Lines of the Game: Assad Compromise Not Yet Complete

A picture taken on November 6, 2013, shows blood and debris on a sidewalk following a mortar attack in the northern city of Aleppo. (Photo: AFP - Karam al-Masri)

By: Sami Kleib

Published Wednesday, November 6, 2013

UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi did not utter a single word in Syria about the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. The meeting, unlike the one at the Foreign Ministry, was cordial. He entered the palace with a smile, and did not ask the president whether he was going to run in the next presidential election. He knew the answer, so, he only said, as Damascus would say, “The people will decide.” Assad smiled. When Brahimi slightly deviated from this line, the Syrian information minister was there to respond immediately, accusing Brahimi of deviating from his mission.

Brahimi, like all Damascus’s guests these days, felt that Assad was speaking from a position of power. His discourse converged with that of Hassan Nasrallah in his recent speech, when he told opponents, “Seizing upon the idea of dialogue at present is an opportunity for you, because the coming times are not in your favor, politically and on the field.”

Are the Coming Days Really Better?

Looking at the big picture, there is something grander than Brahimi and deeper than even the conflict between the Syrian regime and the opposition and militants. The climate is changing in the entire region. We are witnessing the birth of new features and alliances. One only has to look at the Iranian-American dynamic to understand everything, or begin to understand something major. Observe the following:

– US Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate liberal but a staunch supporter of Israel, like most of his colleagues, led a high-level delegation to the Capitol building, the seat of the US Congress, to hold talks about easing sanctions on Iran.

– Biden himself, once the proponent of partitioning Iraq into three federal regions, gave Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a very warm reception recently. He smiled with fondness (albeit artificial). He tapped Maliki on the shoulder as though he was an old friend, as Maliki called for improving cooperation with Washington, and launched an initiative for an international front against the terrorism destabilizing his country.

This prompts a very innocent question: Can the major rapprochement and cooperation between Maliki and the United States be seen in isolation from a deeper understanding between Iran and its Iraqi ally, and growing accord between Tehran and Washington over sharing influence in Iraq? Less innocently: Is Israel, which is nervous about Iranian-American rapprochement, the one pushing some of its allies to obstruct Maliki’s mission? Consider, for example, Eliot Engel, a Democratic member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, and a staunch opponent of Arab causes – and supporter of Israel. Engel said, “It almost seems like after all the blood we lost and all the money we spent, that Iran seems to have more influence in Iraq than the United States does.”

– US Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Saudi Arabia to try to reassure the Saudis. More than ever Riyadh senses that worrisome changes are afoot in the region. The Syrian issue is important, but what is even more important is a Saudi hunch that the American-Iranian rapprochement could be strategic rather than momentary.

In six years, at most, the United States will be able to wean itself off oil from the region. So why should the Americans not think that an alliance with a strong Iran is more important, after ensuring the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and agreeing over mutual interests?

– This has implications for Syria. The Syrian issue is part of a comprehensive deal that begins with finding a solution for the nuclear dispute with Iran, but also includes sharing influence in Iraq, the future of the Syrian regime itself, and the Middle East peace process. Only the latter issue remains highly contentious, while other tracks are making progress.

– Notice Robert Ford: The US ambassador to Syria transformed from a “field commander” in Syria to a “peace dove,” twisting the Syrian opposition’s arm until it assents to attending the Geneva conference. The ambassador said from inside Congress that there would be no transitional process until the Syrian opposition puts forward proposals that the Russians and the international community can study to know who the alternative is – meaning an alternative to Assad. In clearer terms, Ford means that there is no alternative for the time being. Yes, it is Ford who is saying that.

– Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visits Turkey. Good vibes are felt between the two countries, which exchange more than $11 billion in goods and services each year. They resolve to prevent sectarian fighting. The echo from Barack Obama’s statement to Maliki reaches them: Terrorism must be fought in the entire region, not just in Iraq.

– Some fronts flare up: Houthis and Salafis in Yemen; Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli, Lebanon; and unrest in Bahrain. A bloody attack takes place against Iranian guards along the border with Pakistan. The fighting in Syria rages. In all flash points, there are signs of an Iranian-Saudi conflict. Is it all a coincidence?

These are the features of the changing game. In its upcoming phase, fighting terrorism will be a top priority, especially after dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. There seems to be no objection to the Syrian regime surviving as part of a comprehensive deal. This is no longer America’s priority. Turn the page and move on.

Yet the page has not yet been completely turned. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard wants to uphold “Death to America.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stresses the difficulty of trusting the United States. Meanwhile, Washington is telling Israel: We have not yet reached an agreement with Iran. The Iranian oil minister criticizes Iraq. Support for Syrian militants continues, even if at a slower pace. Russia is attacking the opposition and its backers. We are therefore in the beginning of accords, but the road ahead will be long.

Geneva II will be an important gauge for the deals and alliances to come. Stay tuned.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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