The shadow of Syria hovers over all aspects of the future of the Levant. From Jordan-Palestine to Lebanon to Iraq, whatever happens in Syria will determine the final borders of the post Sykes-Picot Middle East. Whether the Obama administration likes it or not, the end game in Syria will determine the Iran question, the Palestinian question, the future of monarchy in the region, and even the next theological construction of Islam itself.
However, up until this point the establishments in both Washington and Moscow have been extremely reluctant to engage with each other in order to coordinate a post-Assad Syrian policy. This has allowed the political and military space for some of the most militant jihadist elements to take root and flourish. Unfortunately, this internal chaos — created partially by great power disagreement and inaction — has led to a poisoned political space throughout a sectarian-contested Middle East. In fact, without outside intervention the future of Syria can only be won by a radical Sunni Islam that will leave huge question marks for the remainder of the states in the region. This has led to a situation whereby many of the extreme enemies of Assad (and therefore Iran) have also been deemed enemies in both the US and Russia. This has helped the new Iran government appear moderate and has given them a leg up within the P5+1. This, in turn, has caused grave concern with America’s traditional Sunni state allies and Israel. They know that Iran continues to be a revolutionary state.
The future of the Middle East literally rides with the future of Syria. If the outside intervention in Syria is Iranian, then the chances of a direct Israeli counter-move will be high. This could also lead to direct American involvement, depending on the nature and duration of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation. Recently Assad and the Syrian army have begun to have less and less say over military matters, as Hezbollah and the IRGC have taken the lead in the fighting. This bodes ill, because it will either lead to more and more Iranian troops interjected on or near Israel’s borders, or the equally bad outcome of a Sunni Jihadist victory. If such a victory were to happen in Syria, it would probably mean the massacre of tens of thousands of innocent people. Either way, if the current stalemate collapses, an end game without major-power intervention will cause either an Iranian escalation or the complete political breakdown of the region.
The idea of a UN Security Council-sponsored resolution on the future diameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, within the context of the regional chaos as described above, is a blatant absurdity. If Sunni Jihadist Islam is to take over Syria, it will be Greater Syria that will be taken over. That will include large sections of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. These Jihadists don’t recognize the current international borders. They view the entire area in historic religious terms. In this context Jordan-Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq don’t even exist. As for Israel and the Sunni monarchies, they are perceived (like Sykes-Picot) merely as a creation of Western imperialism, a tragedy caused by the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate.
The same is true of a continued Iranian attempt to recreate the historic Muslim Persian empire based in Baghdad. Any hope of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian question pales in relation to Iranian hegemonic designs for the region. With its use of proxies in Gaza and (potentially) the West Bank, Revolutionary Guard troops on the Syrian Golan Heights, and in Lebanon with Hezbollah, Iran creates an existential threat to both Jordan and Israel. This will only be exacerbated by a bad nuclear deal or an immediate attempt at a nuclear breakout, or anything in between. The Obama administration placement of the Iran nuclear deal outside the parameters of the regional dimension has been a serious misunderstanding of the geopolitical dynamics of the Near East. Israel must begin to face facts: America simply cannot lead within the region of the Middle East by compartmentalizing the nuclear file from the total political future of the region. And America can’t act alone on the political future of the Middle East.
What will be the political future of the Middle East? Will it be a Sunni Caliphate? Or will it be an Iranian revolutionary Islamic empire? Israel would be very hard-pressed to live with either one. But so too would everyone else, from Cairo to Amman to the Gulf. The alternative lies with Syria. And the alternative is what it has always been, the creation of a serious democratic and pluralistic polity for all people living within the current international borders of the region. These could be federations with or without autonomous zones, but they can’t be proxy or puppet states. They must be independent, and they must be at peace with their neighbors. Only through major power cooperation, coordination and intervention can success be accomplished. Without the UN Security Council’s direct involvement to bring about a proper political solution for Syria and Iraq, nothing good can possibly happen. Because the only outcome to advance the cause of a permanent peace throughout the region and overcome the negativity of extremist Islam, is a moderate form of pluralistic politics and citizenship rights. As envisioned by President Sisi of Egypt, a moderate Islam can arise in the Middle East. But I submit that it must be accompanied within the context of a politics based on the principles of human rights and reconciliation.
But such an outcome in Syria will have a dramatic effect on the other autocracies and absolute monarchies within the Middle East. That’s good. A democratic Jordan will go a long way toward achieving a solution to the Palestinian question that is both workable and just. Jordan and Palestine have always been flip sides of the same coin. No one understood this better than the late PLO Chairman Arafat and the former King of Jordan. However, neither of these two leaders were democrats. Arafat understood that once he had achieved a West Bank state, he might be able to use such a platform to take over Jordan, thereby creating an even larger platform in a generational struggle against Israel. While King Hussein talked for decades of an East Bank-West Bank federation of some sort, democracy was never the end product of such musings. But only with real democracy can the Middle East be saved. And with real democracy, Jordan will have a Palestinian majority living in the eastern territory of the old Mandate for Palestine. This will not solve the problems of either
Jerusalem or the West Bank, but it will go a long way toward a genuine compromise on those two issues. With a democratic Palestinian Jordan and its capital in Jerusalem, shared sovereignty within autonomous zones on the West Bank becomes a much more plausible concept.
If Israel is serious about the concept of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as it recently declared itself to be at the Non-Proliferation Conference in New York, then a total regional security package for the region must be envisioned. I call this concept the Zone of Peace. It is a twelve-point plan that has been published in this blog space on many occasions (Steven Horowitz, Times of Israel, April 8th 2015). Without a regional architecture for peace, a nuclear-weapons-free zone becomes literally impossible. Israel is now willing and able to talk about achieving such a regional architecture. I am heartened by this news. If Russia, the US and China are serious (as they say they are), they will need to be a part of any future such construct. These countries must not participate as imperialists, but as agreed-upon partners. In fact, their direct presence within the region will not be necessary. But all the great powers of the Security Council — the US, UK, France, Russia, China and eventually India — must sign on to protect the peace of the region in case it becomes broken.
As the Syrian end game begins, the choices become stark. Will the great powers overcome their differences in order to save the Middle East from the global dangers of nuclear proliferation and conventional escalation? Because with or without a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear program, within a short decade Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Egypt might very easily demand the very same program that Tehran will be allowed to employ. The Iranian foreign minister said so himself at no less a venue than the New York Non-Proliferation Conference itself. President Obama admitted that such an outcome could lead to a nuclear breakout time of less than one month. This scenario is unacceptable, because it means a nuclear Middle East within a region in chaos. Only a negotiated Zone of Peace, with a democratic outcome for Syria, can stop such a frightful momentum. Israel stands ready to negotiate. Are the Arabs and Iran?