Is Iran prepared for more Saudi surprises?
Hassan Ahmadian/Al-Monitor/January 25/16
TEHRAN, Iran — When two rivals constantly make contradictory strategic decisions, they are bound to eventually end up in a direct confrontation. Iran and Saudi Arabia are no exception. Since 2005, both countries have made conflicting strategic decisions. For a long time, the fluidity and magnitude of the conflicts in the Middle East delayed the emergence of any direct Iranian-Saudi confrontation. However, with the emergence of the Arab Spring, the geopolitical atmosphere of the Middle East changed and the strategic conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia became deeper and more intense. While new fields of conflict emerged, the strategic conflict between Tehran and Riyadh took on obvious ideological dimensions. The two countries have gradually become two opposite poles in a spectrum of conflicts.
Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has had to deal with an increasing number of strategic challenges. It has lost some of its allies, and it has proven incapable of managing bottom-up changes that have been taking place. Therefore, it launched a counter-revolution to contain the Arab Spring, while at the same time it pursued a policy of change when it came to its rivals. Syria has been the centerpiece of this approach, with the aim of weakening the Islamic Republic’s regional role. In competition with Riyadh, Tehran has meanwhile been supporting bottom-up change in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen with the objective of undermining the regional forces opposed to the axis between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
In this atmosphere of conflicting strategies, conflicting ideologies have started to play a role as well. Through emphasis on the contradictory nature of various religious and sectarian identities, Saudi Arabia has sought to push minorities, including Shiite Muslims, into a corner. This addition of an ideological dimension to an existing strategic conflict has been problematic. It has resulted in Shiites confronting various authorities, including the Saudi government. Indeed, it was because of these developments that Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Yemen’s Houthi movement was once again revived. At the start of the Arab Spring, however, this problem was not a strategic priority for Saudi Arabia. At that time, Riyadh was more concerned with limiting Iran’s regional influence and presenting Iran as a sectarian phenomenon. Saudi Arabia had some success with this approach, but it had to deal with increasing challenges at the same time.
On the regional level, the confrontation between Iran and its allies with Saudi Arabia has engulfed all of the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain have been the main scenes of this clash of strategies. For a while, the existence of these battlegrounds prevented the emergence of any direct confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh. Moreover, while the strategic and ideological clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia continued, two new variables were introduced in the past year in regional equations.
The first variable is the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which showed that the international community changed its approach toward the Islamic Republic. Although this change does not mean that the international community is in agreement with Iran’s regional policies, it nonetheless foresees a future for the Middle East in which Iran plays a role as a regional power. The United States and the European Union’s insistence on Iran being present at the Syria peace talks in Vienna is a sign that the predicted future is approaching. The other variable is Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which changed the balance of the conflict in favor of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Both of these variables clashed with Riyadh’s regional policies. Moreover, in addition, political and on-the-ground developments in 2015 did not proceed as expected by Riyadh. Iran’s participation in the Syria peace talks, the Syrian army’s advancement against Saudi-supported forces and the restarting of Yemen peace talks in Geneva in accordance with the balance of power on the ground were all developments that were not welcomed by Riyadh.
As far as Iran is concerned, however, the strategic atmosphere of the region changed for the better. The JCPOA unfettered Iran’s economic and political potentials. In the prevalent regional zero-sum game, political and battlefield developments in Syria and Yemen, as well as the advancement of Iraqi forces against the Islamic State, were viewed as gains for Iran and losses for its regional rivals. Therefore, the political developments in the region, when it comes to strategic and ideological conflicts, have resulted in relative satisfaction on Tehran’s part and dissatisfaction on Riyadh’s part. The latter has been the case to the extent that one can even talk of Riyadh’s strategic desperation in the said areas of conflict. This desperation becomes evident if one considers the way Saudi Arabia reacted to the JCPOA and its dissatisfaction with the Syria and Yemen peace talks held in Vienna and Geneva, respectively.
In an atmosphere of strategic rivalry, the challenged party has two options: compromise or orchestrate a crisis in order to change the undesired environment. Compromise occurs when the challenged player loses its ability to continue the rivalry and also when the subject and the area of conflict do not pose a threat to its existence. Saudi Arabia, however, does not fit into either of these scenarios; it has a good potential for continuing its rivalry with Iran — and even expanding it. More important, losing this strategic battle can have security and existential implications for the Saudi regime. Therefore, it is predictable that changing the atmosphere of its strategic competition with Iran is a priority for the Saudi regime.
During the past two years, there have been numerous international attempts to put the geostrategic conflicts in the Middle East back within a political framework. The Yemen and Syria peace talks are examples of such efforts, and also of how the latter has somewhat muted the sectarian aspects of regional rivalries. Desectarianizing the conflict is beneficial for Iran and Shiite communities in the region, because it helps them come out of the ideological-strategic isolation that they have been pushed into by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, developments since the emergence of the Arab Spring have demonstrated that sectarian ideological conflicts have made Iran and its allies vulnerable. Therefore, intensification of this aspect of the conflict and dragging Iran into it has the potential of changing the strategic atmosphere of the region. In such circumstances, the execution of peaceful Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr predictably led to the start of a crisis, and in spite of attempts at controlling it, a cut in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Unlike Riyadh, which is strategically desperate and wants the regional atmosphere to change, Tehran is satisfied with the current trend in the region. Iranian strategists have decided to use their regional and international relations to defuse the pressures coming from Riyadh. Indeed, unlike for Saudi Arabia, continuation of the status quo is a desired strategy for Iran. This is why there was a consensus among the ruling Iranian political elite in opposing the attack on the Saudi Embassy. From a strategic point of view, the embassy attack was indeed a stupid and juvenile reaction that forced Iran into a setting predesigned by Saudi Arabia. This is why the Iranian administration strongly rejected it. Saudi Arabia, however, broke diplomatic relations with Iran as a result.
For now, the crisis over the embassy attack has subsided and it has not had any major strategic consequences. However, we are likely to witness similar developments in the future. Saudi Arabia is discontent with the regional situation and has a substantial potential to wreak havoc, as has been showcased in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The crisis over the execution of Nimr and the shutting down of the Saudi Embassy shows that Riyadh is willing to use strategic surprises in order to change the atmosphere of the region.
Under these circumstances, certain media personalities who have connections to the Saudi monarch’s inner circle have discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia going to war with Iran. In this vein, we should be ready for more surprises. Although Iran has been relatively successful in controlling the crisis that emerged following the embassy attack, it might not be possible to manage the next crisis. Considering the current situation, the major powers, and especially those who have the ability to affect the decision-making process in Riyadh, have an important role to play. Giving the Saudi strategists a free hand in dealing with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Yemen and Syria has proven to be disastrous. Is another great disaster on the way, or will Riyadh be contained?
Are this week’s Geneva talks on Syria doomed to fail?
Mustafa al-Haj/Al-Monitor/January 25/16
DAMASCUS, Syria — There is no glimmer of hope for a solution to the Syrian crisis, even with the Geneva III peace talks planned for Jan. 25 between delegations of the regime and the opposition. As if the process weren’t fragile enough, Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) political leader Mohammed Alloush was named chief negotiator for the opposition. The Russian and the Syrian governments consider the Army of Islam a terrorist organization.
Two years ago, the Geneva II Conference did not bring anything new to the table in terms of reaching a solution. The government’s delegation refused to even discuss the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad would step down and a transitional governing body would be formed. Instead, the delegation focused only on combating terrorism — a topic the regime uses to evade other subjects. The opposition and regime delegations did discuss humanitarian issues and the provision of aid to the besieged areas, but the only ensuing agreement that was ever implemented was the Madaya-Kefraya al-Fua Agreement — and action on that came only recently.
This is the general climate prevailing in Damascus regarding the third Geneva conference amid intensified international efforts to ensure the conference is held on schedule.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, and the US State Department stressed the need for both sides to head to Geneva without setting preconditions for the peace talks, such as a cease-fire, providing humanitarian aid to the besieged regions, the need for another opposition delegation or the regime’s refusal to allow representatives of armed factions in the delegation. Yet what is happening on the ground does not reflect de Mistura’s request at all. The peace talks are linked to the execution of UN conventions.
Russia had proposed creating a mixed delegation of representatives of various Syrian opposition factions to be composed of the delegation emanating from the Syria Supreme Commission for Negotiations formed at the Riyadh Conference last month and the delegation determined by Russia.
However, Moscow abandoned that proposal following a Jan. 15 meeting between Gennady M. Gatilov, Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and his US counterpart, where they stressed the need for a third delegation whose members did not participate in the Riyadh conference.
This third delegation would be composed of Syrian opposition members favored by Russia. It would have the same number of members, vested with the same powers, as the Riyadh delegation in the hopes that this conference would not fail like Geneva II, where the opposition delegation was limited to members of the Syrian Coalition.
Media outlets, such as the website all4syria.info, published Jan. 15 the names of the 15 members of the delegation proposed by Moscow, including Qadri Jamil, head of the People’s Will Party residing in Russia; Haytham Manna, head of the Qamh Movement; Randa Kassis, leader of the Movement for a Pluralistic Society; Amina Ossi, deputy foreign minister of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria; Samir Aita, head of the Democratic Platform; and Rim Turkmani, the president of the Madani organization. Turkmani, however, refused to participate.
Turkmani told Al-Monitor, “I completely reject the idea of having two opposition delegations. I refuse to participate in such an assortment. My name was included in these lists to divert attention from the names of other members who are more influential in terms of negotiation. … I have no influence over forces and parties on the ground. To make this clear, I sent a letter to the UN envoy and to the Russians clarifying my desire to stay away from this polarization.”
She told Al-Monitor that the civil society sector should also be represented at the negotiations as an unaffiliated observer.
In line with Turkmani’s position, Aita told all4Syria.info on Jan. 20 that he refuses to be part of an opposition delegation negotiating against another opposition delegation, preferring to avoid any new conflict among the factions. He also cited rumors about the possibility of a fourth delegation representing the civil society sector.
It should be noted that the Supreme Commission refuses the idea of a third delegation and calls on Assad’s regime to take actions proving its good intentions. These actions include implementing the articles of Resolution No. 2254, which was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on Dec. 18 and calls for achieving a cease-fire, lifting the siege on Syrian cities and allowing access to humanitarian aid.
Riad Hijab, head of the Supreme Commission and former Syrian prime minister, said at a press conference Jan. 21 in Riyadh, “We cannot negotiate while our people starve to death and suffer shelling by internationally prohibited weapons.”
He added, “We do not want to repeat the 2014 negotiations, which lasted for two weeks, following which the regime refused to negotiate on the political transition clause. Now we focus on a clear agenda for the negotiations based on political transition, and we will only go to Geneva if the negotiations are genuine.”
The Supreme Commission announced Jan. 20 the list of members of the opposition delegation heading to Geneva. Asaad al-Zoghbi, a defected brigadier general of Assad’s regime, was appointed head of the delegation. Alloush, the representative of Jaish al-Islam, was named chief negotiator, which adds to the obstacles hindering the conference.
The Syrian news agency SANA reported Jan. 20 that Russia rejects allowing armed opposition factions to be represented at the Geneva conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that day, in a press conference following his meeting with his US counterpart John Kerry in Zurich, “We still believe the Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham movements are terrorist organizations. Jaish al-Islam has bombed residential areas in Damascus more than once.”
A Syrian diplomatic source told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, “The Syrian government is serious in its quest to find political solutions to the crisis, but this cannot be disassociated from its determination to fight terrorism. We cannot negotiate with terrorists.”
Disagreements on the upcoming peace talks are not limited to disputes over the makeup of the opposition delegation. Internal disagreements within the Supreme Commission emerged Jan. 5 following the resignation of one of its most prominent members, Louay Hussein, president of the Building the Syrian State political movement, which seeks a democratic civil state in Syria.
Hussein spoke to Al-Monitor about his resignation. “The commission was formed on the basis of partisan quotas rather than through direct election of the members by the Riyadh conference. Each group chose its members in accordance with its special interests. This weakened the Supreme Commission, and my powers in this commission were significantly undermined. Mr. Riad Hijab, the commission coordinator, is issuing statements without referring to us,” he said.
Hussein tacitly voiced his objection to a statement by Hijab in which Hijab expressed condolences to Jaish al-Islam for the killing of its commander, Zahran Alloush.
Regarding the existence of a third opposition delegation, Hussein said, “The opposition should not be represented by two delegations. This will turn [the peace talks] into meetings for the exchange of views and positions.”
He stressed that the regime’s progress in Syria following the intervention of Russian forces affects the overall political process and not only the negotiations, because expectations have long been based on the balance of military forces.
Some opposition forces in Syria denounced their exclusion from the Geneva negotiations. Mahmoud Marai, head of the National Democratic Action Commission, told Al-Monitor, “Geneva II was held with the participation of the National Syrian Coalition only and it was a failure. Any meeting that excludes the various spectra of the opposition inside Syria is bound to fail.”
Majd Niazi, secretary-general of the Syria Homeland Party, denounced the composition of the opposition delegation and mocked it on her Facebook page Jan. 21. Niazi posted, “The chief negotiator of the delegation of the Syrian opposition abroad is Sheikh Mohammad Alloush (may God protect him) and he is a member of the political body of Jaish al-Islam. He will work hard (God willing) to turn Syria into the civil, secular, pluralistic and democratic state we dream of.”
These developments unfold as de Mistura announced that the negotiations may not be starting on schedule on Jan. 25. However, his office is proceeding as if they will and started to make hotel reservations for delegation members