Can Iran pursue another option in Syria attractive to itself & several parties: Replacing Bashar’s cancerous circle?
The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting, though purely speculative, piece the other day that has had no traction – which makes sense as only Fawwaz Gerges was really “the source” (if I remember correctly).
The main thrust, however, is something that is being – at the very least – considered in polite, off the record company here in Beirut among publicly accessible Hizbullah officials and M8 supporters.
The core idea is that if Iran and the P5+1 are able to reach a final agreement (a big if), this helps regional cooperation between these players and Iran. In Syria, especially, interests may all align within this “new” framework, including with Sunni-led states like Turkey and KSA, and especially Algeria, Egypt and Jordan which already have a less hostile approach to the forces aligned behind Bashar.
Randa Slim skirts the real possibilities of a negotiated solution in this piece here:
She says: “But it’s difficult to see in the short to medium term how Iran will heal its own festering wound in Syria. Unlike in Iraq, where Tehran had a cadre of trustworthy Shiite Iraqi politicians to replace Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister when the cost of supporting him became too high, it does not have this option in Syria. Assad is perceived as the only guarantor of Iranian and Hezbollah’s interests in Syria. To date, Iran has no acceptable alternative to Assad.”
— This is indeed the crux of the matter and the way forward towards a negotiated solution. If we agree with her and many others who speculate that Iran and Hizbullah are both increasingly unhappy about the energy and effort expended in Syria on behalf of Bashar, a contention that seems likely from the available public evidence and private discussions, then the key issues is: Can Iran and Hizbullah find an acceptable alternative to Bashar and his immediate clique?
I disagree with Randa here – I am increasingly coming to believe that the extensive experience that Iran and Hizbullah have accumulated fighting in Syria and with the Syrian army and officers represents the best hope yet of both these key actors finding a collection of Syrians that 1) will protect Iranian-Hizbullah interests in Syria and 2) are far more effective in the field than the corrupt-morally outrageous-obtuse Bashar clique.
So this, I believe, represents the way forward for what Randa asks here: “[will Iran] take the lead in laying the groundwork for a serious negotiation process that leads to a new leadership[?] A prerequisite for such a solution will be for Iran to show a readiness to abandon Assad and for the pro-rebel regional coalition to recognize Iranian interests in the Levant…”
Could we imagine a time in the coming months when Bashar and his clique are removed – one way or another – and the army does not dissolve? Do Hizbullah and Iran still believe that removing the head will collapse this army? Or have they built an infrastructure (as they should have by now!) of human capital that can be trusted and which could hold the Syrian Arab Army together?
I think we can begin to see the contours of this, and we should all start looking. Indeed, this pathway may be the ONLY remaining way to START to end the conflict in Syria: It would be after the nuclear agreement, with a US-Russian and Sunni state acceptance of certain Iranian-Russian interests in Syria, a de-facto partitioning of Syria along what would be the current ceasefire lines, a political negotiation process for the partitioned state that runs concurrent with a truly united fight against ISIS exclusively…. And the final piece, an Iranian-Hizbullah replacement of Bashar’s immediate circle with nationalist, pro-Resistance army officers and political figures who can credibly keep the army together as well as ensure the land and sea access and territories that Iran and Hizbullah will demand at a minimum to freeze the conflict and roll back ISIS broadly.
Within an overall framework that does not see the US leading an anti-Iranian push in the region (something that seems feasible given Obama’s current bent) and which sees US-led pressure on Israel to not get itself involved in stoking the Syria conflict – not to mention an Iranian-Hizbullah (and Russian) desire to support such a direction – there is a chance that conflict mitigation rather than conflict acceleration could finally become preponderant.
In the absence of this, however, a post-agreement phase looks just as bloody in Syria at least as the pre-agreement phase.