Thursday, September 19, 2013

Diplomacy may make Bashar disposable

Within a week, one story – punishing Bashar Assad for his probable use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Ghouta region – has been pushed aside by another: the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, even as Washington is coordinating its policies toward Syria with another adversary, Russia.

It’s best in these cases not to get carried away by optimism. Diplomacy and dialogue are not ends in themselves. Yet the potential opportunities are great, whether for Syria or the rest of the Middle East, if broader understandings can be reached between the main regional and global actors. And tectonic shifts, if they occur, may ultimately ensure that Assad is politically disposable.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made normalization with the West a central plank of his political program. Critically, he seems to have the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. On Tuesday, Khamenei endorsed Rouhani’s position, saying Iran should embrace diplomacy over militarism and that it was time for “heroic leniency.”

In remarks to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei said, “[I]t is not necessary for the IRGC to be active in the political field, but defending the revolution requires that they understand political realities.” This appeared to be Khamenei’s way of legitimizing Rouhani’s opening in front of an institution that, potentially, may pose problems for the president down the road.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, bringing Iran into negotiations on Syria’s future is necessary, even if the pitfalls are many. Supporting Assad’s regime has become a burden even for his closest partners, who might welcome a transition away from the Syrian president if it means they can preserve their interests in Syria.

The Obama administration has no intention of challenging this logic, as it searches for a cure for its Syrian headache. The notion that the U.S. will seek to deny Moscow and Tehran a political foothold in Syria seems absurd, as the Americans view Russia, and probably Iran, as parties that can help deliver a peaceful outcome in the country.

Still, Russian and Iranian interests in Syria do differ, and the U.S. can play on this to its advantage in formulating postwar preferences. At the same time, American, Russian and Iranian interests are not as far apart as they appear. All three want a political solution; all are wary of the emergence of jihadist groups; and all perceive that the side they are backing in Syria is probably unable to win a military victory.

They must also sense that Assad today is the primary obstacle to a political solution. Iran has poured much money into the war on Assad’s behalf, and has instructed Hezbollah to bolster his regime militarily. While this allowed Assad to regain his balance, it has not brought victory, while Hezbollah has been transformed into the Assad regime’s cannon fodder, a situation the party cannot relish.

Russia, on its side, has been embarrassed by the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. The United Nations report released this week did not determine responsibility, but no one could fail to see that the technical details all pointed toward Syrian Army units. The Russians have been hardy, even foolhardy, in their defense of Assad, but this only makes sense in the context of a plan that leads somewhere else. It is next to impossible to imagine that Assad represents a long-term solution for Russia, so bloody and sordid has been his legacy. If anything, his remaining in office will only fuel the war indefinitely.

As the U.S. defines what it wants in Syria, it may find it useful to widen the differences between Iran and Russia, while ensuring that both agree to Bashar Assad’s departure. The Russians and Iranians are closer to each other than either is to the Obama administration, but that may change as Assad’s presidential term nears an end in 2014, providing an opportunity for an orderly power transfer in Syria.

Assad may hope to play on Iranian and Russian divergences to stay in office – for instance by shifting to a greater reliance on Tehran if Vladimir Putin says that Russia would not support a new Assad term. But the Syrian president may be in a more precarious situation than he knows. Since 2011, he has become so dependent on outsiders that his survival will be determined by them. Iran can see that it has wagered heavily on an incompetent, and may judge that it benefits more by preserving its relationship with Russia and improving ties with the U.S. than in indefinitely propping up a mass murderer.

An yet Iran has vital interests in Syria. The country provides strategic depth to Hezbollah and gives Iran considerable influence over a second country on Israel’s border, after Lebanon. Iran can also rely on, and will protect, its Syrian Alawite and Shiite allies. Squaring this with U.S. objectives and Russian preferences will not be easy. But if the three countries engage seriously, Assad’s fate could be sealed.

America will have a key role in reassuring the Gulf countries, who would regard any improvement in U.S.-Iranian ties as a threat. It’s difficult to imagine a package deal over Syria without Saudi approval, and this only the Obama administration can deliver. One thing is certain, namely that any such deal, because of the stalemate in Syria, will force all sides to accept less than their maximal objectives.

Like China’s Deng Xiaoping, Assad may have become important largely for what will come after him. Though old and senile, Deng was kept as titular head of the Chinese power structure to better prepare the aftermath. That may be Assad’s destiny too. He’s the path through which a Syrian settlement may have to pass, on the understanding that he will make way once a power-transfer mechanism is agreed. We shall soon see how, or whether, this intricate dance can begin.

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