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The “Grand Game” in Syria: How Assad and ISIL are Used

The record of President Obama’s “legacy” will be clear of involving the US in a major war in the Middle East. But this should not be a reason for self-contentment among his aids. Everyone understands that the President’s refusal to engage in the regional crisis earlier will leave some heavy bills to pay for the next administration. And the only way to pay those bills is to get heavily engaged sometime in the future. The President’s policy of avoiding serious engagement today will lead to very serious engagement tomorrow. When you soak a house with gasoline, you cannot claim that you did not set the fire even if you did not light the match that caused it. Mr. Obama did not soak the house in gasoline, but he did not stop others from soaking it when he could. He did not do a thing. After all, it was “hands off”.

The President simply helped create all the ingredients of a war under the pretext of avoiding a war. Mr. Obama can be happy with his legacy. He did not light the match. But who really believes that the President’s hands-off policies did not push the region to an almost unsolvable crisis. And indeed it is unsolvable now, except through long term military confrontation which will involve the US (It already started to do) in a larger scale tomorrow. As manifested on the ground, the President’s policies left the US no other choice. Unless Secretary’s Kerry’s efforts succeed, the most likely scenario emerging from the current dynamics on the ground is the continuation of the military confrontation with varying levels of intensity and increasing number of countries getting into the ring. One can do a lot by doing nothing, and often the road to war starts from saying loudly that one is unwilling to fight.

And in all appreciation to the Secretary’s uphill journey, his chances of success are diminishing fast.

Let us examine these dynamics on the ground.

Mr. Putin, who moved himself from being almost irrelevant to being relevant, thanks to Mr. Obama who moved himself from being relevant to being almost irrelevant, has changed his mind after entering Syria with a small powerful army. Now, Putin the Conqueror wants Assad to remain for always, while previously he hinted to several interlocutors that he is willing to “rethink Assad’s future” if there is a political deal that preserves the Syrian state.

How and why Mr. Putin changed his mind?

It all happened during his visit to Tehran November 23. Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati described Putin’s visit as “the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. “President Putin agreed that no agreement on Syria would occur without coordinating with Iran”, he said. In December 7, Velayati was more explicit. “President Assad is considered a red line for the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is elected by his people”, he said.

Why Putin forfeits his decision on Assad to Tehran? Two reasons: 1-The alliance between the two countries is much wider than only Syria and it is becoming a major element in Russia’s West and Central Asia strategy and its natural gas policies. 2-Putin did not fully endorse the idea of Assad’s departure before. He always left room to maneuver his position differently. Now, with his forces already in Syria, he believes that his position has improved beyond the point of sacrificing Assad.

Iran, in its part, believes that Assad is very useful the way he is. First, he gives foreign intervention the legitimacy required to abort any legal challenge based on international norms and laws. Second, he is too weak to prevent the Iranians from spreading their control inside the Syrian State structure even if he is not totally happy about that.

What started as a credible promise to negotiate the fate of Assad at one point down the road to a diplomatic solution has turned to “No”, “Assad has the right to run in the elections after the proposed transitional period”, Putin said. Well, half the Syrians are refugees somewhere. Who will vote? And how the vote will be held in areas without even the minimum governance requirements? And since when criminals of war are allowed to run in elections to rule over their victims for a longer time? This is exactly the point. Those living in Assad’s Syria only would vote. The result is known under the slogan already raised in Damascus for years now: “Assad For Ever” or “Al Assad Ela Al Abad” as his loyalists sing it.

Putin told the French President that Assad will not go. He also told President Obama in the Climate Summit that Assad will remain. All this follows the pressure that Kerry placed on the Arabs and the Turks to accept participating in transition negotiation while Assad in power. The Turks and the Arabs insisted prior to the talks on that their participation is conditioned by Assad’s departure.

While the Arabs and the Turks agreed to give up their condition of Assad’s departure at the first step in return for a clear commitment that he will go at the end of the transition, and while this was the content of Kerry-Lavrov understanding that allowed a joint push to find a solution, President Putin said “Niet”.

Kerry admitted the other day that the future of Assad is a problem facing the current diplomatic effort. He also said that eliminating ISIL would be possible “within a matter of months” after a successful transition. Now the Russian President and Iran’s Khamenei say they want to defeat ISIL. But at the same time they do not want to accept the logical steps that may indeed lead to “eliminating ISIL within few months”, namely a transition that ends with a new Syria without Assad in which everyone fights ISIL. Can anyone explain that?

In the case of Iran, one can understand. The Iranians encouraged Maliki to create the environment that created ISIL even if when that went contrary to the requirements of preserving the unity of Iraq. They are doing the same in Syria. Assad replaced Maliki. But Putin? Why?

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said December 5 that his country is ready to play a bigger role in supplying natural gas to Russia while Khamenei expressed deep gratitude to Russia for its friendship. It is a pattern that Russia jumps on any major energy producer in its periphery to integrate their capacity into Russia’s supplies to the World.

Russia will increase gas exports in the eastern direction, the Russian President said while in Tehran last month. He also noted that the cooperation with China and India is valuable. “We are planning to increase gas exports in the Asian direction from six to 30 percent, to 128 billion cubic meters,” he added. South Pars will be strategically important.

Putin got what he wanted. And he offered the Iranians what they wanted. Where would Kerry and the diplomatic approach go in this context?

The Russian President understands, as much as Kerry, or any other reasonable person, does, that ISIL will not be defeated while Assad is in power, that is to say with no diplomatic solution in Syria.

Khamenei understands as well, as any young student in a high school does, that defeating ISIL in Iraq requires an inclusive government. Yet, he supported Maliki to do exactly the opposite. The same treatment given to Iraq is now given to Syria, and the Russian President is getting along with this plan that is clearly illogical.

Well, logic is defined in these two cases by the strategic objective required. If Iran’s strategic objective is indeed to defeat ISIL it would not have done what it did in Iraq or what it is doing in Syria. If Russia really wants to defeat ISIL it would not be insisting to block the only way to build a collective force of the Syrian army, the opposition and the international community to “eliminate the terrorist organization within months”. And this only way is the departure of Assad.

The Persian conception of time is totally different than the common one. Iranians see that they advance slowly. They count on life’s ever changing dynamics to move them to a more forward point. But in any given moment they try to keep where they are if they cannot advance on their own. Betting on future winds is the essence of their patience and long term strategy. We have seen that in the nuclear issue. We have seen it in Iraq. And now we see it in Syria.

Is Assad worth all this trouble?

No. He is one person. All possible alternatives were discussed between Kerry and Lavrov. It is possible to keep the State and change its head within the context of national reconciliation.

Why then all offers were refused?

Because in reality it is not even Assad that matters here. What matter is the essence of any political solution. Iran wants all of Syria. If it cannot have it today, it hopes it will have it tomorrow all the while keeping the West of Syria for today. Take the case of Iraq again, it was possible to give Prime Minister Haider Abadi a chance to put his country together. But Tehran chose instead to support the Popular Mobilization Forces. This force will preserve the South of Iraq firmly within the Iranian orbit. Tehran even pushed to enable this force to control Central Iraq. The US and Sunni tribes resisted. Patience then while trying to get the Americans out of Iraq all together.

Tehran does not want an inclusive government in Baghdad. It never did. It wants all of Iraq, not under Abadi, but under its own agents. If it cannot have it today, then patience until it gets the Americans out of Iraq, strengthens its army of agents then give it a try all the while keeping under firm control what it already got. This is why it keeps agitating the population against any US presence there. The US does not share its objectives. Now, we know that Putin, unfortunately, does.

So it is not even the issue of Assad. Assad is the stick which can stop the wheel of what Kerry is trying to do: that is to put Syria back together in order to be able to fight ISIL. Really fight ISIL. Kerry is looking at a different direction that that of Moscow and Tehran. When Iran felt it may lose what it already got in Syria, it invited the Russians to help it preserve it. The point is not defeating ISIL. The point is to get a pass all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Where will all this take us?

The differences in the agendas of both Iran and Russia in the one hand, and the world, including the Arabs and the Turks on the other, are irreconcilable. It is becoming explicitly what it always was implicitly: A global strategic conflict.

This will be a long war. Syria is heading towards more pain. But it is becoming increasingly unavoidable. We pray that Kerry succeeds. The alternative is a lot more blood and destruction.

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