Following a month hectic month of diplomatic to-and-fro over the aftermath of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the spotlight is now on Iran. At least, so it seems. The main concern during these negotiations has, of course, always been Iran. Although the averted military action against Assad was meant as a retaliation, its underlying strategic goal would have been to assert American willingness to act, instead of backtrack on their pledges. The main target of this demonstration of determination would have been Iran. The importance of this underlying focus transpires in the way the crisis was handled. Rather than setting an example in disciplining unscrupulous dictators, the Russian solution accepted by the Americans is rather a blueprint for rehabilitating countries with a record of acting “antagonistically”, such as Syria’s eastern champion.
Now that the charade is over and the memory of choking Syrian children is fading from public memory, leaders and diplomats can finally talk openly about the Persian elephant in the room. Following the U.N. addresses and the “historic” phone call between Obama and Rouhani newspapers and websites are brimming with talk about reconciliation and analyses are rapidly churned out on its feasibility.
If only because of a penchant for Grand Bargaining, such a process will most likely include a settlement of the Syrian crisis (and perhaps even a Israeli-Palestinian one). Considering the increasingly current state of the opposition, this settlement will probably involve the continuation of the Assad regime – albeit as a an Irano-Russian puppet. Fact of the matter is that Assad has increasingly come to seem the only viable option for leading a fairly stable, non-radicalized country. Chances are that this is something, not just recognized by Assad’s friends, but also by his foes. The question is how they will anticipate this course of events.
The amount of money and prestige invested by countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia in this conflict is tremendous. Their commitment to the rebel cause, despite its flaws has been marked and it is not likely to melt away in the face of impending American arbitration. Even should they realize that complete victory is no longer in the cards for them, they will still try to get the most out of it while they can. The prospect this paints for Syria is grim. Let me explain why.
The course of the civil war has to a large extent been determined by the support that both sides have gotten from outside Syria. The “capacity to wage war” of both Assad and the rebels being dependent on the willingness of their supporters to wage war, the conflict has always seemed to be going back and forth. For example, with Assad’s forces winning the battle in Qusayr, Saudi’s would send over new types of anti-tank rockets in order to restore the equilibrium. Rather than winning the war, each side has been put on life support by their backers and none of them has seemed willing or able to tip the balance.
With negotiations in the offing this may very well change. Now that the end is in sight, the goal will no longer be to gain victory, or prevent defeat. Rather, both sides will try to enhance their bargaining position. And since the bargaining position is dependent on the strategic position at a particular time, on the threat one poses at the time of negotiating, it is not unlikely that both sides (but especially the losing, Sunni side) will up their support in view of the finish line. The consequences of this will be felt by the Syrians. The situation in the Levant, bad is it is, will get worse before it gets better.