There’s a new back channel in the Middle East—the secular, moderate Syrian opposition and the Putin administration in Moscow. Ahmad Jarba, leader of the opposition at the Geneva II talks in Switzerland, made the announcement that he had accepted an invitation to visit Russia sometime in the coming weeks. The invitation had been extended to him by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Mr. Jarba also told the Wall St. Journal that the Russian Foreign Minister had assured him that Moscow wasn’t necessarily wedded to its long time ally, the Assad family. According to Mr. Jarba, “the Russians said, `We aren’t holding on to Assad, but we must have a political process in Geneva`”.
But if the Russians and the secular opposition don’t come to a clear understanding on the role of the “transitional authority” (as established by the Geneva Communique of June 2012), the Geneva process could become stillborn and the jihadists would continue to pour into Syria from the entirety of the vast Sunni world. For Moscow, this has to be a nightmare scenario. A long-lasting stalemate, whereby the extremists gain at the expense of the secular moderates, in the long run benefits no one (not even Saudi Arabia). It certainly is not in the interest of the US, Britain or France. This type of stalemate with an increase in foreign fighters would mean that Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and Russia would have to “up the ante” in order to maintain a balance. The US and the West have already appeared weak in the eyes of Arabs and Israelis. A greater Russian involvement on the side of Iran and Assad, without a response from Washington, would intensify the perception. But the regional expansion of the war has already put Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan at risk.
Who knows what might happen with an even greater escalation. Israel has become increasingly disturbed by the expanding presence of al Qaeda and the IRGC on its northern border.
However, the other alternative to a long-lasting military stalemate in Syria must also be dreaded. A military victory by Assad, Hezbollah and Iran (a distinct possibility without aid to the secular opposition) would mean the regional conventional hegemony of the Levant by Iran. If the stalemate tilts due to an increase in internal opposition division (jihadist vs. secular), and without a unification of the great power position, the US role in the Middle East could be surpassed by the Russians. This would be unacceptable to both the Sunni Arabs and the Israelis (not to mention the howling response in the US by Republicans, Independents and Democrats of the center). If the military tilt (or worse) should happen without a comprehensive nuclear deal on Iran’s advanced program, another US war in the Levant (to save its very face) cannot be excluded from the realm of possibility. An Iranian nuclear deal, which was unacceptable to the Israelis, combined with an Assad-Iran-Hezbollah tilt (or even a stalemate), would most likely mean the total expansion of the Syrian war throughout the region. Again, this would be in no one’s interest.
The success of Geneva II can only be accomplished if the Syrian secular opposition, Russia and the US can agree that Assad (not the entire government) must go, and that Iranian hegemony can never be an acceptable outcome. But the opposition alone cannot assure the Russians that the region as a whole does not revert to a US satrap (like Europe). The Russians will need more assurance than the simple word of the weak secular opposition. This will require the commitment of the US and its central ally within the region, Israel.
There are three types of hegemony in the Middle East: nuclear, conventional air, and out-of-region superpower. Israel possesses the regional nuclear and conventional air, while the US is the obvious superpower. Russia has a naval filling station in western Syria but no bases anywhere in the Levant. Iran’s military influence continues to spread as Shiite and Alawi governments dominate or control Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran feeds a missile deterrence shield to its allies in Syria and Lebanon in order to protect its nuclear program. Meanwhile, its nuclear program continues to advance, even as negotiations proceed.
But while the region fears Iranian encroachment into traditional Sunni Arab countries, the Iranian nuclear program has been a decades-long investment to protect itself from the regional and superpower hegemony of the US and Israel.
For Iran, the nuclear program, the Hezbollah missile shield, and the Assad regime in Syria are essential counter assets to their correct assessment of current Middle East hegemony. That is not to say that Israel or the Sunni Arab states could ever accept an Iranian conventional hegemony in reverse (along with a nuclear weapons program). On the contrary, they won’t. But neither will Iran accept a status quo that renders them impotent in the face of foreign and regional hegemony on a number of platforms, hence the regional deadlock. It is the very existence of this hegemony which has created the stark future that the Middle East faces today.
Without a vision for Syria and the region, the Iranian nuclear negotiations cannot succeed. The same is true for the regional nuclear hegemony and the superpower entanglement, because Iran (and all states in the region) must have a secure freedom along with a level of equality. But Syria inclusive of either Assad or the jihadists is not a vision anyone can live with. Russia and the US need for the Geneva process to produce on all three levels: the Syrian, the regional, and the regional nuclear. The total global nuclear issue cannot be solved at Geneva and within the Middle East context. But the regional nuclear Israeli hegemony must be answered soon, as well as the US superpower status in the Gulf.
Because without US and Israeli concessions on hegemony, Iran’s dependence on Syria and Hezbollah can only mean a bitter fight to the finish. If these hegemonic issues are not at least placed on the negotiating table, Iran will most likely stall on a nuclear compromise (as the sanctions regime shreds). The scenarios mapped out earlier would most likely be the result. But Israel possesses nuclear weapons for a reason. Security with strategic depth are also essential to any major Israeli concessions on its nuclear program.
For Russia to support the Syrian secular opposition without a “grand bargain” would be extremely difficult. With NATO on its very doorstep, the Russians are not in a generous mood toward the Americans. But support for Assad and an Iran bent on regional hegemony is not a winning hand for Moscow either. In fact, if progress is ever to be made on a new European security structure, Middle East rapprochement on Syria and the issues of regional hegemony could work to reset relations between the US and Russia to a much closer stage of international cooperation.
I’ve written about the “grand bargain” before. It’s a regional agreement whereby a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East would be enhanced by a “zone of peace”. Inside the zone, foreign forces would be asked to withdraw out-of-region, while states would not be allowed to attack each other. State support for internal militias would be outlawed. The UN Security Council would guarantee the integrity of the zone under an immediate Chapter Seven Resolution. So too would the conventional balance of power within the region. The aggressor nation would be internationally isolated. Mutual recognition of all states within the zone would be the norm. All states inside the zone would join the NPT.
The Geneva II process and a Helsinki nuclear-weapons-free zone of peace negotiation could work as a powerful tandem. The G5+1 could be rolled into Helsinki, furthering the dimension and gravity of the entire project. The nuclear-weapons-free zone could be a non-enrichment, non-plutonium zone as well. In a zone of peace, missile and anti-missile technology would be unnecessary. With Russia, China and the US behind the plan, Israel and Iran would be forced to reconcile. If Israel’s conventional strategic-depth security issues would be solved (no forced retreat to the now indefensible 1967 ceasefire lines), this plan could be in Israel’s interest. Even in a zone of peace, a legitimate conventional defense must remain.
With the regional vision in place, the immediate call for the removal of all foreign forces from Syria could be the first step toward a permanent ceasefire. Secondly, the UN Security Council could issue a Chapter Seven Resolution to end the flow of weapons into Syria by all parties, effective without delay. The Chapter Seven provision could apply to Syria’s foreign forces after an agreed upon period of time. In this context, the transitional authority (as provided under the Geneva Communique of June 2012) would have weight and teeth. The role of the transitional authority would be to set up a constitution and allow for the peaceful return of the war refugees. Free elections would follow. Timelines would be negotiated and elections supervised under UN Security Council authority. All ethnic, religious, and sectarian communities could be protected by UN provision.
These are extremely dangerous times for the Middle East and the world. The Middle East could be headed for a devastating war or an al Qaeda failed-state zone. Much will depend on the US and Russia achieving an understanding on how to proceed. Separately, the two powers can only hurt each other. Unless the US decides to enter into another confrontation in the region (war against Iran), the Obama administration will need Russian and Chinese cooperation. Israel and the Sunni Arab states need the UN Security Council to escape the tragedy of a regional war. War cannot be in Israel’s interest. It can only be a last resort if everything else fails. We are about to enter a new age. It will either be called the G-Zero or the G-5. Israel, Russia, and the US could decide the future of Syria and the region. The clock is ticking.