Where There’s Smore, There’s Syrian Diplomacy

The best available option now is to seek an American-Iranian-Russian-Saudi agreement on basic principles to end the fighting. This would allow Syrians themselves to forge a political path towards…well, nobody knows towards what.

The old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” must now be updated in Middle Eastern diplomatic terms to read, “where Saudi Arabian, American, and Russian foreign ministers meet to discuss Syria, there’s Syrian smoke.”

Certainly the most fascinating diplomatic move this week was the tripartite meeting in Doha Monday among the American, Russian and Saudi foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Syria. This means they also must have discussed—take a deep breath here—Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Turkey, Yemen, Iraq, three different Kurdish political/military organizations, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hamas, Al-Qaeda, the United Arab Emirates military, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and half a dozen other regional players who now play some role in the situation in and around Syria.

Yet four external actors have always mattered most in driving the war inside Syria: the United States and Russia far away, and Iran and Saudi Arabia nearby. That three of them met this week to discuss options for winding down the war in Syria is as strong a sign as we are likely to get that all key parties now seriously seek a political solution to ending the war(s) in Syria. This meeting happened, and deliberations on Syria’s political end game are taking place in many capitals, to a large extent because of the consequences of the successful P5+1 negotiations with Iran. It is too early still for Iran to be in the room with the three other ministers, but Iranian interests and influences very much hovered over the meetings, echoing the visit to some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states last week by the Iranian foreign minister.

This slow reintegration of Iran into regional diplomacy is an important gain from the nuclear/sanctions agreement, at whose meetings in Vienna Tehran and Washington discussed Syria. Combined with the current burst of regional diplomacy, this only confirms that Iran, an active player on the ground throughout the region, must play a central role in resolving this and other conflicts. The big question remains: What is that role?

Iran says it seeks only to protect its national interests, promote good relations with all in the region, and preserve regional security through arrangements primarily among powers inside the Gulf and the Middle East. Iran’s opponents say Iran seeks to use Shiite allies to foment mischief within Arab countries in the region, and create a web of interlocking strategic partners or proxy actors (like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Ansarullah/Houthis in Yemen) that allow Tehran to dominate the entire region and dictate political or strategic terms to others. This fascinating and important debate for the future of our region for now is stuck on “no verdict yet.”

Neither side has provided compelling evidence to support its claims about Iran’s altruistic or destructive regional role. We should be grateful for now that renewed emphasis on diplomacy and face-to-face meetings, rather than continued proxy wars in ravaged and hapless Arab lands, will increase the chances of diplomatic solutions to the many wars in the region.

Syria is the most complex and important of these wars, which reflect gigantic GCC-Iranian proxy battles that have spun out of control almost everywhere to spawn a series of dangerous developments that threaten everyone in the region and even further afield. In Syria and Iraq, these developments include ISIS, expanded Kurdish autonomous zones in Iraq and Syria, exacerbated Kurdish-Turkish tensions, massive refugee flows measured in the tens of millions, and the birth of hundreds of local militias, many with Islamist identities, that fight ISIS, each other, the Syrian Assad family regime, Shiite parties, other religious or ethnic minorities, foreign powers, or other available targets in the fertile battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

Syria also does not exist as a single country, but rather comprises six distinct parts controlled by: the Assad family, ISIS, Kurdish groups, Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamists, the mainstream secular opposition of the Free Syrian Army and the national coalition of opposition groups, and hundreds of local resistance committees with tribal, nationalist, secular and another identities. Other Arab countries similarly suffer severe pressures that tear them apart into local fiefdoms and statelets, increasing everybody’s vulnerability to external manipulation and threats.

Troubling as it is to see foreign powers determine the fate of Arab countries, and assuming that none of the six sub-states in Syria will triumph militarily, the best available option now is to seek an American-Iranian-Russian-Saudi agreement on basic principles to end the fighting. This would allow Syrians themselves to forge a political path towards…well, nobody knows towards what. We have no idea of how and whether Syria’s distinct parts today can be reconstituted as a single sovereign country, or who would provide effective and legitimate national leadership. Only Syrians can determine those fateful issues, and perhaps they will soon have an opportunity to do that.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global