The Middle East Dialogue is a regional Track 1.5 forum that meets twice a year under Chatham House rules. It brings together current and former officials as well as senior experts from the Middle East, the United States, Russia, China, and the EU to discuss emerging political & security trends in the region. What follows is a report from the latest meeting of the Dialogue in Berlin, Germany, December 5-7, 2014.
Meeting soon after postponement of the deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran, the Dialogue at this session focused mainly on the local, regional and global responses to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) takeover of large parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, its declaration of a caliphate and the broader threats it poses in the Middle East and beyond.
The Dialogue aims to provide a safe space for regional actors as well as major extra-regional players to express themselves frankly, build mutual trust and develop new ideas for how to manage the plethora of problems affecting the region. This is not a consensus report. It is an account of often different, sometimes contradictory, views expressed, many of which may not be shared by individual participants.
- ISIS is an unprecedented challenge that is taking spectacular advantage of state weakness and threatens to undermine stability and prosperity in the Arab Middle East for a long time to come.
- A military response is necessary but far from sufficient. Containment will not work. The current situation is not sustainable. A comprehensive and long-term political, economic and regional effort is needed to counter violent extremists.
- Americans and Europeans are fighting ISIS from the air, but they do not want to put military forces or civilians on the ground. Iraqis and Syrians need to decide their own countries’ fates.
- Iran and Russia can and should be important contributors to a solution, along with the Western powers and the main regional players.
- Agreement among them, including on nuclear issues and a possible update of the 2012 Geneva communiqué, would strengthen UN initiatives and open up important diplomatic options.
- In Iraq, overcoming sectarian divides is vital to winning the war against ISIS and ending threats to the country’s territorial integrity.
- In Syria, the UN freeze proposal and the Russian initiative for an intra-Syrian dialogue have potential but need further elaboration.
- Participants disagreed about Syrian President Bashar al Assad: some think his departure vital to defeating ISIS and the use of military force against him therefore necessary, while others think ISIS the priority, so there is no need to deal with Assad at present.
A. Regional Dynamics and International Perspectives on Priorities in the Middle East
The ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria have precipitated a Coalition military response, but the situation is still dire and the outcome uncertain. The causes and ramifications go far beyond the battlefield. The people of the Middle East are faced with a dramatic youth bulge, rapid technological change, inadequate services and representation, decades of poor governance and overdependence on foreign powers, who pursue their own interests. Middle Eastern countries are still searching for their identity.
Anomalies abound. The underlying issues in the Middle East cannot be solved by military force, but the ISIS advance has aligned the security interests of Iran and the United States, which are both fighting ISIS even though they disagree on desired outcomes. A region that blames Westerners for many of its ills still calls loudly for Western help. No one in the Arab Middle East can deal with ISIS alone, but regional cooperation is difficult, leading to over-reliance on foreign powers. Notably the nuclear talks with Iran do not include a single Arab country, despite the stakes they all have in the outcome.
The Levant and the Gulf will change dramatically over the next 10 years. Ethnicity and sect should not be allowed to dictate identity in a region where multiple and overlapping identities are common and longstanding. Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and Iran will pose big problems for years to come. We need improved crisis management based on clear principles, in order to prevent serious security risks.
The nuclear talks have a clear objective: to limit uranium enrichment and plutonium production so that Tehran would require at least a year to produce the material needed for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for progressive lifting of financial, energy and shipping sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. In addition to differences over the number of centrifuges and the amounts of nuclear material to be produced, there is still a substantial difference on how long this agreement should last, with Iran wanting seven years and the P5+1 fifteen years. Iran has moderated its behavior significantly in response to increased penalties imposed by the P5+1, led by the United States.
On ISIS, there is an overlap of US and Iranian interests. Both are eager to see Iraq stabilized and ISIS defeated. The US is viewed in Iran as reluctant about this new military intervention in the Middle East and not displeased with Iranian aid to Iraq. Recent polling suggests Americans see ISIS, not Iran, as the far greater threat. Iran has increased its public diplomacy efforts in Washington, with some success.
Tehran, like Washington, is pivoting towards Asia, especially energy markets in Central Asia and China. Accordingly, Iran would like to settle outstanding political issues in the Arab Middle East, including Palestine as well as ISIS and foreign troops in the Gulf. Tehran would prefer to refocus on economic issues, building up the Economic Cooperation Organization with GCC, Iraqi and Yemeni participation. It would also like improved relations with Saudi Arabia to facilitate pilgrimages, as well as good relations with a still unified Iraq. Tehran opposes independence for Kurdistan and views the recent Baghdad/Erbil oil agreement as a good development. Iran wants cultural relations with North Africa (especially Egypt), but the Suez Canal is no longer so important to Tehran because its oil exports go mainly to the East.
The ISIS advance had a big impact in the US. President Obama can no longer hope for a legacy of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and non-intervention in Syria. He is suffering much domestic criticism for what is seen as a muddled and confused Middle East policy promoted by a small National Security Council coterie. Three former cabinet members (Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates) have sounded this same alarm.
The President has now adopted a more aggressive stance, responding with air strikes in Iraq and Syria and leading the anti-ISIS Coalition. Special Envoy Allen has articulated a strategy: in addition to Coalition air strikes and assistance to Iraqi forces, this includes aiding the moderate Syrian opposition, stemming the flow of foreign fighters by sharing intelligence and tightening border controls, squeezing ISIS finances, providing humanitarian assistance, and de-legitimizing ISIS narratives.
Ashton Carter, just nominated to become Defense Secretary, is more hawkish than outgoing Secretary Hagel (he has even advocated bombing of North Korea in the past) and will be more inclined to convey military views to the President. With Republican majorities in both houses, Congress will likely also be more hawkish, particularly on ISIS.
Moscow sees increasing threats and challenges ahead globally, but especially in the Middle East. Only collective efforts will succeed. Cooperation is necessary. Secretary of State Kerry’s failure to bring about an agreement between Israel and Palestine, despite vigorous but unilateral efforts, illustrates the point.
There is no military solution in Syria. Political and diplomatic solutions are needed. The main threat to stability is ISIS, which should be the priority, not Assad.
Moscow views the United States as unpredictable and uncontrollable, dangerous to itself and others. Western military intervention has damaged vital state structures, putting the Middle East on the verge of catastrophe. Moderate Islamists are weakening, radicals and terrorists gaining. Russia is in peril, as 400 of its citizens are fighting with ISIS. A recent Chechnya attack echoed incidents in Iraq and Syria. ISIS trains in Libya, whose weapons have been spread throughout the region. Afghanistan is still a problem.
Ukraine has darkened the mood in Russia and affected its willingness to collaborate in the Middle East. Ukrainians are not separable from Russians. Kiev is Russia’s birthplace. The crisis is artificial, product of an American military/industrial complex. Ukraine’s lawful government signed an agreement with its opposition, only to find itself displaced by a coup d'état Americans and Europeans inspired. The first law adopted thereafter was against use of the Russian language. Crimea was Russian for 300 years. Eighty percent of its population is still Russian. Its annexation has revitalized Russians, who give President Putin sky-high approval (82%). Sanctions and other Western pressure only help Moscow, as Russian oligarchs repatriate money from the West. Putin has promised a tax holiday for small business. Sanctions and lower oil prices have raised prices for fruits, vegetables and meat, but Russians are united against foreign pressure.
Europeans are also preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis, but in the opposite direction. Historical arguments as the basis for political and territorial claims are offensive in the West. What if Germany used the same argument about Kaliningrad, historically and ethnically German but today part of Russia?
Russia has broken the stability of the European order for the first time since the end of the Cold War. It has sought enlargement at the expense of another country using force. Instability in Europe will have an impact on its neighbors, and instability in North Africa and the Middle East has an impact on Europe. Unlike the Americans, Europeans regard the Ukraine crisis as the first priority and ISIS as second.
Europeans now view the Middle East more as a threat than as an area of transformation. They understand that Russia is needed for solutions, despite differences over Ukraine. There are many problems: the breakdown of order and direct military threats to important European partners (Jordan, the GCC, Egypt), waves of refugees, terrorist threats and foreign fighters. Europe now looks to contain risks within the Middle East rather than reorder or transform the region. No one wants to re-draw the Sykes-Picot borders or put troops or civilians on the ground. Europe wants regional partners to take responsibility (witness German weapons supplies to Kurdistan). Stability is the goal. Europe is even accepting authoritarian efforts to restore order. The Middle East has wanted Europe out. That now is the reality.
The British and Germans, who participate in the nuclear talks with Iran, want a deal not only to stop proliferation but also to open the door to Iran’s participation in Middle East solutions. Without rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Syria problem will spread and sectarianism will be insoluble.
Turkey faces crises both north and south, in Ukraine and Syria. More difficulties lie ahead, due to the failure of Middle Eastern governments to be inclusive, even as the number of youth balloons. Syrian refugees are a big headache for Ankara. Containment of ISIS, which failed in Iraq, is not a solution.
The air campaign so far is good but not the real answer. Turkey will not intervene alone but wants to expand international efforts on the ground inside Syria. The problem in the region is state failure. Political and economic inclusion would drain support from ISIS. People need protection, electricity, water and other services. Turkey wants a comprehensive approach and long-term planning.
The West is obsessed with the military response to ISIS. It risks treating the outcome rather than the cause, which is the Syrian regime. We need a comprehensive strategy, not treatment of symptoms. The deeper structural factor is state failure, a decline in institutional power over the past decade.
Non-state actors are increasingly important. Iran has contributed by strengthening militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Some non-state actors can contribute positively, but not armed militias supported by outside powers. The Gulf and Western friends need to focus on strengthening legitimate institutions.
June 10 was a watershed: the second biggest city in Iraq fell to a transnational non-state actor, a caliphate was declared, the Syrian/Iraqi border abolished. The easiest part of the solution is the military/security response to ISIS as a terrorist group. But we still lack a coherent long-term strategy for the day after. The political track has been forgotten in favor of security.
Since the failure of the Geneva 2 talks in February, Syria has been neglected. So long as Assad is there, ISIS or other manifestations of it will incubate. A solution in Syria is vital to solving Iraq as well.
The Middle East and North Africa region is brewing twelve active conflicts, more than Latin America and the rest of Africa combined. ISIS is the richest terror group ever. The millions of refugees and displaced people provide easily recruited cadres. We need to shift to a multi-dimensional development approach. Radicalization is a consequence of economic conditions. Tactical security responses are inadequate.
Areas of convergence
Many participants agreed that a more comprehensive and strategic approach to the underlying causes of Middle East instability is needed. Short-sighted focus on immediate security problems will not be sufficient. Longer-term political and economic responses are vital, as is participation of Iran and Russia.
Middle East states are weakening. Highly centralized states like the Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq are unlikely to survive. This is also apparent in Libya and Yemen. The garrison state is gone, even in Egypt.
In the West, there is also a change. Statesmen are few and far between. Developments like the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union depended on good relations between the West and Soviet President Gorbachev. Today domestic preoccupations dominate. Relations with Russia are deteriorating. Western politicians are looking for shortcuts in foreign affairs.
Regional cooperation, including Iran and the Arab states, is vital to defeating ISIS, which is vulnerable. It may be a big and wealthy terrorist group, but it is a small and weak state. Containment will not be sufficient, even if it is a necessary first step. The West needs to stay out of the Middle East and North Africa but be prepared to help those who are willing to fight ISIS.
In the longer term, we may also be able to define new rules of international behavior that prevent the kinds of problems we see today: no regime change by outside powers, no cheating on international engagements like the Nonproliferation Treaty, and no financing of terrorism, for example.
Sharp differences emerged on the question of whether Bashar al Assad is part of the solution or the problem. For some, he is a necessary evil who will continue to hold on to power. We therefore need to negotiate with him and leave him in place, at least for an interim period. To others, he has created the conditions in which ISIS incubated and grew. Attempts to negotiate with Assad have proven fruitless. ISIS is the symptom. Assad is the disease. His stability is ephemeral. A change in the military balance is at least part of the cure.
B. A Road Map for Iraq After June 2014
A wide-ranging discussion revealed many differences among those present, especially in tracing the origins of ISIS, assigning responsibilities for its rise, attitudes toward sectarian militia and progress under Prime Minister Abadi. But all agreed that there is no alternative to Iraq. The neighbors will not allow its breakup and its citizens do not want more chaos. The question is whether Iraqis can make the country work better. They have no other option but to stay together, accept the differences, and focus on the future. The road ahead includes the following:
Making Iraqi politics more inclusive is critical to defeating ISIS. Prime Minister Abadi’s governing style is a sharp contrast to his predecessor’s. The cabinet is now far more important than under Maliki. There is less micromanagement and more follow up. But Abadi needs to start delivering on promises of inclusion.
This can be done by decentralizing the Iraqi state and devolving many more responsibilities to the provincial level. Implementing the provincial powers law, which the government intends to do by 2016, would move 70-80% of what Baghdad does now to the provincial level. ISIS requires Sunni support for its rule. If there is a serious alternative that empowers the Sunni population, it will abandon ISIS.
Oil is the glue that holds Iraq together. Baghdad’s recent agreement with Erbil on oil production, exports and revenue was an important step in the right direction.
If the political equation is solved, there is reason to be optimistic about the military campaign. Shia militias, which have a lot of support in their own communities, will not be able to retake Sunni majority provinces. Nor are Sunni militias the answer. The fight against ISIS should be conducted by constitutional, legal forces, not militias of any sectarian stripe. It should be Iraqi security forces, including the National Guard, who fight and defeat ISIS. Getting National Guard legislation through parliament is not proving easy. In the meanwhile, recruitment to replace the 50,000 “ghost” soldiers AWOL from the Iraqi Army could be reopened on a non-sectarian basis, financial resources permitting.
ISIS won’t save the Sunnis and the Shia militia won’t save government. ISIS in fact does more harm to Sunnis than to Shia. And the Iranian-supported Shia militias harm the legitimacy of the Shia-led government.
There are also important non-military moves that could contribute to security: drying up ISIS financing, ending its oil marketing and countering extremist narratives.
Immediate needs include passing an amnesty law, ending de-Ba’athification, releasing detainees who have not been charged or convicted, and planning for reconstruction in ISIS-devastated areas. Longer-term national reconciliation requires mutual acknowledgement of harm and rebuilding Iraqi identity.
There is no way to defeat ISIS only in Iraq, leaving it untouched in Syria. Containment will fail.
Iraq’s neighbors need to treat Iraq as a state, not separate sectarian and ethnic components. Iraq cannot thrive isolated: it needs water from Turkey, Turkish and Gulf investment, electricity and oil pipelines from Iran. Strategic economic projects with neighbors will help Iraq overcome sectarian division.
Views of non-Iraqis
There was general agreement that only Iraqis can determine what is just and decide the best course of action for their country. Redrawing borders in the region is not a good idea. Iran as well as Turkey and others will oppose it. But there are good reasons to worry primordial identities may prevail in a security vacuum. The longer the conflict, the deeper the grievances become.
Iraq therefore urgently needs a fair and inclusive political arrangement as well as a professional army. But some see militias or other interim arrangements as necessary to meet immediate threats.
The bottom line
Iraq faces three interrelated main problems: the military and ideological fight against ISIS, its own internal political conflicts (especially between Sunni and Shia), and regional pressures, because each of the neighbors has doubts and fears about what is going on in Iraq. Iraq is stable when there is a balance among forces in the region. A dialogue with all the surrounding countries is going to be necessary.
C- The war in Syria: a New Phase in the Conflict?
Syria is mission impossible. More than 200,000 Syrians are dead, 7 million are displaced, 3 million are refugees. There are 3 million children out of school. Fifty percent of GDP is lost, setting the country back 30 years. The Millennium Development Goals are now far off.
Still, Syria is a key country in the Middle East with ramifications throughout the region. Compared to isolated Afghanistan, Syria is a much bigger problem as a terrorist safe haven. It has only one strong state on its borders, Turkey. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq are at risk. For millennia, Syria was a multi-religious, multiethnic society. It will be a disaster if that ends. Only if the international community can make progress ending the war in Syria will the Middle East be able to get on a positive trajectory.
Three main propositions for future diplomatic efforts emerged in the discussion: the UN freeze proposal (focused initially on Aleppo but possibly leading in the future to a broader political track), the Russian initiative to convene an intra-Syrian dialogue, and a possible revision of the 2012 Geneva communiqué to incorporate new subjects on which the Security Council can agree.
A view from inside Syria
2014 started with collapse of the Geneva 2 talks, which were based on wishful thinking. The government had rejected the 2012 Geneva communiqué, because it was premised on transition. President Assad wanted to preside over a national unity government. Since February, the diplomatic process has stalled.
The presidential election in June was a watershed for the regime. A lot of people voted, without overt threats. Many thought it best to play along. The opposition offered no alternative, not even a boycott.
In the regime’s view, the election closed the door to discussing the role of president. He is determined to stay, claiming democratic legitimacy. He has reasserted his narrative about the war, claiming it is all about terrorism, generated by foreign plots. Because the international community is also now talking about terrorism, the government says it has come around. The government also claims to protect minorities, capturing the diversity narrative, and projects an image of tranquility. The worst, it avers, is over, with some major population centers and the Mediterranean coast under government control.
The government prizes legitimacy. The chemical weapons agreement made Damascus a partner with the international community. The rise of ISIS is another opportunity. The government objects little to the US-led intervention. It portrays the Syrian army as the necessary ground force to partner with the Coalition. But in fact the government does little against ISIS and focuses attacks on the moderate opposition, in order to undermine the political alternative it offers.
Still, government forces are stretched thin. Its international partners, principally Russia and Iran, are indispensible. The regime-sponsored National Defense Forces are unleashed and committing atrocities. The government continues to arrest opposition activists, including the most moderate ones. The Syrian middle class is demoralized and departing. The fire is burning, perhaps out of control.
A UN perspective
Two illustrious special representatives of the UN Secretary General have already tried and failed to resolve the Syria crisis. We need to be realistic. Conditions may not be mature for progress on a political settlement. The human tragedy is still a serious concern. Syrians are exhausted. They want to get on with their lives. Interested parties in the region and beyond want a way out. Positions are being revisited. There is reason for cautious optimism.
The UN is now focused on three priorities:
- Strategic de-escalation of violence
- Improved humanitarian access
- Planting the seeds to initiate a political process
The approach is bottom up. There will be no Geneva 3. While UN freedom of movement is restricted due to fighting, UN officials have kept up telephonic contact with opposition forces, other than Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS. UN agencies have a good understanding of the situation in much of the country.
The UN proposal for a “freeze” will contribute to all three priorities. It is a dynamic process, not a local ceasefire. The UN cannot be party to anything like the Homs ceasefire, which amounted to surrender. The existing local agreements in Syria do not meet international standards.
The UN is now focused on Aleppo city. It wants to arrange
- The end of hostilities, with forces in place
- A return to normality
- A local political process
Why Aleppo? It has iconic value as Syria’s largest city. Fall of Aleppo in either direction would be a humanitarian catastrophe. Because ISIS is not in Aleppo, a freeze there would release forces to address the ISIS threat. Government reaction to the freeze proposal was initially positive, but the devil is in the details. Opposition forces are concerned but prepared to engage. They worry the regime will redeploy forces to the south. That is more difficult for the opposition, whose forces generally fight on home turf.
Internationally there have been no dramatic negative reactions. Conditions are favorable, but the UN still has to test a concrete proposal. The proposal will not require that the warring parties abandon their objectives but will give them an opportunity to control their own destiny.
There are huge difficulties facing the freeze proposal: foreign fighters, multiple armed groups, unclear command and control structures, people who are profiting from the war economy. If there is a freeze, monitors (possibly local at first) will be needed, as well as funding to get the local economy and services working quickly. Cooperative administrative structures put in place as part of a freeze could generate a positive dynamic, possibly linked to the recently passed local governance law. A freeze has to be Syrian owned. Regional powers should work together and press the Syrian parties. A nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 deal would have made things easier. The delay introduces uncertainty.
Many people would like to end the conflict. The only avenue available is a concrete proposal that tests everyone’s intentions. The UN is determined to try, but aware of the complexities and risks.
The Syrian government and Iran are essential fighting ISIS, but Damascus is independent and not an easy partner for Moscow. Russian contacts with the opposition during November were constructive. Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem, who met with President Putin in Sochi, reacted well to Russia’s idea for an intra-Syrian dialogue without preconditions.
The situation inside Syria is complicated. The government has had some military success, but there is no major change. Terrorists, who already control a big part of Syria, are strengthening and displacing opponents. ISIS is spreading west of the Euphrates. The Coalition has not defeated the terrorists even in Kobane. Air strikes concentrated on Raqqa have caused collateral damage to civilians. Without coordination with Damascus, real success is not possible. ISIS is consuming the other armed groups, including Jabhat al Nusra as well as the Islamic Front and other moderates. A new emirate has been declared in the suburbs of Damascus. Secular forces are demoralized and no longer effective. The war is between the government and terrorist groups who threaten the territorial integrity of the state.
For Moscow the main priorities are 1) to support Damascus in its struggle with terrorism and 2) to bring about a political settlement in accordance with 2012 Geneva communiqué through an intra-Syrian dialogue. ISIS requires consolidation of all patriotic forces in Syria, in order to preserve the territorial integrity of Syrian state. There are some encouraging signs: rebel commanders who accept that Assad’s departure is not a precondition for talks. The Saudis and others may be reaching the same conclusion.
Geneva 3 is not on the agenda, but the chemical weapons agreement shows the effectiveness of collective action. Big problems cannot be solved unilaterally. We need to work together on joint efforts. Politics is always a choice between bad and worse. We need priorities. ISIS is the priority. If we don’t solve it now, it will eat us all. There is no opposition that can fight ISIS and Assad at the same time.
The current situation is the scenario the regime always wanted. It called unarmed, peaceful demonstrators “armed terrorists” from the first. What has happened is a government plot, not an international one.
Saudi Arabia wants a political settlement based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué. Any political process that doesn’t start or end with Assad’s departure is doomed. The regime is the root cause of the Syrian crisis. You cannot deal with ISIS without dealing with the Syrian regime, which created the objective conditions for ISIS to appear. Four things are well known to marginalize moderates:
- Prolonged fighting
- Withdrawal of state institutions
- Access for terrorists to resources
Assad has made all these happen in Syria.
The moderate opposition is demoralized and underfunded. We need to cooperate with the Syrian people, who want Assad to leave, to defeat ISIS. His departure will not cause collapse. The only way to a solution is to change the military balance on the ground, forcing the regime to negotiate. It sabotaged the Geneva 2 talks, because it had the military advantage and preferred to resolve the conflict by force.
A “no fly” zone would be good. So too are arms for the moderate Syrian opposition and more sanctions.
The UN-proposed freeze is not a comprehensive plan and arouses concerns. How will security be guaranteed? The legacy of local cease fires is bad. Even the Geneva 2 talks had unintended consequences: the regime exploited them to kill a thousand people in the first week after the talks. Assad would exploit a freeze in Aleppo to move forces south and divide the opposition. Most of the opposition will not accept a proposal that leaves Assad in power. It has to be clear that he will leave in order for a political process to begin. Syrians should decide their own destiny.
The regime caused this conflict. Only a change in the military situation will bring the regime to the negotiating table. Military force should be part of a political toolkit. We do not yet have a comprehensive strategy, which requires military force applied for political goals.
The international community should do more to support the moderate opposition, including training and equipping. Moderates are fleeing. Extremists are strengthening. Attacks on ISIS should continue, but the real cause is the regime. Freeze zones could be useful, but they should not amount to capitulation.
We need a political solution, not the military one the regime is pressing and the Coalition is countering. It is a myth that increasing military pressure will change the situation on ground. The conflict is existential for Assad. He will not give up. Coercive diplomacy will not work.
The region as a whole is plagued by declining state capability and the rise of non-state actors, as well as the revival of ambitions for empire. The international community is confused and lacks vision. The US has no strategy. The London 11 is not serious. The military situation is a dynamic stalemate. Regime advances have been minimal. Territory has been lost to ISIS because of the opposition’s many diverse sponsors. Western involvement helps the regime and causes defections from the opposition.
We should be guided by clear principles (consistent with the 2012 Geneva communiqué):
- Preservation of state institutions,
- Unity and territorial integrity of the state,
- The need to stop bloodshed,
- Real change in order to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,
- Opposition to religious extremism.
In addition, two red flags are important:
- Syria should not be subjected to broader geopolitical competition;
- The issue is not whether Assad stays but rather what is in the best interest of the Syrian people.
Syria is in a civil war. We cannot ignore the revolutionary component demanding dignity.
The UN’s freeze may be a good idea, but we need to wait and see. We also need to consider whether redrafting the June 2012 communiqué is still a good basis for a political settlement.
There are good reasons for Iran to be engaged, but there are also serious concerns about Iranian policy. Confidence building will not work magic. Iran has been posturing aggressively throughout the region, it has an ideological foreign policy, it has raised territorial issues in the Gulf, and it has interfered in internal affairs of its neighbors. These are substantial concerns. We need to deal with them.
The situation in Syria requires a balance between human security and state security, but state security is key for Tehran. ISIS happens where states are weak.
The problem is how to get from the current situation to a more satisfactory future. Preconditions kill any proposed solution in the Middle East. Syria needs a political process. The still relatively new, moderate government in Tehran wants to participate and will not ignore political consensus. Including Iran in a future Syria process would make Tehran more accommodative. The nuclear negotiations and regional talks on Syria would together build confidence.
Iran is playing Syria according to the realities on the ground. Reworking the 2012 Geneva communiqué would certainly get Iran to engage. Sticking with the current formulation would make it hard for President Rouhani to join the process. Even Iranian support for Bashar is not immutable. Settlement of the nuclear issue would improve Iran’s relations with Arab world.
The freeze is an excellent idea. It should start in a single place. Monitors will be needed, and possibly also a UN Security Council resolution. Wars are either won or negotiated. You cannot defy history. Entrenched leaders don’t leave office voluntarily, unless you change the situation on the ground. That won’t happen in Syria. There is no hope Assad will leave. A “no fly” zone is cover for US intervention. The time for that has passed.
The big question about the freeze is how it might lead to transition. We need compromises. We should also support the UN not only with words but also deeds. The freeze will require observers and economic assistance. We should prepare and make sure these things can happen fast.
Iraq’s priority is defeat of ISIS, not Assad or transition. Something should be done to enable the opposition and regime to join together in the fight. Continuation of the civil war will only benefit ISIS. Air strikes in Syria will not be enough. The opposition needs to know that Assad will not remain indefinitely. The people of Syria need to know that things will be better in the future if ISIS is defeated. A tangible proposal for how Aleppo, Damascus and other Syrian cities would be rebuilt could go a long way.
There is no indication the regime is prepared to compromise. Supplementing the 2012 Geneva communiqué may be a good idea, especially if it would help with the freeze and bring the Iranians on board. An updated international framework could include confidence building measures in areas already the subject of UN Security Council resolution:
- Treatment of civilians and humanitarian assistance
- Treatment of prisoners
- Chemical weapons
The crisis in Syria is much worse than it was two years ago. The extremist jihadi problem is huge and will not be addressed in a political settlement. No one in the political opposition is prepared to join with Assad to fight ISIS. How do we go from the current mess to a coherent strategy against ISIS?
The role of Iran in Syria
Several participants raised questions about Iran’s role in Syria. It was suggested that Tehran should withdraw Hizbollah because it kills Arabs and Muslims, which will haunt Iran in the future. Reference was made to Iran’s role in the region, including Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen as well as Syria. The approach was characterized as a sectarian one that weakens state institutions and creates instability. There is mistrust because of what Tehran does, not what it says. The political opposition in Syria made it clear before Geneva 2 that it is not seeking a military solution. The only party that is seeking a military solution is the regime, backed by Iran (and Russia). Iran needs to adopt a less antagonistic approach.
The reply was that Tehran is allied with Damascus, which helped cut off Iraqi oil exports during the Iran/Iraq war and maintained good relations with Iran during the Lebanese civil war. Hizbollah and Syria have direct relations. Iran does not fund Hizbollah, so its influence there is weak. Iran has spent $2 billion for the Syrian war, but Assad is a problem. There is too much corruption. Arabs want everyone to forget Israel’s role in region, so Iran backs Assad against the Israelis. Bahrain and Yemen have their own problems not caused in Tehran. Damascus does not really need anything from Tehran because of its alliance with Russia. Iran does not advise Syria to attack the civilian population. Tehran is ready to work with the opposition, but it won’t back regime change because of the precedent that would set.
Areas of convergence
While differing sharply on whether Assad should stay or go, participants agreed the current situation is not sustainable. Parties need to revisit and revise their positions. The 2012 Geneva communiqué still commands support. Any evolution would require consensus. It remains the framework for the UN and most member states, but it might be possible to add content from subsequent UNSC resolutions.
The question of what to do about Assad is something for the Syrian people to decide. The international community should in due course provide mechanisms for them to do that.
Dilemmas, contradictions and conclusions
Participants noted many dilemmas and contradictions. There is no military solution, but there is no political solution without its being effected by military, diplomatic and economic means. Assad wants to stay and claims he is fighting terrorists, but he steers clear of ISIS and focuses on fighting the moderate opposition. He is no more able to defeat ISIS than the opposition. There can be no transition with him in place and no mobilization of the opposition against ISIS if he remains. The immediate priority is the fight against ISIS, but defeating ISIS would not solve the Syrians’ problem so long as Assad stays, because he has caused ISIS’s rise.
Both Assad and the opposition need to be pressured to compromise. The situation has changed and the diplomacy has to adapt. The UN is putting a proposition on the table. It merits close examination. Looking forward, we may also need to adapt the 2012 Geneva communiqué as well as find ways to convince the Syrian opposition to join in the fight against ISIS, which will be no kinder to Syrian moderates than it has been to participants in the political process in Iraq. We need to shape the environment to be more conducive to real solutions that will defeat ISIS as well as meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.