A bizarre diplomatic scene played out in Moscow recently. At a press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir contradicted each other in a way that is very rare in the annals of public diplomacy – writes GIS Middle East expert Professor Dr Amatzia Baram.
The Russian explained that the only way to fight ISIS is by ending the war in Syria, and this can be done through a provisional national unity government. The participation of President Bashar Assad in this government was, however, indispensable. His Saudi counterpart explained most politely that Assad is ‘part of the problem, not part of the solution’. The Russian peace initiative was actually launched last June. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Muhammad Salman but, except for a Saudi promise to purchase Russian weapons, no results were reported. As for Iran, its top officials recently suggested a ceasefire in Syria with each side in the civil war staying put in its present positions; peace negotiations would follow. The Iranians also demanded that the ceasefire include an end to Saudi-Emirates’ support for the rebels. Not surprisingly, Saudi spokesmen insisted that in exchange for that, all non-Syrian (read: Iranian and Hezbollah) forces would have to leave Syria.
What happened all of a sudden? Why are the Iranians in effect suggesting the partition of Syria? Why are the Russians so keen on a ceasefire? The answer seems to be that both in Moscow and in Tehran all alarm bells are ringing. A few weeks ago, President Assad admitted publicly that he had been forced to give up large swathes of Syrian territory because his dwindling military could no longer hold on to them. This took place a short while after Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed to support anti-regime Islamist forces – with the exception of ISIS – in Syria. The result was a successful rebel offensive in Syria’s north. In addition, reports coming from Lebanon indicate that the heavy losses of Hezbollah in Syria (more than 1,000 in dead alone) are making its intervention there extremely unpopular, even within the Shia Lebanese community. On August 12 2015, this problem was supposed to be addressed by the visit of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif to Beirut, during which he met with Hezbollah’s leadership. Very likely he assured them that following the nuclear agreement Iran’s financial support would be boosted. Yet the problem is not merely financial.
In short, as seen from Tehran and Moscow, things in Syria do not look good. We have to add to this the recent setbacks in the case of the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen, and the stalemate with ISIS in Iraq that followed the fall of Ramadi. All these developments are more likely to explain Iran’s sudden quest for peace in Syria than its newly found self-confidence resulting from the nuclear deal with the United States. The Iranian strategy seems to be aimed at establishing a tightly-knit territory in western Syria, stretching between Damascus and the Alawite-inhabited mountains that border on Lebanon. This territory would be fully controlled by Iran, Hezbollah and the remnants of the Assad armed forces. This way, Iran would guarantee the survival of Assad’s regime, the Alawites and Hezbollah.
Why are the Saudis being so tough? Apparently because they smell blood. Removing Assad is to them a matter of national prestige and it looks possible now. They know that Turkey, too, sees things in the same way. The Turks refused to host Iran’s foreign minister after his recent Beirut and Damascus visits. As the Saudis see it, in Syria and Yemen they are now on the right (winning) side of history. Why surrender, then?
The Saudis are not inflexible, though. While getting rid of Assad is their first priority, before clipping ISIS’ wings, they are also aware of the danger presented by ISIS. As a result, Saudi foreign minister Jubeir agreed that a national unity government may include ‘the Syrian military and other government structures.’ This strategy of incorporating President Assad’s ‘deep state’ run by his security agencies into the new arrangement is identical to the American approach in 2011-2014. Following the nuclear agreement with Iran, President Obama’s administration seems to be changing its policy, tilting toward the Iranian position, but this requires a separate discussion.