Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Panic in Washington: Are Iran and the Syrian Regime Winning and What to do About It?
by Barry Rubin
A new, important development has taken place in the Syrian civil war: Western panic that the rebels are losing has replaced optimism. This has spurred a desire to do something about the war. But how can the West do enough to prevent the feared rebel defeat? It isn’t going to intervene directly, nor with a big enough effort to stave off a defeat. Anyway, is a defeat imminent?
This has been a war in which every week somebody different is proclaimed the victor. I don’t believe that the Syrian regime is poised for a victory but a lot of people in Washington and other world capitals do.
What this round has done, however, is to raise alarms, both in the West and in the Sunni Muslim world, that the Shia Muslim side is winning, that is Iran is emerging triumphant over the United States. What are the implications?
Remember some important points. Iran is not going to take over the Middle East nor is it about to win a lot of Sunni followers. Iran’s limit of influence is mainly in Lebanon and Syria (where its ally only controls half the country) and to a lesser extent Iraq. Tehran can fool around in Yemen, Bahrain, and southwest Afghanistan a bit, too. But that’s about it. There are real limits.
Why, though, has the Iran bloc seemed to have been winning?
First, Iran’s proxies are better organized than the Syrian rebels. They are unified, with Hizballah and the Syrian government coherent forces and a new People’s Army as a single militia. In contrast, the rebels are divided into a dozen groups which may cooperate but also battle among themselves and don’t coordinate very well.
Second, the Iran bloc gives more support to its proxies than the Sunni bloc or the West. Among the Sunnis, they are also divided into Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and al-Qaida) and what might be called non- or anti-Islamists. The United States will not intervene in a big way. Remember that in Libya, NATO had to hand the rebels’ victory by destroying their regime enemies. Nothing like this will happen in Syria. The Obama Administration will face a defeat rather than do so.
Third, this also means that the United States has worse and weaker proxies than the other side. In part, this is because the Obama Administration accepted their destruction, as in the dismantlement of the Turkish army’s power, the overthrow of the Egyptian regime, the subverting of Israel’s leverage, and the failure to support moderates or non-Islamist conservatives all over the region. Iraq has also been turned into a Shia power. In short, Obama helped dismantle the old strategic order and replaced it with one where enemies of America rejoiced.
So what happens if U.S. policy exaggerates a Sunni defeat, intensified by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—those who backed the Syrian rebels–begging it to do more?
Let me point out that once again this shows that the Arab-Israeli conflict is unimportant in the contemporary Middle East. This idea simply doesn’t seem to penetrate the brains of Western leaders. Perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry has turned into a full-time “peacemaker” because he thinks that defusing the conflict will shore up the Sunni Muslim side,
That’s ridiculous. There’s not going to be any progress on peace—if for no other reason the Palestinian Authority is terrified of either Islamist or Shia Islamist conquest of the region. Even if they wanted to make a deal—and they don’t—they’d be scared off by thinking peacemaking is suicidal.
But the wider issue could convince policymakers to enter an open alliance with Sunnis—including the Muslim Brotherhood—to counter the Shias. The Saudis and others would be pressured to get along with the Muslim Brotherhood; Israel would be pushed not to do anything to disrupt the grand alliance. Again, this could happen but it won’t work if it does.
There is, however, an alternative: the United States would understand that only Israel is just about the only reliable ally in the Middle East. It might take another president to do that.
What other implications does an apparent Syrian government victory have?
–It again reminds us that we are in an era characterized by two phenomena: the battle in each country between Islamists and non-Islamists, and the battle between Sunni and Shias. The old Arab nationalist era, extending from 1952 to 2011, is over.
–The United States should recognize that the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime has led it into a mess in Syria. The White House, however, won’t do that though there are many in the State Department who understand.
–Both Sunni and Shia Islamists are against U.S. interests but U.S. policymakers don’t quite get this and if they do what are they going to do about it?
–U.S. policy will probably become more favorable to the Muslim Brothers ruling Egypt (lots more military aid) and those wanting to rule Syria. They are becoming increasingly designated as “good guys” by the United States even though they are becoming more repressive and unpopular.
–The violence is growing in Iraq, where Sunnis are looking at Syria and saying, “We thought we couldn’t win but maybe we were wrong.” That country might also be destabilized. Ironically, the United States and Iran are both on the same side there, for a Shia regime against al-Qaida.
–The (Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese) Christians, (Iraqi and Syrian) Kurds, and Syrian Druze are going to look for a protector increasingly. But the United States will probably ignore them.
–Internal violence is growing also in Lebanon along Sunni-Shia lines. Perhaps the United States should reconsider a strategy which has indirectly supported Hizballah. Indeed, maybe it should consider covert operations to work with the Christians and mainly moderate Sunni Muslims to subvert Hizballah. But it won’t do that either.
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Posted by Sally Zahav at 3:15 AM