Implementing a Syria solution

What does the Obama administration wants in Syria: regime change, continuity, or a deal?

By BARRY RUBIN
September 15, 2013 20:53
3 minute read.
US President Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the White House, Sept 10

Obama makes White House address on Syria 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The idea of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is ideal for the Obama administration, but not necessarily for America.

So far Syria, Russia and the United States have endorsed a deal whereby the Russians would take control of Syrian chemical weapons. The Iranians agree. Obama, of course, claims victory. The mass media joyfully celebrate how he avoided war. Of course a stronger case can be made that it is the Syrians, Russians and Iranians that won. (In fact, I’m starting to consider the possibility that Russia actually won the Cold War, both ideologically and strategically, but never mind for now.)

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But aside from this, there are serious implementation and strategic issues that have to be worked out. Let’s start with the former.

Assuming the deal actually reaches the implementation stage, there are actual enforcement issues that have to be hammered out. For example, will chemical weapons inspectors be allowed sufficient access to ensure Syria’s compliance? Will implementation depend on Putin’s say-so?

Next, there are the strategic issues. In the incredibly wordy debate over the Syrian crisis – which has revealed so little of substance – few have asked what Iran wants. Does Iran want a total victory in which Syria would become a virtual Iranian satellite? The survival of the current Syrian regime in all of the country? Or would it settle for the regime’s survival in part of the country?

If Iran’s goal is total victory then the US cannot make a deal with Syria – it is a strategic threat. If Iran and Russia want to win the civil war, no compromise is possible. The deal will just help the Syrian regime while bailing Obama out of a tough situation. The deadlocked war would go on, still at 40 percent regime, 40% rebels, 20% Kurds with no real change likely in the near future.

Another neglected question is what the Obama administration wants in Syria: regime change, continuity, or a deal?



In other words, for the war to go on as long as possible, for a Muslim Brotherhood government to assume power, or for a de facto partition deal?

Two other administration policies that were aiming at regime change have been forgotten here: arms to the Syrian rebels, as well as training.

Clearly the Obama goal of expanded arms supplies to the rebels had to be abandoned because of bad publicity – like radicalism and cannibalism.

Yet there are hints that this administration wants regime change and is using the attention on the Syrian crisis to further it. The constant cry of Kerry and others is “no boots on the ground” – in Syria.

But what about boots on the ground in Turkey and Libya – for weaponry – and in Jordan for training? In addition, nobody has asked which groups are being trained. Of course it is not al-Qaida, but it may be Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Turkey also support this long-term US goal because of opposition to Iran and the Turkish government’s Islamist ambitions. Regime change, not two days of bombing in Syria, is the only important question.

But to return to a second possible deal. Only if Iran and America favor de facto partition – because they secretly think the war is unwinnable – might they agree to the 40-40-20 division. Perhaps Bashar Assad knows that is the best he can get.

That might be interesting to explore. I don’t know, though, if anyone is interested.

Finally, there is the third potential deal. A de facto partition of Syria could establish the serious foundation required for a compromise on the Iranian nuclear weapons issue. I want to make it clear that I do not think this is really going to happen.

But President Obama might.

Obama and his administration think that Iran now has a relatively moderate government. This means that Iran can stall a long time to fool the West on negotiations, perhaps even to the end of Obama’s second term. Watch for this thinly concealed game. The West wants to be fooled.

The author is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His forthcoming book is Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press).

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