The Search for a Syrian Solution Continues

by Charles Naas

In his first inaugural address Franklin Roosevelt stated that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He, of course, was referring to the deep depression and collapse of the American economy. But it is good advice today for the crises brought on by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) bombings in Paris and the successive telephone calls alleging bomb placements in Air France planes and various other venues such as the soccer stadium in Germany. Western civilization is not in danger from IS unless we permit the nascent terrorist power to grow like a virulent cancer of fear and despair. The defense against IS and other terrorists is a job, difficult as that may turn out to be, for our vast security establishment and those of the European governments. Public alertness can assist.

It is election-campaigning time in the US and shortly in Iran. Is it too much to ask the American candidates, particularly the far right-wing Republicans, to cease blathering, lying, and feeding the fear of our fellow citizens? Our leaders and those of Europe and the Middle East don’t need irresponsible advice from political aspirants. This holds true for Iran’s politicos as well. Rather, they must continue the very difficult task of gaining a political and military consensus on how to uproot IS. Also challenging is how to handle the subsequent problems when terrorists separate from large groups in Iraq and Syria to hide themselves in other countries to take on “soft” targets—as has already happened in France. We face a conflict that will, unfortunately, be with us for decades.

What can’t be ignored at this time of great concern and sympathy for France’s travails is that we are witnessing a bloody, no-holds-barred struggle within Islam, primarily between the Sunni and Shi’a sects for religious dominance or self-preservation. The killing of Christians is but one small part of the horror that is going on. Islam has roughly 1.5 billion adherents, and probably well over 90% would like to see the internecine wars simply go away so that they can live a “normal” existence. Our losses on 9/11 were about 3,000 and those in France are still in the hundreds. Shi’a losses have been in the multi-thousands and members of the Sunni sect have also died from suicide bombings, open warfare, and the actions of Shi’a militias.

Millions of people have also become refugees as a result of this internecine conflict. A more Christian approach by a number of U.S. governors and presidential candidates to the refugee issue could bring some relief to those who have born the brunt of terrorism. Jesus would weep at the callous manner in which his followers are addressing the needy women and children who have survived the long treks to some safety.

Perhaps the murders in France have given increased urgency to the second recent meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG)—as the members decided to call themselves. The assembled diplomats took another baby step forward by agreeing to strengthen the only extant multilateral diplomatic process grappling with terrorism in Syria and the chaotic political, economic and security conditions in that country. Delegations from a number of Syrian factions will likely be invited to attend in a first effort to obtain their views on the process.

The participants once again wisely put aside the particularly divisive questions of the fate of Assad and tried to avoid clashes between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They reiterated the need to have the Syrians at some point determine the nature of their own future government. Significantly, they came to a tentative agreement to consider some organizations as “terrorist” such as IS and Jabhat al Nusra and assigned Jordan to complete the listing of additional individuals and groups. There was some discussion on how to achieve a ceasefire of all non-terrorist factions but obviously without final resolution. So far they have avoided the highly sensitive job of classifying Hamas and Hezbollah. The next session will occur within a few weeks.

We Americans must in all honesty realize how much blame we share for the rise of Muslim fanaticism. By now perhaps a majority is aware that the invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago shattered the relative calm that had settled over time over the various religions, tribes, and ethnic inhabitants of the area. In a sense both Iraq and Syria are artificial nations put together from elements of the Ottoman Empire and needed only a strong shove to explode into multi-faceted warfare and rebellion. The United States provided that shove.

U.S. policy also suffered from undue influence from its allies Israel and the Sunni Arab states. The long interregnum without any useful contact with Iran also facilitated our biased policy. The public and government’s demands to overthrow Assad may appear to be a natural reflection of our values. But to the area residents  it has been one more example of Sunni favoritism. Our major military assistance to Saudi Arabia and the Emirate states in the Yemen conflict defies logic and once again reflects our basic approach to the region’s complexity. The Houthis of the Yemen are hardly a major threat to the Saudis or us. Our Arab allies have supplied money to the very terrorist groups that have torn apart Iraq and Syria. Of course, Israel’s intent to retain control of the West Bank, insult the U.S. president, and treat Congress as innocent and stupid individuals puts us in a very difficult position within the largely Muslim population of the region.

The ISSG is still in its early days and has horrendous regional issues to resolve. Can we and the Russians continue to cooperate and coordinate military and political matters? Now that the French are aroused, how does its anger play out on the scene? Can the mix of Shi’a and Sunni nations find ways to work together or at least not upset the applecart? Stay tuned for session three and many more. And in the meantime the US will undoubtedly find it necessary to send additional military forces to destroy IS bases such as Raqqa. But President Obama is highly unlikely to send substantial forces without the financial contributions and, more importantly, military participation of the regional states.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.