Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The Syrian tale is one that strikes a very painful chord. A conflict which began in 2011 as part of the wider Arab Spring; has continued into 2015, leaving in its wake countless deaths, continued acts of violence, the rise of an immensely evil terrorist organization known as ISIS, multitudes displaced internally and externally, and hundreds of thousands desperate to leave the Mid-East altogether.
With the various players now involved in the conflict, it has morphed into a proxy war; one that closely mimics the cold war of post-world war 2, up until the fall of the Berlin wall. During that era, Europe became the epic-center of a battle for supremacy between the USA and USSR. And in the same way, the Middle East- Syria (and Yemen) in particular- has become the epic-center of a battle for supremacy between two Middle Eastern power houses i.e., the Sunni house of the kingdom of Saudi-Arabia vs. the Shiite house of the Iranian theocracy. With Iran backing the Alawite- Shiite Al-Assad clan (the regime), and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels, one of humanity’s greatest civilizations has found itself engulfed in a power tussle between two Elephants!
To be clear, the war in Syria certainly did not begin as an orchestration of Iran or Saudi Arabia. The credit for its origin goes to a certain food vendor in Tunisia whose peculiar action of setting himself on fire in protest against his government, led to the rise of revolutionary citizen movements that swept across the Middle East, extending also into Basher Al-Assad’s stronghold of Syria. But while Tunisia has somehow managed to move past the revolution into political stability, other nations have not been so lucky…especially Syria. Yet, despite their non-involvement in the origin of the conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran have certainly extended their long-founded feud into Syria, and their actions have in no small measure affected the dynamics of the conflict. Syria has become the staging point of a conflict that certainly highlights the deeply rooted sectarian divide of the Muslim world i.e., Sunni vs. Shiite.
The battle for supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes back much further to 1979. The Iranian revolution of that year led to the exile of the Shah of Iran, and the rise of the Ayatollah’s. The exportation of Iran’s new found firebrand policies, posed a great threat to the Saudi Arabian monarchy. It threatened not just the reign of the royals in Riyadh, but also Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region…it was not going to be tolerated. And as a show of its leadership, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, leading the charge for greater Arab partnership, and strengthening its influence in the Muslim world. But even though Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth has made it a force to be reckoned with, Iranian influence has steadily been on the rise; and recent moves by the Iranian regime has led to heightened tensions between both sides. Iran’s strategic diplomatic push has certainly given it more recognition and influence in the international community. And though the Iranian economy had in previous years been crippled by biting sanctions, all signs point to a soon-coming change in its economic status, with the likely enforcement of the nuclear deal, and the accompanying lifting of sanctions – refer to previous posts. In addition, with the lukewarm attitude of the United States, Iran seems poised to further entrench itself in Middle Eastern (and indeed international) affairs, in protecting its vital interests.
The proxy war in Syria has led to a situation whereby instead of opposing parties coming together to fight a common enemy i.e., ISIS, they are continually bolstering their forces against themselves! Intelligence reports have overtime showed Iran’s QUD’s force General Qassim Suleimani, training and leading the forces of Syrian President Al-Assad together with Hezbollah forces from Lebanon- all supported by Russia; while Saudi Arabia for its part continues to provide support to the Sunni rebels who sometimes become radicalized. And in the midst of it all, ISIS thrives. The ones who suffer are the helpless Syrian citizens caught in the cross-fire of all these warring factions. They are the ones who suffer the most from excruciating pains in the aftermath of a mustard gas attack, and the ones with the least fortified defenses, most likely to be caught up in the blaze of continued aerial bombardment. They are the inevitable casualties of the war.
The United Nations for its part ought to be the impartial umpire working to restore peace and stability. But sadly, internal divisions within the P5 are a mirror image of the larger divide seen on the battlefields. Iran is allied with the regime of Basher Al-Assad, and both are allied with Russia (plus China); while Saudi Arabia is allied- supposedly- with the West, led by the USA. Now because of the internal working dynamics of the UN Security Council as outlined in its charter, veto power resides only with the members of the P5. And all it takes for a resolution to fail is one veto from a permanent member of the council. Now, enter the proxy warring factions, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their respective alliances with veto-wielding members of the P5; and the internal divisions amongst these allies, have overtime translated into a despicable situation whereby various resolutions to caution the government of Basher Al-Assad and try to find ways to achieve common ground and move towards some sort of stability, have continually failed to pass! The achievement of peace within Syria is not completely dependent on Iran or Saudi Arabia; but their unique positions in the Middle East, certainly does make them key players in any future roadmap for peace.
To be truthful, at this point, I do not know if there is any "one-fits-all" solution to the conflict that rages on in Syria. The war has been allowed to drag on for so long that I feel like opportunities to act in decisive ways, have been lost. If there is any immediate goal, it would seem to be about finding ways to reduce the amount of innocent casualties, while curbing the growth and expansion of ISIS. Within Syria alone, there are too many interest groups; and each may have to settle with their own areas of control in the long run. To achieve some semblance of stability, a couple of ideas have been floated- bolstering the moderate rebels and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, maintaining coalition bombardment of enemy positions, continuing the diplomatic discourse amongst key players, establishing humanitarian corridors for Syrian citizens, spearheading grass-root political participation which would transition and translate into regime change etc. But while all these are being considered and put into place, there is an important factor to be considered; which is that the Syrian crisis is a uniquely Mid-Eastern problem. Thus, any long-term solution must definitely involve the sheathing of arms and sitting together of Middle Eastern power brokers. In plain terms, Saudi Arabia and Iran- together with Turkey- must be willing to talk! Any sustainable political transition will have to involve both sides not only talking to themselves, but also talking to the groups they represent within Syria, and nudging them to find common ground. Iran must use its influence with the Shiite's, and Saudi Arabia must also use its influence with the Sunni's. And then the issue of Turkey and the Kurds, must also be addressed. ISIS was born in the Middle-East, and it must be dealt with in the Middle-East; with "whole-hearted" international support and co-operation.
Iran’s President had previously stated that Iran is willing to sit at any table to discuss peace in Syria; and both parties have recently been present at talks in Vienna, together with the USA, Turkey, Russia, and other nations. But if there is anything I have learnt in my short years of observing international politics, it is that nations only act in their national interests! Power is the currency of bargain in politics; and nations are never willing to relinquish power, until the greater power prevails! Already, the Iranians have begun to issue threats stating that they would walk away from any future talks concerning Syria because of what they see as Saudi-Arabia’s antagonistic actions in Syria and Yemen; which is quite ironic because they (Iran) could also be (rightly) accused of doing the exact same thing! So what is the future for Syria? There is no definite answer at this point; only hopeful wishes. The world knows what it should do…Saudi Arabia and Iran know what they should do…but knowing the right thing to do, does not always translate into doing it. Thus as long as the power-play continues, the end will remain in the very distant future; as ISIS recuperates and thrives. We all have hopeful wishes…but if wishes were Horses, beggars would ride!

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