What could be concluded from Secretary of State John Kerry’s and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recent visit to the Gulf region is that the US decided to abandon its narrow approach of “ISIL First” and adopt instead a wider policy that incorporates fighting ISIL in a comprehensive effort based on moving, seriously “enfin”, to alter the balance of power on the ground in Syria, hence push forward the political solution.
Theoretically, Turkey will provide the Syrian opposition with the arms they need, start implementing a plan to restructure the bits and pieces of the Syrian insurgency in the north. The Turks were simply be given the Keys of North Syria under a deal that will weaken both ISIL and Assad. In return, the PKK will be prevented from areas that are not historically theirs anyway.
The synthesis between the US “ISIL First” and Turkey’s “Assad First” is the base of the bilateral deal that is in fact still work in progress. For the Turks, the emergence of the PKK affiliated People Protection Units (YPG) altered Ankara’s stand to “Assad and the PKK First” and made it possible for the US, with its “ISIL First”, to get the Turks to accept the combined strategy. The Turks got half of their strategy as an advance for the second half. And it seems, from Kerry’s Gulf talks, that there are serious steps to deliver the second half: Bashar Al Assad.
The essence of the shift in the situation regarding Syria could be condensed in two points.
The first is that the Arabs agreed to accept something less than a zero sum game. Pro Assad, Hezbollah and Iran areas in West Syria will not be subjugated by force to a majority rule in Damascus. Rather, they will have a proportional piece of the cake of the central government.
The second is that all this stuff cannot be achieved without a clear road map and collective efforts to get Assad and the Iranian participation. And to do that, the balance of power has to shift, a process that has already started.
The US has returned to its initial concept of altering the balance of power in order to impose a political solution on Assad and his backers. Washington did not abandon totally this concept, but it looked in the near past uninterested in pursuing it with the required vigor. Now, free from the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Washington seems to have decided to move forcefully to implement its initial principle where there are intricate division of labor with regional and international allies to get Assad to the negotiating table to talk about a Syrian future without him and his gang.
There are speculations that Tehran realized that it is actually facing a strategic impasse in Syria and it is discussing a deal. The essence of the deal is to organize a transition along the Russian proposal. That is a managed departure of Assad, joint fighting against ISIL and the preservation of the rights of the Alawis in the regions. There is no sign that Tehran reached a decision yet.
The basic fundamentals of the Doha talks were: 1) A rejection of the scenario of partitioning Syria, as it will create more instability and provides no end to the war, 2) Adopting the parameters laid by the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and by Moscow, 3) Working on an unofficial demarcation of areas of influence, 4) Negotiating, separately first, with Arab Sunni players and the Iranians to determine the final status of these areas of influence, a la Taif agreement, while leaving the door opened to direct talks later on, 5) General elections in Syria with a prior understanding that Assad will not run and that the new government will include representatives of all components of the Syrian society.
(Taif was the deal that ended the Lebanese civil war. It was based on an unofficial partitioning of the country to areas of “natural” sectarian and political control combined under a sectarian dosed central government)
But such a strategy requires the final approval of the two sides of the war to this road map in Syria where each Caesar gets what is his, and where Syria gets peace. The Taif concept comes handy in this context. What took place in Doha is indeed the first step towards a serious discussion on the details of such a deal.
Moscow’s concept is based on building a regional understanding that will help confront terrorism. At one point, and if this plan works, a regional conference that gathers all relevant players including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the UN and both the US and Russia is the core of the Russian current efforts.
Turkey is enthusiastic. On his way back from China, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had this to say on Moscow’s position: “Putin’s current attitude toward Syria is more encouraging than before. Our meeting in Baku and our following phone conversation left me with the impression that he is changing his attitude. He is no longer of the opinion that Russia will support Assad to the end. I believe he can give up Assad”.
Kerry said in New York, just before leaving to the Middle East that he hopes that Iran will join the international-regional group that defines now the future of Syria “at a later phase”.
But this requires two hands to be applauded. Will Iran agree? And at what point in the shift of the balance of power?
There are two options available to the Iranians-Hezbollah-Assad camp. The first is to try to block the US-Russian-Arab arrangement. The second is to agree to be the second hand that will applaud it. And most probably they will try the first before getting to the second. Everybody does.
The Syrian regime and its backers are trying frantically to improve their positions on the ground and stall for a longer time. A serious counter attack was launched by Assad and his backers in recent weeks. Zabadani, for example, is the field of relentless Hezbollah- opposition clashes to capture the strategic city. The regime is waging counter offensives on many other fronts simultaneously. Counter attacks are taking place in the Aleppo region, Al Ghab, Jessr Al Shughour and even Palmyra.
Therefore, Tehran-Assad camp will try to improve their share in the Taif deal. But at one point, they will give up fighting and rush to the negotiating table. When will that happen? At the moment the demarcation lines, being discussed, settles down to a kind of “natural” configuration. And we are already starting to see that in North Syria. It will take quite a bit of time and a lot of fighting to reach a semi-stable demarcation lines. In other words, it will get worse before it gets better.
Iran and Assad will hedge their bets however through consolidating their control on the areas that are mostly Alawi or that is considered strategic for Hezbollah. One very expressive example, from the ground, is shown in Zabadani. Ahrah Al Sham was putting pressure in the two Shia villages in Idlib country side (Foa’a and Kafraia) in order to force Hezbollah to reduce pressure on Zabadani which is important for both Hezbollah and Iran. Tehran decided to negotiate with Ahrar Al Sham. The funny thing is that the Iranian delegation demanded upfront that Sunnis leave Zabadani altogether and offered high geographical price for the strategic city elsewhere. Ahrar Al Sham refused. But this example shows clearly that Iran’s objective is to work on the partition option as a default line in case the Arabs insist on a game plan Tehran does not like.
The Iranians understand that at the end of the day, it will be a partition under any other name, or even under its own name. The fight now is between Iran’s Plan B that we explained in recent previous issues of MEB, and the Syrian opposition plan A, which is free their land of Iranian presence and keep it unified. It will help the opposition substantially to modify their political discourse and base it on national unity and plurality that has always been the feature of Syria’s culture.
Globally, the Iranians can get a better deal now, while the balance of power is not decisively tilted in favor of the powerful alliance that has just been formed. But in many cases, people carry on chasing their own tails.
Things will go more or less on this course, that is if the Iranians do not get a rabbit out of their hat in order to turn the table upside down. Think Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain or something they know and we do not. The Iranians are cornered in Syria. And anybody may turn stupidly dangerous if cornered. Any “game changer” for sale?