Thursday, April 30, 2015

On our own - Regional states could soon ignore America in Syria.

Recently former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Washington to meet with officials. While there he held a get-together with Arab journalists, in which he said there was a new Arab attitude to act against Iranian influence in the Middle East.

In Syria, Hariri reportedly said, the establishment of “safe zones,” or the provision of “air cover” to advancing rebels in the north and south of the country was “inevitable.” According to journalist Joyce Karam, who was in on the meeting: “For Hariri, however, such action in Syria could come regardless of Washington’s position or whether it strikes a nuclear deal with Iran or doesn’t by the end of June. The main Arab objective as Hariri spells it out, is ‘restoring Arab will after years of Iran trying to break it.’”

It was interesting that Hariri, even as he was meeting with the Americans, felt a need to implicitly criticize the United States. While this reflected a more assertive Arab attitude, it also revealed genuine anger with President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to seriously counter Iranian inroads into the Middle East.

However, the current situation is paradoxical. The United States, in order to disengage from the region, wants the Arab states to become more proactive and stop turning toward Washington at every crisis. At the same time, the Arab attitude risks endangering an Obama administration priority, namely the conclusion of a final nuclear deal with Iran that can lead to normalized relations.

That’s not to say that the Arab states can block a nuclear deal if the leaderships in Iran and the United States want one. But it is very much within their capacity to create situations in which the Obama administration will be forced to choose one side over the other, and there the American president’s principal concern will be to avoid alienating his regional allies. This could greatly limit his options.

Syria is a good example. If Saudi Arabia leads the Arab states in a campaign to oust President Bashar al-Assad--which would benefit from Turkish support, amid reports the two states are coordinating their actions--Washington would have to make a choice. Nothing suggests the Americans want Iran to dominate in Syria, quite the contrary, but Assad’s fall would represent a strategic defeat for Tehran. Any Iranian reaction may target Arab states. If Obama comes to their defense, this could jeopardize his opening to Iran.

Obama is learning the travails of suddenly downgrading one’s presence in a region where the United States was deeply involved until a few years ago. He never prepared the ground with his regional allies to ensure a smooth transition away from this.

The Saudi-Turkish partnership, despite the two countries’ profound differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, represents a significant new phase in the Syrian conflict. While it’s difficult to determine how responsible each is for the string of rebel victories in recent weeks, their shared interest in Syria appear to have ensured at least that the rebels are well resupplied.

Neither Riyadh nor Ankara wants openly to be seen as backing the Jaysh al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, coalition that led the rebels’ takeover of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur in April. The reason is that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra plays a dominant role in the coalition. Indeed, the information that has emerged speaks only of Saudi-Turkish coordination to back non-jihadist groups.

Yet despite this, it is probable that the Turks are behaving with intentional ambiguity toward Jabhat al-Nusra. The group’s foreign recruits have been allowed to pass through Turkey (as have ISIS recruits), and there have been numerous reports of militants traveling to Turkey for rest and medical treatment. More difficult to gauge is whether Turkey has given such groups intelligence and weapons to help them in their battles against the Syrian regime.

A key issue that the Saudis and Turks will seek to determine is who ultimately takes Damascus. Both countries know that Washington does not want jihadists to capture the Syrian capital--nor indeed do the Saudis and the Turks themselves. That is why there has been a heating up of the southern front this week, as rebels strive to overrun key regime positions on the approaches to Damascus.

The southern rebels are considered more moderate than those around Idlib. And they too have made advances in recent weeks, capturing Bosra al-Sham and the last regime-controlled border crossing with Jordan in April. What we are witnessing is a race between different anti-Assad groups to decisively defeat the regime, and in that way determine what a postwar Syria looks like.

A story Tuesday in Alaraby Aljadeed cast a light on possible Arab military aid. A Free Syrian Army source was quoted as saying, “Rebel factions in the [south of Syria] are preparing for large-scale military operations and have received promises of Arab air cover, or at least the provision of anti-aircraft missiles.”

You have to wonder how the Obama administration will react to all this. Will it urge caution, as it has done in Yemen? Or, on the contrary, would it regard an Iranian setback in Syria as a golden opportunity to deal with a more vulnerable, more malleable, Islamic Republic? That’s not at all clear, particularly when the American focus remains on defeating groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s strategy toward the Middle East has, at the very least, generated great unpredictability, which Washington may regret before long. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.  

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