Recommendations to engage with Syria and Iran are a testament to how cut off the Western powers have become from the realities on the ground.
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the fundamental problem in the Middle East is not intervention by the West. On the contrary, the real problem is that, for all their dabbling, the Western powers seem capable of neither war nor dialogue. This leaves everyone in the region at the mercy of the Middle East’s oppressive regimes and proliferating terrorists.
Advocates of the Iraq war lacked an understanding of the complexities on the ground to wage an effective war of liberation and democratisation. As a result, their policies merely ended up eliminating Iran’s two major regional rivals: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime. This presented Iran with a golden opportunity to project itself as a regional hegemon, and Iran’s leaders are unlikely to let this opportunity slip away.
Advocates of dialogue with the Iranians and their Syrian allies, like former United States Secretary of State James Baker, labour under the delusion that they can actually reach an understanding that can enable a graceful US exit from Iraq and help stabilise that wounded country. The delusion is based on two false assumptions: that the Iranians and the Syrians can succeed in Iraq where the US has failed, and that the international community can afford to pay the price of ensuring their cooperation.
True, Syria and Iran are playing a major role in supporting Iraqi insurgents, and Syria is still encouraging the trafficking of jihadists and weapons across its borders with Iraq. But the idea that these activities can be halted at will is naive.
For one thing, the interests of the Shia communities in Iraq and Iran are not the same. Iraqi Shia Muslims have never accepted Iranian dictates, and many took part in Saddam’s war against Iran in the 1980’s. After all, the Iraqi Shia are Arabs, and if they are now willing to coordinate their activities with their Persian counterparts, their main goal will always be to secure an independent course as soon as possible, even while they carry on with their internecine disputes within Iraq. Iran is in no better position than the US to convince them to resolve their differences.
President Basher al-Assad of Syria faces a similar dilemma. Although he has opened Syria’s border to jihadists and has allowed Saddam’s supporters to operate freely there, that choice may not be entirely his. Syria’s aid to Saddam in manoeuvring around the United Nations’ oil-for food program brought Iraqi money to inhabitants of the border region, who have always been closer in customs, dialect, and outlook to their Iraqi neighbours than to their fellow Syrians. In the absence of government investment, local inhabitants’ loyalty went to Iraqi Ba’athists who helped improve their lot. Indeed, even local security apparatuses have been unwilling to comply with dictates from Assad and his clique to seal the borders.
In these circumstances, neither Syria nor Iran seems capable of delivering anything but mayhem in Iraq. What, then, would the proposed dialogue between the US and these states achieve other than continue to empower their corrupt yet ambitious regimes?
The story gets more complicated when one considers the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Assad wants nothing more than to see this affair forgotten – and the proponents of dialogue think that they can give him what he wants in the hope of breaking Syria’s alliance with Iran.
But that is merely another erroneous (not to mention amoral) assumption. The alliance between Syria and Iran dates back more than two decades, and was explicitly reaffirmed by the two ruling regimes as recently as January 2005. Indeed, the two regimes are now joined at the hip. Assad’s recent refusal to attend a summit in Tehran with his Iranian and Iraqi counterparts was a mere tactical move designed to appeal to the proponents of dialogue.
In fact, Iran has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, and annual bilateral trade tops a billion dollars. Iran’s growing influence over the Syrian security apparatus is well established, and Iran is funding an effort to create Syrian Shia militias to compensate for Assad’s sagging support in the army and in the minority Alawite community.
Assad cannot turn his back on all of this. No deal would be sweet enough, even if it included the return of the Golan Heights. For Assad and his supporters, survival is more important than sovereignty.
Still, to read the well-known names of commentators and policymakers who are recommending engaging Syria and/or Iran is a testament to how inconsequential and cut off the Western powers have become from the realities on the ground in the world’s most turbulent region. That, it seems, is the price of their arrogance.
© Project Syndicate, 2006.