Syria, Iran and the West

by Peter Jenkins

A whiff of bias in much media reporting of the conflict in Syria has made it hard to judge the situation there with confidence. Nonetheless, recent words and deeds suggest that Western governments have started to lose confidence in the eventual victory of rebel forces (whom one is supposed to refer to as “the opposition” — the George Orwell of Politics and the English Language would have enjoyed that).

The West appears to be waking up to the absurdity of supporting a coalition which includes fighters capable of executing a 14-year old boy in front of his parents (New York Times, 11 June) or making use of Sarin gas (Carla del Ponte, UN human rights investigator, 5 May). At last attention is shifting to how to bring about a ceasefire and talks free of preconditions about future political arrangements.

Two former NATO secretary generals observed in the op-ed pages of the New York Times on 11 June that after two years of destruction and 80,000 deaths, a political process, not military action, offers the best chance of averting even greater suffering, radicalization and regional implosion.

One day historians may be curious to know why the West was so quick to turn against a Syrian government that had been circumspect in its dealings with the West’s chief ally in the region, Israel, and by and large, had enjoyed the support of Syria’s Christian minorities. Perhaps this desertion of Syria’s Christians will come to be seen as marking a time when Western societies — or rather, their political leaders — had ceased to think of themselves as Christian.

For now, though, the focus is rightly on putting a stop to the appalling loss of life (about 5,000 a month since July 2012), human hardship (more than a million refugees) and impoverishment that are the manifest consequences of this war.

An EU decision in late May to lift legal restrictions on the supply of arms to the rebels should be seen in that light. It is designed to puncture growing Syrian government confidence in eventual victory and to enhance the appeal of a ceasefire and talks. This can be inferred from Britain’s lack of haste to exploit the EU decision.

Such tactics are unlikely to be enough, however, to stop the killing and the destruction, which have been allowed to continue to a point where the future of the lands that lie between Acre and Basra is uncertain. All hands are likely to be needed on deck to sail the Syrian ship into calmer waters and determine the future configuration of its rigging.

For western governments this is awkward. It involves making some hard choices concerning the West’s relations with Iran.

If the West needs Iran to push the Syrian government and Hezbollah in the direction of the goals which the West appears to have agreed on with Russia, certain things follow.

One is recognition that Iranian support for the Syrian government has been no more reprehensible than support for the rebels from other regional powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian government has been a friend and ally of Iran for three decades. Supporting allies has been normal practice throughout much of history.

A second is inclusion of Iran in any conference to agree on a cease-fire or determine post-cease-fire political arrangements.

To exclude Iran because of its human rights record, or because of its links to Hezbollah, or because of anti-Zionist rhetoric, or because it has defied the will of the UN Security Council, or because Saudi Arabia sees it as a rival, or because Iranian defence of Iranian interests in various theatres has cut across Western pursuit of Western interests, is a luxury the West cannot afford — not when in Syria, the lives and livelihoods of millions remain in jeopardy.

A third is to offer Iran a credible assurance that future talks about Iran’s determination to retain a uranium enrichment capability will draw guidance from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For seven years, the West, supposedly a staunch supporter of the NPT, has tried to coerce Iran into abandoning an activity which that Treaty does not prohibit. This too is a luxury the West can no longer afford.

It looks increasingly possible that the Syrian civil war will cause changes to at least one of the political entities which Britain and France imposed on the Middle East after 1918. This creates a case for looking afresh at the West’s relations with a nation that has had a stake in the Middle East for long stretches of the last 2600 years. But don’t expect any Western decision-maker to acknowledge this any time soon!

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.