of following events closely, we like most others, simply do not know what will happen next.  Indeed, for all the firmly stated opinion on the US ‘shut down’, no one really seems to know what will happen there.  No one really can say what is the likelihood of a US technical default, or tell us what its consequences might be.  We are in unknown territory:  so it is in the Middle East too.  There can be no real strategic view, because there is no strategy.  All is in flux.  And the flux has been given a sharp stir by three signals. (At such times, reading ‘signals’ takes the place of substantive knowledge.)  But these ‘signals’ all seem to be pointing in a certain ‘direction’.

The most obvious is the US President’s (symbolic) telephone call to President Rohani.  The second is Kerry’s comments in Bali this week: “The Assad regime in Syria deserves credit for complying with the chemical weapons deal”, Kerry said after the first high-level meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, since Moscow and Washington agreed a process for the destruction of chemical stocks. Kerry and Sergey Lavrov met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia on Monday morning. “The process has begun in record time and we are appreciative for the Russian co-operation and obviously for the Syrian compliance,” Kerry said. The Secretary of State also said that the US has agreed with Russia to move towards Syria peace talks as soon as possible. “ … I think it’s extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the (UN) resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were being destroyed,” Kerry stressed. “I think it’s a credit to the Assad regime, frankly. It’s a good beginning and we welcome a good beginning.” What is striking here is the tone:  It is, of course, rhetoric; but how different it is.  Until just this week the vituperation towards President Assad, dripped from every western statement. 

The third ‘signal’, perhaps, is the slant given to a story carried in the New York Times, which certainly stands out from its ‘usual’ line: It opines that by admitting that “mistakes were made” in recent interviews with the Syrian deputy PM and with President Assad, something new and unexpectedly conciliatory, has occurred: “President Bashar al-Assad himself has declared that he and his government have made mistakes and that they share some blame for the crisis with rebels. Mr. Assad told the German magazine Der Spiegel, in an interview to be published on Monday, that he could not claim that the insurgents “did everything and we did nothing.” Reality, he said, has “shades of gray.”  “After years of describing the country’s civil war in black and white, as an international terrorist conspiracy, Syrian officials in recent days appear to be trying to sound more conciliatory, as global powers try to arrange peace talks in Geneva to end the bloody stalemate, and as international weapons inspectors began on Sunday to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal”, wrote Barnard in the Times.  Again, the tone is striking, especially as President Assad has been saying exactly the same since the outset of the unrest in Syria.  As one commentator noted, the NYT’s false claims of the historic standpoint of the Syrian government may serve to allow for a change in the U.S. position towards it. If the longstanding position of the Syrian government can be depicted as something new  – such a claim, on its own terms, allows U.S. politicians also to take a new stand to towards it. ‘Look, Assad has changed his position – and now we can change our position too.’

In any event, these ‘signals’ have stirred the Middle East pot.  Alignments and allegiances have already started to tilt in response both to the (apparent) shift in direction by the US towards a settlement with Iran; to the implications of this shift in terms of the balance of power in the region, secondly; but also to the deeper impact of a conflicted America, seemingly enmired in systemic crisis, and turning inward.

There are reports that Saudi Arabia sees itself ‘passed-by’ — left standing on the dance floor, as it were – as their former American ‘partner’ waltzes away with a different girl.  This sense of rebuff is compounded by the quarrelling that preceeded the break-up: Firstly, bitter arguments over Egypt, then the disappointment (in the optic of many Saudis) of the deal over Syrian chemical weapons stocks – and the final straw: the dance with Iran.  This, understandably has given rise to conflicting sentiments: some, in their frustration, simply want to ‘stick it’ to the US (increase unconditionally the weapons flows to the Syrian insurgents, and create a coalition to undermine any agreement), but there also are counter rumours of the liklihood that the hawkish Prince Bandar, rather, may prove to be the first casualty of this new US orientation. In short, the US tilt has given rise also to a countervailing sentiment that the ‘rebuff’, though very painful, nonetheless obliges the kingdom to face reality.

The shift has also left its mark on Syria:  Resolution 2118 does not just support the Russian initiative to destroy the Syrian chemical stocks, it implicitly requires the maintenance of President Bashar al-Assad in power for at least one year so that he can supervise this destruction. So, not only do the major Western powers no longer demand his departure, but they now favour an extension of President Assad’s mandate, and a postponement of the upcoming presidential election (not least, because the opposition is in disarray, and wholly lacking credibility both in the field and at the negotiating table). 

Amongst the opposition, these events have prompted shifts across chess-board too. The new Jihadist-Islamist, rejectionist grouping,Army of Islam, seems to share the Saudi sense that the global tectonic plates have moved – and the new current is moving strongly against them. The Middle East is in metamorphosis, as both see it: from having been narrated simplistically in the external world, as a conflict between ‘dictators and democracy’, to an equally simplistic, epic struggle between the al-Qaida-style challenge to ‘burn the system in order to build it’, and, on the other side, order, law and stability.  This now puts the jihadists (and to an extent Saudi Arabia) on the wrong side of the equation. This latter equation is evidently simplistic, since Saudi Arabia, somewhat ambiguously embraces the radicals, yet is nonetheless desperate to sustain order. The consequence is that this new Syrian Islamist force is busily preparing for what it presumes is the inevitable Great Power and Syrian army assault against it – aided by some former Free Syria Army members, now to be re-branded as neo ‘awakening councils’ – Iraqi style.  ISIS therefore is ‘cleansing’ areas in the north of other armed opposition groups who they fear might turn into Trojan Horses for the expected offensive against the jihadists.

Geneva One loosely was based on the (premature) presumption of a return to the old bi-polar world: America and Russia between them, would eventually hash out a solution for Syria.  Geneva One did not work, firstly because the US, spurred on by Britain and France, did want to let Russia play this part, but more substantially because neither Russia nor the US had it in their hands to bring a resolution to Syria – the divisions of the Middle East are too profound at this moment to be simply discussed and settled at ‘Top Table’.  That was then.  Now bi-polarism does seem to have returned, at least on this one issue, but more importantly, it is possible that the hitherto ‘missing element’ may now just be feasible, but only if the US-Iranian initiative really begins to bear fruit. Ultimately Syria needs a regional agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to make any Great Power agreement viable.  We will have to see how the quiet outreach now underway from Iran to Syria fares in terms of finding a broad regional understanding based probably on trade-offs over Syria and Lebanon; or between Syria and Lebanon.

All this however will need to happen in the teeth of the two main Syrian opposition forces: the Army of Islam is expecting at any moment to be targeted by the Great Powers (the essential ‘shared interest’ that binds Russia and the US together) and they are not interested in a settlement anyway.  And the other substantive strand, the Syrian MB, harbours a different fear: that Saudi Arabia intends to do to the Brotherhood in Syria, what it did to them in Egypt (i.e. destroy the movement).  See here for an account of how they viewthe new opposition new head, Ahmad Assi al-Jarbah, a tribal leader nicknamed  ‘the man of Bandar bin Sultan’ by many in the MB, in exactly this light. They regard him as being groomed by Saudi Arabia to become the new ‘General Sisi’ for Syria – a Syrian ‘hammer of the MB’. 

The logic of this recent ’tilt’ in US orientation seems to be that the more secular elements of the armed Syrian opposition see that they cannot hope to prevail against the Army of Islam (with one proviso: unless they were to ally themselves with the Syrian Army against the Army of Islam – which is exactly what the latter expects, and fears); the strongest opposition grouping, the Army of Islamare anyway rejectionists, and the Muslim Brotherhood are deeply suspicious that they face an Egyptian–type trap being set for them. There seems little role for them at any Geneva Two (should it ever occur). And equally, little role for France or Britain either.


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