Middle East

Is Iran Key to Resolving the Syrian Crisis?

Anti-Syrian government protesters in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, hold a banner saying "Stop killing kids in Syria" in Arabic and Romanian on Dec. 17, 2011. (Photo: Tamoumen, Dreamstime.com)

"The Syrian issue is highly sensitive, and if the right action is not taken it could affect the stability of the region," Iran's Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said recently, adding that Iran will invite the Syrian dissidents "in a bid to prepare and facilitate the ground for talks between the Syrian opposition and the government." Russia agrees. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov believes Saudi Arabia and Iran have influence over the Syrian situation, further noting the political realities of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and their capabilities to unite neighboring states.

In this part of the world the regional realities of Syria's crisis are evidently sensed. The concern suggests that a new regime could not single handily stabilize the situation. The depth and protracted nature of this conflict augurs against any straightforward political transition of power within the state. Trans-border sectarian allegiances underpin the broader worry. Moreover, a dynamic of conflict has evolved, reaching into the international level of the U.N. Security Council, involving discord between Russia, China and the United States. Kofi Annan's resignation today as the special peace envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League demonstrates the frustration and difficulty involved.

"What we're seeing is a cycle of talks, votes, vetoes of condemnation, and no one seems to be coming with a plan ... that can break this cycle at the moment." Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher reported from the U.N. headquarters on the latest Security Council meeting. "This is a very angry meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The German ambassador was incredibly critical of the Russian position, but he was reserved when you put it against the comments made by the French ambassador," he said. At the heart of current and future turmoil over Syria seems to be, once again, defense deals from the local to the regional and international levels.

The geopolitical ramifications of Syria's conflict are profound. Beyond other states of the region undergoing political upheavals, Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons. In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned Bashar al-Assad's government to safeguard these weapons, a warning that may have little impact on a government rapidly spinning out of control within a state now seen as the latest fulcrum of an arms race in the Middle East. As Time Magazine noted, until all sides can agree on a way forward, the arms race in Syria is likely to continue, with arms dealers from Lebanon and elsewhere in the region preparing for the carnage the Assad downfall would initiate. The carnage, however, has already been set in motion by the protracted depth of conflict afforded by the Assad regime, thereby oiling the wheels of military industries far and wide.

Regional mechanisms for stability

Constructing geopolitical defense regulation is fundamental for developing cohesive political stability between all states of the region. Given the nebulous political nature of the many Middle Eastern states undergoing political changes—and the reasons why they underwent such grave political upheavals—systemic regulative authority now seems especially vital. Unlike past alliances—strategic alliances that manifested arms races and division within the region—the process of structuring broad ranging progressive defense regulation consolidates systemic power. And it is systemic power that is vital for new regimes forming in the region.

General defence regulation and relative security inevitably makes rational sense, especially in the Middle East. Yet facts on the ground always speak otherwise. Grounded in time after bloody time into the territories of the region are the ancient schisms driven by the mantra, "Unite in the face of a common enemy." Too many battles have ingrained revenge and rivalry in the veritable desert sands. Rather than progressive cohesion between states, strategic defense and a desire for increasingly powerful weapons—the weapons of the superpowers—seems the norm in Middle Eastern relations.

From the United States to Russia and Israel, from Iran to Saudi Arabia and nuclear Pakistan and India, the issue of defense regulation must be the toughest nut to crack in this part of the world. No one wants to give up their military power in the region, military dictators inevitably keep arising, and no Western state seems to want to rein in the transfer of weapons for oil in the Middle East. Russia and the United States particularly stand by their strategic boltholes in the Middle East regardless of the infernal fighting and conflict they have fomented down through the ages, aided and abetted by their superior military powers. Achieving political stability via foreign intervention has become a misnomer, it seems, for militancy, defense industry, irresolute conflicts and puppet regimes guided by the strategic rivalries of greater superpowers.

Why, for example, does the United States resist the inclusion of key regional players such as Iran in Syria's resolution? Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, was quite explicit in his speech on television recently saying that the Assad's Syria is the "backbone of the Arab confrontation with Israel." Perhaps drawing Iran into the regional resolve means indirectly addressing the Israeli-Palestinian divide? It could amount to no longer ostracizing Iran at the behest of Israel. It surely means transcending rivalries, be they religious, racial or strategic.

Either way, Russia's Lavrov is politically right, by my rationale, in maintaining that U.S. resistance to Iran in peace efforts is "unconstructive and blocks all progress." Despite Russia's recognition of regional realities, however, the issue of reining in the wholesale weapons flow to Syria still falls squarely at Russia's military industrial feet. Rather than address the root causes of Assad's genocide and prevent future governments from inflicting the same carnage, Russia ostensibly wishes to maintain the military status quo, regardless of who is in power, as long as the defense contracts continue.

"We are not married to Assad," said Konstantin Sivkov a Russian military strategist. "We can maintain our position in Syria as long as there is a normal succession process." Without developing progressive security arrangements within the region, that is hardly likely. Regional security comprises political arrangements involving Iran, Israel and all members of the Arab League. These are arrangements that in one way or another require U.N. Security members such as Russia and the United States to address their own defense contracts within the region.

Transcending militancy

"The morale of our people is very high, and our armed forces are at their highest level," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi recently said. Although the current regime's days look numbered, the militancy per se is as strong as ever, and the militant legacy would remain. Dr. Larbi Sadiki of Exeter University suggests that without a political program comprising civil and civic capacity-building, the end of military hostilities does not occur via the overpowering of the problematic regime; rather the regime's demise tends to be marked by the start of disarray, schisms and internecine fighting.

Sadiki took the situation in Libya as a case in point. He warns that "transition in Syria demands a great deal of preparatory work at this crucial stage before the regime collapses." Central to portending chaos is the proliferation of weapons readily available once the regime has collapsed. Sadiki goes on to note that "the Russians themselves have sophisticated weapons in its Tartus base, and Russia must be eager to secure these—peither for repossession or destruction."

Likewise on Al Jazeera recently, Daryll Kindall of the Arms Control Association pointed to the importance of the international community addressing Syria's chemical weapons: Syria is not a signatory of the chemical weapons convention. While Syria says it won't use them unless it is against foreign intervention, the message is, don't mess with this regime by foreign force. So the question is, what happens to these weapons when the regime finally implodes and the militancy still prevails?

This is a viscous circle that no amount of U.N. resolutions has been able to address, just as the same measures have failed to resolve the issue of nuclear Iran. As Associate Professor Ali Omidi of Isfahan University in Iran notes on Iran's nuclear status, "Relinquishing the stored 20 percent uranium does not guarantee the West will abide by any determinations between all parties, such as removal of all sanctions and a reduction of Israel's nuclear arsenal." For Iran, the enriched uranium has become a bargaining tool.

Nevertheless, Iran, Syria's closest regional ally, is now willing to reach out to the Syrian opposition, says Radio Zamaneh. Iran has also announced that it is prepared to play a role in facilitating talks, hosting a meeting between the opposition and government in Tehran. The conflict now embodies issues of regional security, defense and energy, issues that beg for a new progressive approach to regional stability.

The alternative is to send in 300,000 foreign troops upon the downfall of Assad and his regime, and continue down the road of fighting fire with fire. 

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