by Robert E. Hunter
The conflict in Syria could soon take on dimensions that no one outside of that country really wants and with consequences that will have destructive effects far beyond the local issues at stake, notably intensifying US-Russian confrontation. Who will rule Syria is the key local issue: the minority Alawites or the majority Sunni (and other) elements. But this classic struggle for national power long since took on broader proportions. If a starting date can be assigned to something so profound, it would be the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overthrew a Sunni minority government (Saddam Hussein) that ruled over a majority population mostly made up of Shia and Kurds. It also gave impetus to the classic competition for regional preeminence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with some other regional states—notably Israel, Turkey, Egypt—joining in.
Almost from the beginning, therefore, Syrian civil strife took on the character of a proxy war, with Sunnis wanting to right the regional balance with the Shias that had been upset by Saddam’s overthrow, and with opportunity-seeking by both Iran and Persian Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Still, the conflict was relatively contained.
Given the Middle East locus of the conflict, the outside world, especially the United States, could not just watch while the carnage escalated. A variety of peace efforts followed. But none was able to address the basic Sunni-Shia struggles in the region or deal with the geopolitical competitions playing out over Syria (as happened over Lebanon in the 1980s). Those struggles and competitions were too deep and too far-reaching to be amenable to short-term diplomacy.
Even in the effort to deal with conflict just within Syria, peace proposals never came to grips with a fundamental requirement: that they had to find some means to guarantee the security— meaning survival—of all the various confessional groups. In particular, with the Sunni effort to redress the balance in Syria, that meant some means for ending the rule of the minority Alawites without their being slaughtered—or at least so they feared. As much as anything this explains why President Obama’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to go” was so inadequate and indeed made matters worse. Faced with the risk of being destroyed, Alawites stuck with Assad and still do. For them, it is a matter of survival. With its tactical insistence that Assad must go but without a strategic focus—most important that “all confessional groups must be protected”—US-led diplomacy was useless.
Since then, the canvas has broadened further. When the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, Obama drew a “red line” and appeared ready to use force to make a point—with the near-global belief that chemical weapons are somehow a weapon more hideous than conventional armaments, a psychological attitude fostered by the use of gas on the Western front in Europe in World War I. But Obama held back, and not for a trivial reason. Like George W. Bush before invading Iraq in 2003, the US president felt he needed support from at least one key allied nation, with Britain the prime candidate. Obama perceived, probably correctly, that the American people don’t want to see the US involved in yet another Middle East war. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was willing, but the British parliament rebelled, leaving Obama with the choice of going it alone or backing off. He chose the latter.
Enter Moscow, which offered to mediate in response to a suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syrian chemical weapons be put under international control. This provided Russia with a foothold in Syria, beyond its decades-old naval involvement at the Syrian port of Tartus. Moscow could thus claim continuing diplomatic involvement in the Middle East beyond its formal (but inconsequential) role in the so-called Quartet that, since 2001, has futilely sought to help with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Even this Russian role need not have led to its opposition to Syrian peace efforts or a Middle East clash between Moscow and Washington. However, other negative developments in Russia’s relations with the West interceded, beginning with its 2014 seizure of Crimea, its intervention in eastern Ukraine, and a growing confrontation with NATO. Even then, Syria might have been to some degree hived off from a broader deterioration of relations between Russia and, in particular, the US. After all, the US and Soviet militaries communicate with one another in the Middle East, in major part so that their aircraft don’t shoot each other down by accident.
But then, the role the Russians played in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections further complicated relations. The “Russia factor” became deeply enmeshed in US domestic politics as a convenient way of explaining why Hillary Clinton lost the election—neglecting other well-known factors—and the best possible club with which to beat up on Donald Trump and perhaps force him from office.
The United States and Russia now face not only a proxy war in Syria but also potentially in a catalytical war situation. That term, which derives from the Cold War, means that some third party, even a minor party, can take an action that sets in motion much larger, dangerous developments. Think: the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914.
One potential catalyst is President Trump’s threat to abrogate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which was Obama’s most important diplomatic achievement and a major step toward a more secure Middle East. Another has been the continuation of Saudi aggression in Yemen—where human suffering is at least on a par with that in Syria, and where the United States is an active supporter of Saudi military actions and, by implication, civilian atrocities. A third has been rioting by Palestinians in Gaza and a lethal Israeli response. A fourth has been the buildup of military capacity by Hezbollah, made possible by Iran, that threatens northern Israel.
Then there are the incendiary statements of the most recent cock-of-the-walk in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who believes he has carte blanche from the United States. In one of his more inflammatory statements, he said that Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei “makes Hitler look good… the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.” Allied to this is Saudi Arabia’s continued fostering, indirectly, the rise of the worst of Islamist terrorism, while encouraging the Western misconception that Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
And now the Syrian government has again likely used chemical weapons, which has led to an Israeli attack on a Syrian air base and a “war of words”—so far—between the United States and Russia at the United Nations. For his part, Trump says that “missiles will be coming” at Syria. “Get ready Russia,” he is taunting, “because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart.’”
So far, none of these developments should be the stuff of a major confrontation between the United States and Russia or precipitate a wider war in the region. Unfortunately, words have gotten out in front of analysis, and now pride in both Washington and Moscow—plus each side’s view of its need to preserve “credibility”—is at stake. What’s still missing is any serious effort at workable diplomacy.
What Is Required to Move Toward Peace?
The first key element of any peace effort is direct communication, in the first instance between the United States and Russia. That needs to be followed by direct communication between the US and Iran. Then all the key parties, beginning with Moscow and Washington, need a cooling-off period. The United States must also tell both MbS and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that their inflammatory rhetoric is just making matters worse and potentially helping to produce a wider conflict that could drag in the United States and also cause suffering for both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Most important is for the US and Russia, in the lead, along with others—key European states, the UN—to restart a serious diplomatic process regarding Syria that will include a vital element missing so far. Any solution must account for the survival and security of all the confessional elements in Syria—Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds, and so on. The issue of Assad’s future should be left to be decided later, when (and if) the Alawites see that they have a clear prospect of surviving an end to hostilities.
Any peace deal will need to include other elements, in particular accounting for the role of Turkey and not neglecting the final destruction of the Islamic State. But first the United States and Russia must immediately agree that it’s in nobody’s interest for the Syrian conflict to spiral out of control.