It is not clear yet how will Trump Administration handle the Syrian crisis. MEB sources told us that the common predictions as they circulated after the results of the elections should be dismissed, and the new administration’s strategy on Syria is not shaped yet. Predictions based on Trump’s campaign statements should not be considered final indication of the next administration’s direction concerning Syria.
But what should be clear for the new administration is that Syria became, during the last five years, and if see from outside the country itself, a center of regional and global collusions. In other words, the US position on Syria will determine the nature of the US relations with the countries of the Middle East.
In this sense, when the new administration starts debating its strategy in Syria, it will be actually debating the nature of its relations with the major powers of the region. It may be important for the new administration to appreciate the magnitude of the anger and disappointment in the region at the Obama administration approach to Syria and to the continuous erosion of the regional security structure.
In August 2011, President Obama said that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside”. It was not difficult then to understand the meaning of those words. But seen over five years later, they look as one incomprehensible moment when the President of the US exercise a voluntary self-humiliation and help encourage a people seeking freedom to escalate their fight, only to be left to the murderous war machines of Assad, Iran and Russia.
There are various plans flying around and each claim to be “the best” option to solve the bloody crisis in Syria. Any meaningful approach, however, should be based on two organizing points: What is the ultimate objective, and how to get there.
Depending on how the next administration frame these two points, the US-regional ties will be shaped.
In the case of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in general, the perception is that Iran is gradually biting bits and pieces of the Arab World in order to establish a new Persian Empire. After taking Iraq, thanks to the US invasion of 2003, Tehran has moved to Syria with a clear plan to build a land bridge to the East Mediterranean shores. Simultaneously, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) infiltrated Yemen, hence encircled the Arab Peninsula from north, south and east.
In the case of Iran, it holds tight to the slogan of fighting terrorism. However, it suffices to say that Iran’s intervention in Iraq preceded the appearance of Al-Qaida there and its intervention in Syria preceded the appearance of both ISIL and Al Qaeda there as well.
If the next US administration does not pay attention to Arab concerns related to Iranian intervention in the region, the problem of terrorism will not be confronted firmly by all regional players.
This separation of the issue of the so called “Sunni terrorism” on the one hand and Iranian intervention in both Iraq and Syria on the other hand helped terrorists and caused already enormous damage to the US approach to the region during the last 10 years or so.
The new US administration’s approach to the Middle East is therefore challenged by how to combine the objective of fighting terrorism with that of rebuilding its damaged ties to the region’s countries. If this issue is solved correctly, the two sides, the US and the region’s countries, will be able to embark on a new page in their long history of cooperation.
But in order to achieve both goals, the new team in Washington must patiently examine Iranian intervention in the region. This is the root of the regional current polarization and the principle cause of the proliferating terrorism. Once the Sunnis sense they are coming under attack by the Shias, as indeed is the case now, they gather around a bluntly sectarian and radical flag.
If the common denominator in both objectives, fighting terrorism and rebuilding US alliances region wide is confronting Iran’s expansion, this synthesis will prove helpful as well in trimming the wings of Iranian and Arab radicals and potentially changing the balance of power in Tehran.
Let us see then how could this be applied in Syria.
As noticed, we did not mention above the role of President Assad or his weight in the mentioned equation. The reason is simple: Assad has no weight on his own. He could not have survived without Hezbollah (which is the direct arm of Iran), the IRGC, the Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan and the Russians.
Assad is indeed too little to be counted. A deal with Russia that addresses US and Russian concerns about terrorism is indeed very important. However, such a deal can only go that far if it excludes the Arabs and the Turks. There is no point in solving the issue of terrorism the way it was solved in Iraq in 2006. In that year, heavy US surge “defeated” Al-Qaeda. Four years later it reappeared in the form of ISIL. The reason was precisely what we described above: Iranian intervention and Shias attempt to subjugate Central Iraq’s Sunnis.
If a deal is reached with Russia, the Arabs and the Turks on the future of Syria, a huge step forward in fighting terrorism would have been accomplished. The new administration should use the momentum of its ascendance to office to lay down an initiative that require all four sides to coordinate a serious anti-terrorism campaign in Syria based on the consensus that Iran has nothing to do with that country which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population.
The deal will also be based on preserving the state structure, a balanced constitution that respects the rights of all minorities be them Alawi, Kurds, Turkmen, Kurds or Christians. All those involved in terrorism, torture, intentional killing of civilians or any other major violation of basic human rights will have to face justice.
If the new administration succeeds in reaching this objective, it will certainly regain the trust of its regional allies, given the Russians what they say they want which is fighting terrorism, hailed by the Syrian people who want to see their country free of terrorism, oppression and fear, mobilized Arabs, Syrians, Turks and Russians to shoot in the same direction.
Of course, there are many details that have to be worked out: The Kurdish question in the north, what to do with Iran’s IRGC and militias, including Hezbollah, currently active in Syria, the future of the puppet in the presidential palace in Damascus, the national amnesty, the rebuilding of Syria’ armed and security forces and the reconstruction of the country.
Working together with the Arabs, the Chinese, the EU and Russia to rebuild that country will be the area where the next administration can regain its image and influence.