THE BLOG
06/05/2014 10:25 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Syria a Bargaining Chip in the P5+1 Negotiations Between Iran and the Major Powers

The difference between the Egyptian and Syrian presidential elections this week is that the first has revived Egypt as a leading nation in the regional balance of power, with an Arab decision and Arab support, while the second has taken Syria out of the Arab mainstream and made it a satellite of Iran in the regional balance of power. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made social and living conditions as well as security his top priority, deferring to people's demands for their concerns to be at the top of his policies, and for their future to be at the top of his promises. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the fight against global terror at the top of his priority, turning his country into an arena for a devastating international war, and rallying his people to be its fodder. This is the huge difference between the president who was summoned by the people and entrusted by them to lead under the microscope of oversight and accountability for the next four years, and the master of the People's Palace, who excluded half of his people by insisting on holding elections to obtain a new 7-year term, in the midst of destruction, dispossession, and an unprecedented exodus of refugees to neighboring countries. The other difference between the two cases is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is boasting of having won in Syria, as part of its regional strategy and ambitions in the Arab countries, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, three countries in which Iran is injecting funds and armaments to fuel internal conflicts. By contrast, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have achieved a strategic victory in Egypt by channeling funds into reforms, infrastructure, and development there, getting behind the desires of the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people who reject the Muslim Brotherhood's sinister scheme in Egypt and the region.

President Sisi will be closely watched and held accountable by the people who brought him to power. If he should decide to turn into a president who is above the will of the people, and Pharaonic tendencies were to tickle his fancy, then he shall be deposed. The way Sisi has ascended to power in Egypt is a precedent not only in Egypt, but also in the entire Arab region. He may be allowed to implement strict transitional measures to impose order, but he will not be allowed to assault freedoms in the name of exceptional security powers on the long run. If he did and betrayed the popular trust and mandate he was granted, people will return to Tahrir Square to overthrow him. All he has to do is put up the portraits of the two presidents deposed by the Egyptians in just a year to remember and avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Both men, former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, are still in prison, exemplifying a lesson that would do President Sisi a lot of good if he committed it to memory.

The positions expressed by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in the course of congratulating President Sisi are noteworthy. He urged the new president to hold a "national dialogue with all the elements that did not stain their hands with the blood of innocents or terrorize those who should be safe." With equal urgency, the king called for a donor conference to help Egypt overcome its economic crisis, and warned that any country failing to contribute to help Egypt would "have no place among us in the future if it should be struck by adversity and surrounded by crises." The king also said, "I call on all brothers and friends to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Egypt in any form," adding that meddling in Egypt is absolutely unacceptable, a principle that "we will not compromise or debate under any circumstances."

In effect, this is a message addressed to the United States as much as it is addressed to Israel, Turkey, and Iran, saying that Saudi Arabia backs the restoration of Egypt as an Arab heavyweight in the regional balances.

Egypt is a success for Saudi regional policy, while Syria is a failure. Riyadh will therefore not compromise on its Egyptian achievement, which it was able to secure via economic support rather than by means of security/military intervention. Riyadh, by its own admission, did not succeed in Syria. For this reason, it is currently reviewing its policies that concern that pivotal Arab state, which Tehran has managed to grab.

Syria was always an extremely important bargaining chip in Gulf-Iranian relations. Under President Hafez al-Assad, Syria played the Iranian card with the Gulf countries in the course of its strategic repositioning. Today, this equation has been inverted, and it is Iran that is playing the Syrian card in the course of its regional and international strategic realignment.

Tehran is investing dearly in Syria to win it, not only because Damascus is a cornerstone in its regional ambitions, but also because Syria has become a bargaining chip in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany).

However, Tehran does not want to compromise on Syria in these negotiations, because it wants to win on both accounts - i.e. its regional and nuclear ambitions. But Tehran realizes that lifting the major sanctions imposed through U.S. laws - most notably the D'Amato Act -requires decision-makers in the United States to address Iranian foreign policies, in particular in the Middle East and in its so-called support for terrorism.

The Obama administration may come to believe that Tehran can help it in the war on Salafist terrorism, especially in Syria. However, this does not mean that the United States will forget the past, and Iran's support for groups the United States still designates as terrorist organizations.

This is important for Tehran for reasons related to its quest to lift the sanctions, something that is sorely needed by both the moderates in Iran represented by President Hassan Rouhani and hardliners led by the Revolutionary Guard under the aegis of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is also important in the context to note Hezbollah's role in Syria, given that the party is designated as a terror group by the U.S. government, while, practically speaking, the Obama administration publicly acknowledges the importance of its role in Syria, as did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during his snap visit to Beirut this week. Kerry spoke about Russia and Hezbollah in one breath, as if to say they were equally influential actors in Syria, and deliberately omitted any mention of Iran and its role, probably because this could undermine international negotiations. Perhaps the time is right for all stakeholders to thoroughly - and quickly - rethink their strategies after the Syrian presidential election. Realistically speaking, Syria will bring no victory to any side, as long as its humanitarian tragedy continues - regardless of who thinks he has won or lost.

First, as concerns Bashar al-Assad, if his choice was indeed political settlement with the Syrian opposition, he would not have opted for elections that would - in his view - cement him in power for another seven years. His mere insistence, by an Iranian decision and with Russian support, on holding presidential elections to end the idea of a transitional governing body stipulated by both the Geneva 1 communiqué and the Geneva 2 conference, means that the Syrian president and his allies decided that they are not willing to accept a negotiated political process such as the one endorsed by the UN and the Security Council. Otherwise, this axis would have considered for example, extending the powers of President Assad for a year or two, instead of holding elections that maintain him in power for seven years - seven years of suffering and destruction in Syria because there can be no decisive military solution to the conflict no matter much the present balance of power appears tilted in favor of the regime.

Second, compared to the clarity of the position of the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis and Hezbollah, supported by Beijing, it is ambiguity that seems to characterize the position of the other side. Indeed, what is the strategy of the United States and that of Saudi Arabia after the Syrian election? And where does the Secretariat of the UN stand?

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must show boldness instead of acquiescing to inaccurate impressions of what are in fact false victories. He has to shake off the reputation for being a cautious bureaucrat, and forego calculations related to his political ambitions, as the world watches complacently the greatest humanitarian tragedy in recent memory. Ban Ki-moon must not take his time before appointing a new joint UN-Arab League envoy for Syria to succeed Lakhdar Brahimi, and must not cave in to the demands of Moscow and Damascus to drop the Arab League capacity of said envoy's post. If he were to do so, under any circumstances, and with any formulation that he might find imaginative, he would be making a grave mistake that will come back to haunt him.

Ban Ki-moon's geopolitical responsibility, and not just his ethical responsibility, requires him not to be captive to his calculations and his character, but to carefully consider the requirements of the present humanitarian, political, and security situation in Syria. For this reason, he must not choose a bureaucrat as the UN representative for the Syrian issue. He does not have the right to take his time and to appoint to the post someone who can be manipulated by Damascus, Moscow, or Tehran, while being unacceptable to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo, because if Ban Ki-moon does so, he would be prolonging the Syrian tragedy. There is dire need for a new, bold, and clear approach to the Syrian crisis. Ban Ki-moon needs to think about which figure is up to that task.

Today, Bashar al-Assad and his allies feel emboldened on the field, but realistically speaking, their position is fragile. Assad is leading a civil war, and he fears the new American decision to provide advanced weaponry for the opposition, no matter how much Assad pretends to be confident of the U.S. tendency to back down, and no matter how right he is in believing that the moderate opposition has its work cut out for it in fighting him and terrorism together.

President Vladimir Putin is now implicated in Ukraine, and therefore, he sees Syria as a piece on a chessboard rather than a means to restore his glory, as before. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear priorities make it unable to go fully on the offensive, especially since the crippling sanctions on Iran will remain in place for a long period of time, which means that Iran has to be flexible if it wants them lifted.

Accordingly, Ban Ki-moon has to think about the maneuverability room available instead of fixating on transient victories. He must realize that there is currently an opportunity to impose humanitarian corridors in Syria, instead of falsely believing that he first needs permission from Damascus. Equally important, Ban Ki-moon should speed up the pace of his efforts - if he has indeed made this necessary decision - to play a leading role in the formulation of regional relationships necessary for a political solution in Syria, which means in particular the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The climate for this is now favorable.

Favorable because in the regional balance of power, we can now say that Saudi Arabia has won Egypt, and that Iran has won in Syria. Understanding this equation and how to build on it requires an international figure that is able to understand regional equations, and not a bureaucratic one that will miss this opportunity. Yet, Ban Ki-moon is not the only one required to avoid falling into the trap of a classical bureaucratic approach to the Syrian crisis.

Riyadh has to decide what its alternative strategy will be in the event Tehran insists that the developments in Syrian are a decisive victory for Iran. The Syrian presidential election has highlighted the failure of the United States, Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia, no matter how strongly these countries resist admitting this, as they proclaim the election to be a "farce" or a "zero," or to be delegitimizing Assad and an opportunity to push the National Coalition into international legitimacy and recognition. For one thing, it is the reality on the ground that determines triumphs and defeats, and whether they are were transient or false. This fact imposes on Saudi Arabia the need to recognize that the Obama administration is determined to ensure the success of the nuclear negotiations at any cost. So what will the Saudi strategy be at the two levels - the nuclear level and Syria? Does it have a plan A or a plan B, or will it bide its time pending the results of the nuclear talks?

Some in Saudi Arabia are betting on the failure of the nuclear negotiations, but this is a most serious blunder. However, even if this is the thinking in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia must have a plan B. At the Syrian level, it is time to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new strategy to replace the plan for a war of attrition, which has torn the social fabric in Syria apart and destroyed the country - and all sides without exception are guilty in those costly wars.

Today, political solutions through Geneva 1 or Geneva 2 are blowing away in the wind. If there is any room for a negotiated settlement, then it will have to be one imposed by the military balance of power on the ground. For this reason, Russia is pretending to lead efforts to revive Geneva 2 in a third session, when in reality, Russia has from the beginning turned this idea into an empty process of distraction and deception. Russia - with Iran and Hezbollah, and China to a lesser extent - is now celebrating the coronation of President Bashar al-Assad in spite of Geneva 1 and 2, while calling for a return to the deceptive process purely to distract, as if nothing had happened.

For their part, the Western powers led by the United States are evading their real responsibilities, at times by seeking achievements in humanitarian efforts, and at others by seeking accountability at the International Criminal Court. But in reality, what the United States, Britain, and France - plus Germany - want more than anything is to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran and protect negotiations to that end from collapse, no matter the price in blood that Syria will have to pay as a result.

It is time for a strategy B on both the nuclear and Syrian questions, especially by the Arab parties, and in particular Saudi Arabia. This does not mean that victory has been settled for Iran in the nuclear issue or Syria. This is a time for rolling up sleeves, thinking creatively, and remaining at the strategy-drawing board.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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