Washington and Moscow in the Syrian War

Russia is not hiding its goals in its Syrian war, and is not ambiguous about its alliance with Iran and the Assad regime. Moscow has decided that the war in Syria is a Russian war on “Islamist terrorism,” that will not stop until it declares victory. Whether it prevails or becomes bogged down in the Syrian quagmire, Russia has decided not to back down whatever the cost of the battle may be. The Syrian conflict has become an existential war ever since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring, before it was endorsed by the Western powers to propel Islamists to power. To Moscow, this was a threat to its national and strategic interests. Its alliance with Tehran, meanwhile, goes beyond their mutual agreement on shoring up Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow considers Islamist terrorism as purely Sunni one, and finds the Shiite ally indispensable to its war with it. Russia’s Syria adventure also proceeds from its conclusion that the US has given it implicit consent, is a silent partner, and that when needed Washington is prepared to wave its stick and overturn equations. This is exactly what happened at the first round of negotiations between the regime and the opposition delegations in Geneva — part of the Russia-owned and internationally-implemented Vienna process. Efforts to launch negotiations were coupled with Russia’s intensifying of airstrikes on the armed Syrian opposition. Moscow refused to halt its strikes, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even said that Russia will not stop bombing Syria until terrorists there are defeated. Moscow is intent, Tehran is ready, and Washington is supportive. The Obama administration is willing to turn a blind eye to Iranian actions in Syria in appeasement of Moscow, while its eyes will be on Iranian elections and the expected fierce battle between moderate and hard-line clerics. These elections are crucial, and it is important to stop and analyze them given their implications for Iran, Iranian-Saudi relations, and regional ambitions of both moderates and hardliners.

First, the first round of the Geneva talks needs a pause. The decision by the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) to go to Geneva was the right one, even though it took place under regional and US pressure. Its presence in Geneva allowed the HNC to highlight the Russian military escalation in Syria simultaneously with diplomatic escalation, through the intransigence of the regime delegation and the pro-regime opposition figures. As a result, the negotiations proved a farce rather than a serious attempt to put Syria on the road to recovery.

The announcement of suspending negotiations for three weeks by UN Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, reflects the difficulty of holding these talks amid escalation of bombardment of and political pressure on the Syrian opposition. This strategy of making negotiations impossible should have been met with bold stances by the UN Secretary General and his envoy, with a clear call for Russia to end this approach. They have failed in doing what it takes to make the talks a success and to address accusations that they are overlooking Iranian, Russian and regime violations in a manner that has undermined the two men’s claim of neutrality and moral leadership.

The fact is that Russia and Iran are direct parties to the Syrian civil war. The backers of the Syrian opposition have washed their hands clean politically and militarily, 5using pretexts such as the fight against ISIS and al-Nusra Front, and such as ensuring the success of the negotiations. In short, the US has decided to dissociate itself from the Syrian war, giving cover to Russia and Iran to act as they please in Syria.

The on-ground situation is increasingly moving toward the partitioning of Syria while keeping Bashar al-Assad in power on one part. The programme drafted by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) for a transitional period in Syria is “overly optimistic,” according to de Mistura. De Mistura said that holding elections by January 2018 — the end of the 18-month period stipulated in the Vienna plan — would not be possible. In other words, the timetable for a settlement in Syria will extend further if it is peaceful; and much further if it is not. This would increase Russia and Iran’s involvement in the costly quagmire, especially in the light of falling oil prices and the collapse in the value of the Russian currency, at a time of US isolationism and encouragement of others to intervene.

Indeed, Washington has no intention to stop Tehran and Moscow and their strategy of altering the balance of power in favour of the regime against the rebels that the Obama administration claims to support.

The Obama administration is determined to reinforce the truce with Iran, and is betting on the moderates to shift Iranian policy toward more cordial relations with Washington. The US is not concerned by the alliance between Moscow and Tehran, or Russian funding for nuclear projects in Iran. The Iranian fruit, according to US thinking, will be ripe for cultivation later, but there is no rush now except to invest in Iran strategically with one eye on the elections.

The results of Iranian elections — held on February 26 — will not come out immediately. Iranians will elect deputies for the Shura Council, where hardliners currently control around 200 out of 295 seats, and members of the Assembly of Experts, which elects the new Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

The current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spent almost 25 years in power. It is believed that Khamenei has stage-four cancer and is being treated by Iranian and German medical teams. Khamenei himself has hinted that the Assembly of Experts may elect his successor.

Analysts believe that the battle for Khamenei’s succession is between hardliners themselves, some of whom see the suggestion of appointing a committee to succeed the Supreme Leader weakens the clerical regime of velayat-e-faqih. The Revolutionary Guards are categorically opposed to anything that reduces the influence of this system.

The moderate camp includes Hashemi Rafsanjani, current President Hassan Rouhani, as well as Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, all in the centrist camp. Reformers include former President Mohammad Khatami, and are allied to the moderates and centrists. The hardliner camp, with Khamenei as its Supreme Leader, currently controls the levers of power.

Another battlefield for the two camps is the Guardian Council of the Constitution, whose members are appointed by Khamenei. The regime uses this council to vet candidates, to keep away undesirables from power. The council has disqualified many reformist candidates, including Hassan Khomeini.

The realists in the moderate camp want to reduce the number of hardliners, but the problem will be in the Assembly of Experts that elects the Supreme Leader.

In fact, Hashemi Rafsanjani’s candidacy has been approved. But experts say it would be impossible for Rafsanjani to be elected Supreme Leader because he is confrontational. Rafsanjani himself has declared that he is not interested in failure, but wants to obtain more than 1 million votes to have a popular mandate.

Current Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, has a chance to succeed Khamenei. If this were decided, then Hassan Rouhani would resign as president and a new one would be elected.

For the record, the three other names being circulated as possible successors to Khamenei are: Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi who is the most knowledgeable but his problem is that he hides his views. Another name is Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, who is a hawkish hardliner.

The concern is for hardliners to continue to disqualify reformists and moderates from the final list of candidates for the Shura Council. Particularly, so as a group of commanders from the Revolutionary Guards are for the first time running in the election in public. The battle is thus raging, so the question is who will come out on top? The pro-state camp led by Rouhani and backed by reformists and moderates, or the pro-revolutionary camp led by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards?

There are around 53 million voters in Iran, 30 percent of whom are under the age of 30, and 70 percent under the age of 50. The balance of power in Iran today is different from 2009, when Ayatollah Khamenei controlled all levers of decision-making. At the time, it was said the elections had been rigged against the reformists, after which the hardliners brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Today, Khamenei is weaker.

President Rouhani recently returned from Paris after a European tour during which he signed several lucrative contracts, giving the pro-state camp a boost. Today, Hassan Rouhani is popular, perhaps the most popular in Iran. His experience in public service, ever since he headed the negotiations team with the US in 2003 thereby preempting US or Israeli invasion, and his presidency, has forged his reputation as a statesman locally, regionally and internationally. Those who know him closely say that Rouhani’s thinking is in line with the strategic policies of the Iranian state, but not with the appetite of the revolutionary camp for regional hegemony.

If the Iranian elections reflect a clear decision by the Iranian people to choose the pro-state camp, there will be a qualitative shift in the Iranian policy, especially after the moderates and reformists were able to conclude a historical nuclear deal that lifted the sanctions and allowed the Iranian president to go to Europe and bring back important contracts for development, rather than pompous promises of destruction and devastation.

The world is watching the Iranian elections, and the Arab region should follow suit.
Courtesy: The Huffington Post

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