Syria: the strategy has backfired

Alastair Crooke

This article was originally published by The Guardian on Sunday September 29th 2013. 

What a curious turn of events: from the very brink of a military intervention in Syria that might have precipitated a wider regional conflagration, we have moved to one of those rare “points of inflection” over Iran which seems fecund with potential possibilities, including a solution in Syria. Of course, such tipping points can tip either toward new solutions, or into a new phase of conflict.

Why should the possibility of US talks with Iran hold out such potential? It is because an earlier such point of inflection over Iran, a decade ago, tipped toward conflict, into the “axis of evil” versus the western-backed “moderates”. It was the fierce push-back by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and (at that time) Hamas against this attempt to impose a “hegemony of moderation” across the region, that caused regime change in Syria to become such a priority for the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf.

After the 2006 Lebanon war, Saudi Arabia took further fright at the mounting popularity of Iran and Hezbollah within its own Sunni streets. Revolutionary Islam seemed to be gaining the upper hand. And – finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Gulf states: the outbreak of Arab upheaval of 2011, with its evident disdain for established authority. Gulf states decided to do whatever it takes to halt Iran and the new currents of thinking (such as a rising Muslim Brotherhood). Their very survival, it seemed, hinged on it. Overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad became the explicit cornerstone of this strategy of confronting Iran.

But this Gulf containment strategy of igniting a Sunni “intifada” against Shia influence seems to have collapsed, as the Gulf monarchs absorb the significance of Barack Obama’s U-turn on Syria, and the opening to Iran. What made it so traumatic was that not just Obama but the US system itself had buckled (public and Congress together). It represented rather a strategic lurch. President Assad would stay, and Iran would not be dismantled but emerge strengthened.

We have seen much sabre-rattling from Gulf leaders as a consequence. They threaten to stand steadfast to the cause – in spite of US “weakness” – determined to remake the Middle East in their authoritarian image. But this is evidently fanciful (in spite of their possibly pyrrhic victory in Egypt). What is emerging (just as it did three decades ago in Afghanistan) from their firing-up of Sunni Islam, is extremism rather than moderation – and inter-Sunni strife.

The Gulf strategy in Syria is also in tatters: its aspirations are not succeeding in the field, and – paradoxically – it seems that the imminent prospect of US military intervention in Syria created a schism within the Syrian opposition. So apprehensive were the jihadist groups that they would be the prime object of US attacks – as a prelude to the west setting up the Free Syria Army as a copy of the Sunni awakening councils in Iraq – that several days of bloody inter-factional fighting among the opposition ensued. Its perverse outcome has been a further radicalisation of Syria’s jihadist groups, so that 13 of the most powerful, led by al-Nusra Front, now flatly reject the western-backed opposition group’s leadership, and have committed instead to Sharia. Who now can be said to represent the opposition?

In the Gulf, anger and resentment at this turn of events is to be expected, but how far realistically can these monarchs step out of the western orbit, to which they are tied in so many ways? Ultimately this point of inflection offers the chance to undo that earlier tip towards conflict. Iran is already signalling its readiness to help Saudi Arabia make the necessary transition, as the latest appointment of Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani – well known to King Abdullah for his earlier mediation – as national security adviser clearly signals. In undoing the axis of evil and moderation, a political solution in Syria becomes possible. As one ex-diplomat notes: “The Persians and the Sunni sheikhs quarrel all the time, but also can patch up without outsiders’ help.” If this initiative bears fruit, Syria is likely to be a key part of this.

Alastair Crooke is founder and director of Conflicts Forum.  

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