Geopolitics

Assad Is Not The Answer: Just Say No To Putin’s Syria Solution

The bloody Syrian stalemate unites Russia and the West, in a shared urgency to defeat ISIS. But the Syrian dictator, also an ISIS foe, should not be seen as a lesser evil.

Propaganda photo released by militants showing ISIS fighters in Syria on Aug. 25
Propaganda photo released by militants showing ISIS fighters in Syria on Aug. 25
Kurt Kister

-OpEd-

MUNICH â€" Without Bashar al-Assad, there would be no war in Syria. His regime is the source of the rebellion of the once moderate opposition in this ever important Arab country. And yet somehow, it is exactly this tyranny, initiated by the father in 1971, pursued by his son since 2000, that is being used by the terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) as justification for the war they’re waging against humans and the very idea of humanity.

And now, it is the same Assad, son, master of torture chambers and barrel bombs, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly looking to meet. In order to talk â€" no, not about his immediate resignation, but about a “solution” to the conflict.

Syria has once again become the center of the world's attention. Merkel’s considerations are directly linked to the wave of refugees from Syria arriving on German soil. As long as the Assad regime, the Islamists and the relatively moderate “Free Syrian Army” are fighting each other, the millions who have fled the country most certainly will not return. On top of that, hundreds of thousands more will leave Syria in the coming months.

Still, while Europe is busy worrying about refugees, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are focused on other things going on in Syria.

Exile after?

Putin still considers Assad the sole "legitimate" president of Syria, and wants to, as he claimed in a recent interview, “save” him. Moscow's support of the Assads dates back to Soviet times. Just as the U.S. is responsible for the development of ISIS in Iraq, Russian policy is responsible for the maintenance of the bloody dictatorship in Damascus â€" and the accompanying civil war in Syria.

Putin doesn't flinch in the face of the Syrian regime's crimes. For him, Assad is, and has always been, an ally, who guarantees Moscow a certain leverage in the region.

For the United States, the quicksand in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 plays a much more important role. In the beginning, Obama adopted a hands-off approach in Syria, before drawing a line because of chemical weapons â€"but that didn't last either. Today it’s the fear of ISIS that brings the Americans closer to their frenemy Russia.

Beyond the historic alliance with Damascus, Putin also genuinely fears an ISIS expansion toward the southern borders of the Russian Federation. In the West, Assad is now considered the lesser evil, who can later easily be forced into exile. This probably helps explain Merkel’s vague statements about Assad.

Nevertheless, several points must be considered before this marriage of convenience. First of all, ISIS is not interested in negotiations, neither with Assad nor with anyone else. For the Islamic State there are only two possible solutions: victory, or death. In order to defeat the Islamists militarily, Assad’s troops would have to be armed in a way that guarantees the dictator a certain stability for the future. This is, nota bene, part of Putin’s plan. There will be no joint military intervention of Russians, Americans and Europeans, which would entail an occupied Syrian state that nobody wants â€" indeed, that would probably suffer the same fate as Iraq after 2003.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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