Iran and the Sunni War of Attrition

Idlib Province is the equivalent of the West Bank for the Syrian Alawi. It is a direct stepping stone from Idlib to Latakia. Like Tel Aviv for Israelis, Latakia is the central heartland of the Alawi population. This stark comparison is now all too real as Idlib Province as fallen out of the hands of the Alawi-Assad regime based in Damascus. The link between the regime’s capital and the Alawi heartland remains crucial, not only to Assad but to all Alawi. Yet slowly but surely, the tide of the Syrian War has begun to turn. It certainly is not the end of the Assad regime, but according to the last US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, it could just be the beginning of the end.

The Alawi in Syria are exhausted by the casualties of the war. They desperately fear for the future. The demographic weight of a long struggle of attrition has finally caught up with the minority Alawi. It appears that without direct Iranian involvement (a large infusion of troops), the retaking of lost territory as well as a further loss of new territory could become the Assad predicament. The Shiite Hezbollah militia which had come to the aid of Assad has also suffered many casualties, some say a thousand or more. And without any horizon for victory, and locked into a war of attrition, the Shiites of Lebanon also face a fearful future. For the first time in a very long time, the threat of Iranian hegemony for the Levant appears to have a corollary — the prospect of an eventual Sunni Jihadist takeover of Syria and then Lebanon.

Could the demographic factor continue to play a role within the region? And could Sunni Jihadist forces strengthen to include Mosul and the Sunni provinces leading to Baghdad? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. But with the weight of demographics, and with the borders of 1919 (the Paris Peace Conference) on the wane in the Arab Levant, anything and everything is possible. A Sunni Jihadist-dominated Syria might very easily look east before it looks south (Jordan) or southwest (Israel). And since this scenario is by far the most likely, the roll- back of Iranian power would then continue to be the first priority of the Sunni Arab world. In fact, if the Sunni demographic advantage continues to play itself out over time, a nuclear Iran leading to a nuclear Middle East becomes more and more of an inevitability. Tiny Israel learned long ago that, when facing the Sunni Arab demographic advantage, it is crucial to have a nuclear deterrent and, above all else, to stay out of wars of attrition. Hence Israel’s long (yet necessary) obsession with technological and conventional arms superiority.

A region without Assad is simply not the same region that has been envisioned for the last twenty months. A bloodbath of revenge against the Shiites and the Alawi would require a major intervention in order to be stopped. But an Iranian intervention to save Assad would be perceived as a clear-cut escalation of the war by the Sunnis. It could be met by a Saudi or American or Israeli no-fly zone. This could leave the door open for Russian involvement. The Russians have already threatened to send Assad the S-300 air defense system. And the Russians are certainly ill-disposed toward most (if not all) forms of Sunni Jihadist political movement. Yet without an intervention of some kind to stop the certainty of a prospective Jihadist revenge, escalation of the war could very easily happen.

If Assad were to crack quickly, this would put the nuclear negotiations with Iran in sudden jeopardy. Already President Obama feels confident he has the Democratic Party votes necessary to spin a bad nuclear deal into a good, no war with Iran, nuclear deal. In other words, for the administration a bad deal is far preferable to having to use the military option. In fact, in recent days it has become crystal clear that the Obama administration has negotiated all along without “all options” really being “on the table”. But a direct Iranian intervention into Syria is another story altogether. This is especially true if President Putin decides to come to the aid of the Assad regime, either directly or as an assist to Iran if its intervention is opposed through an air interdiction by Israel or Saudi Arabia.

Let all be warned: The dangers of a wounded Assad regime are as precarious as a dominant Assad regime, perhaps even more so. Although it is far from clear whether or not the Obama administration ever perceived the dangers of Iranian hegemony throughout the region, Sunni Jihadist Islam did attack the US. Certainly this president must feel its danger, or why else would he be engaged in an aerial assault against ISIS? But Sunni Jihadists cannot be defeated without a settlement of the Syrian War that allows for a future horizon of a new kind of politics in a very diverse and pluralistic Middle East. This will require an outside international intervention that has the support of the full UN Security Council and the vast majority of the states within the region. This intervention must have an understanding of the political direction in which it wants to take both Syria and Iraq. However, for such an intervention to be agreed to, it must establish a security architecture for a permanent regional equilibrium. Unlike the Obama doctrine of regional equilibrium absent outside intervention, a permanent balance will not be achieved with a vacuum of international leadership. Without these two elements — a pluralistic and democratic future for Syria and Iraq and an internationally-endorsed security structure for the region — the stalemate on the Security Council will remain, and the prospect of escalation can only intensify.

Without an agreement by the major powers, the continued absence of a Middle East permanent balance could find itself ripe with conflicts originating in other parts of the Eurasian land mass. The continued bifurcation of global geopolitics into two blocks (the new cold war) could very easily play itself out in the warring and tormented Middle East. An Iran faced with isolation and retreat could reach out strongly toward Moscow and/or Beijing. How would the Obama doctrine of non-intervention fit into such a scenario? The young and inexperienced American president must eventually understand that his own doctrine and the pro-Sunni Carter doctrine (no one else but the US to intervene within the region) have become contradictory. Obama can’t be in two camps at the same time. For if the Obama doctrine is dependent on only Iran succeeding, then the prospect of an ascendant Sunni war of attrition must throw a wrench into the gearing of his own doctrine. And if that should happen, an isolated Iran would probably choose to have a strategic relationship outside the American orbit. Then Obama would be left with the choice either to keep his own doctrine, or to put the military option back on the table. Perhaps Hillary can give us some clarity.

For Israel, it has always been the case that the divisions within the Sunni Arab world worked to her advantage. But a pan-Islamic Sunni challenge would be another matter altogether. If the Sunni war of attrition reaches such a stage, it would be bad for both Iran and Israel. In such a situation nuclear weapons would probably become ubiquitous. Perhaps the entrenched security apparatus within each state can begin to reexamine the postulates of the last few decades and decide that an alternative approach is not necessarily out of the question. With each passing day, the idea of an internationally-sanctioned new regional security architecture as the precondition to a nuclear-weapons-free zone (a zone of peace) continues to be the best way forward. After all, G-d is the author of human history. And who better to understand this than Muslims and Jews, the two descendants of the prophet Abraham.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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