Sacrificing a Pawn

I was asked my opinion of what effect the incipient deal with Iran might have on the situation in Syria and I found that my thoughts went well beyond comment length so I decided to put them here.

Here’s how I would characterize the deal with Iran. It might be unfair. There’s nothing really binding in the deal, it’s unverifiable, and it’s unenforceable. In essence, it’s a joint press release. The Iranians receive an implicit acceptance of their “right to enrich”, they’ll continue to develop their Arak heavy water reactor which, coincidentally, produces plutonium which can be used to produce nuclear weapons, and receive a certain amount of money. The West receives a promise that Iran will reduce highly enriched uranium stocks of unknown quantity to LEU (which could later to re-enriched to HEU) and increased access by inspectors to sites that comprise an unknown proportion of their nuclear development along with the impression that there will be further talks down the road, something the Iranians vehemently deny.

What effect will that have on the situation in Syria? If you assume (as I do) that Israel will not attack Iran on its own, it gives the Iranians six months of breathing room during which they’ll have a largely free hand. That includes continuing to assist Assad in his putting down of the rebellion against him in which they’re already heavily involved.

What I think is more interesting is what effect the agreement with Assad has had on the Iranians. Consider the parallels. Both are reprehensible, repressive, illiberal regimes with one overwhelming imperative: regime survival. Assad gave up something not particularly important to him, his stock of chemical weapons or, at least some of his stock since we have no way of verifying how forthcoming he’s been, in exchange for avoiding the consequences of his use of checmical weapons (if, indeed, he did use chemical weapons) and ensuring his primary imperative: regime survival. And the Assad regime is putting down the rebellion against it:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army was shelling rebel positions that had halted its advance.

The army has “apparently decided to use overwhelming force,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The advance into Nabuk comes a day after the army secured the nearby town of Deir Attiya, and follows its recapture of the strategic town of Qara, which led to thousands of refugees flooding into neighbouring Lebanon.

A Syrian security source said the army had only Nabuk, nearby Yabroud and a handful of surrounding villages left to capture before securing the Qalamoun region completely.

“If this town is captured, all we’ll have left is Yabroud and some other villages to completely block off the border with Lebanon and to stop any entrance or exit of rebels into Lebanon,” the source said.

“The next phase will be to retake the south (of Syria). The north and the east are for later,” he added, referring to areas under the control of the rebels or of Kurdish militia.

They clearly believe they’re winning:

(Reuters) – Prime Minister Wael Halki said on Saturday Syrian government forces were winning the war with rebels and would not rest while a single enemy fighter remained at large.

Maintaining Syria’s unyielding response to Western calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Halki said the era of “threats and intimidation has gone, never to return, while the era of victory and pride is being created now on Syrian soil”.

He was speaking during a visit to Iran, which has provided military support and billions of dollars in economic aid to Assad during a 2-1/2-year-old civil war which has killed 100,000 people and shows little sign of being halted by diplomacy.

The United Nations said on Monday that a long-delayed “Geneva 2” peace conference would go ahead on January 22. The government and the political opposition have both said they will attend, but rebel fighters on the ground have scorned the talks.

Assad, whose forces have consolidated their hold around Damascus and central Syria this year, faces little internal pressure to make concessions to his opponents as long as he maintains military momentum and Iranian support.

So, here’s the blueprint for dealing with the West that has emerged. The West is sufficiently desperate for a deal and gullible enough that you can offer something only peripherally related to your primary objective and that’s unverifiable. In return you have successfully stood down the combined power of the Western nations, something good for a certain amount of street cred in the Middle East, you can escape accountability for past infractions, and you can continue to pursue your primary objective. If Moammar Qaddaffi had followed that blueprint, he’d probably still be in charge of Libya today.

8 comments… add one
  • jan

    Everything you wrote makes sense, Dave. So, where does the United States leadership role fit into this new ME photograph — where current regimes, with horrific human rights records, terrorist ties, corruption etc., have remained virtually unscathed by milquetoast Geneva demands in their pursuits of power/nuclear ambitions? IMO, both Iran and Syria have been given a pass to carry on and we’re leave them alone, through highly touted but superficially contrived agreements, having no bite to them.

  • So, where does the United States leadership role fit into this new ME photograph

    I’m not the right person to ask that question of since I’ve advocated a somewhat different foreign policy, one less reliant on “United States leadership”, for decades.

    A quick summary of our grand strategy for the last seven decades is: “us strong; everybody else weak”, an extension of the stratey we’ve used in the Americas for more than a century. I’ve advocated something more along a classical “sphere of influence” approach to international security. Under that approach the EU would have handled the Balkans situation on its own, we wouldn’t be fishing in Russia’s pond the way we have for the last several decades, and, if Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have a problem with China, the first line of recourse for them should be solving it themselves.

    IMO the U. S. needs to make up its mind. Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    … gullible enough …

    I am not sure that the West, Obama Administration, or Obama supports are necessarily gullible. Depending upon one’s foreign policy philosophy, this may be a brilliant move, but for most touting the brilliance, it is based upon political positioning.

    In my case, I believe that Iran will join the “nuclear club” sooner or later, and for me, the deal is of little importance. In my world, I judge today’s actions in relation to a post-nuclear Iran, and I would include US adversaries in that judgement. Will the US be strengthened or weakened. That answer is dependent upon my philosophy.

    The “Munich in ’38” assessment assumes a linear outcome, but history is like water. Just because you plug the known holes in a container does not mean that there are not additional holes, and it does not account for the water that is now not leaking out. It’s those damn unknown/unknowns.

  • You’re right, TastyBits. “Gullible” might not be the best word. “So blinded by the conviction of your own brilliance that you’re unable to imagine anything else” doesn’t quite have the same flavor but it’s probably closer to the mark.

    What I don’t see is the material utility of the agreement. Assume that Iran doesn’t pose a threat. What use is the agreement? Iran doesn’t pose a threat. None that I can see. Now assume that Iran does pose a threat. What good is the agreement? Still none.

  • PD Shaw

    I think the question re Iran is whether it’s prepared to take on a role as a “normal” country, which I believe is the operating assumption of most internationalists. I am a skeptic and think that the Iranian government sees itself as a unique revolutionary regime with a mission to export its ideology abroad (regardless of the contradictions this presents with many of its Sunni and Arab neighbors). As such, its motivations are ultimately directed towards conflict. If Syria is important to Iran, its suggests my skepticism is correct.

    I think the question for the U.S. is whether it’s prepared to take on a role as a “normal” country. I think not, and I would rather it not.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I think the issue is better understood as a choice to get involved or not. If you do not want to get involved, it makes sense.

  • CStanley

    Appreciate the response to my question. It seems to me that the Syrian deal as well as this one are buying time for Assad. To agree to a deal is to assume that there is a negotiating partner who will remain in the picture. In addition, the relaxation of sanctions for Iran will free up resources to help fight Assad’s opponents.

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