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Middle East Mess
Endgame for Assad?

The Guardian has an important story out which has some interesting details about the alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia which we noted earlier this month was notably boosting the fortunes of Syria’s rebels in their war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The story starts out with reports of rebel commanders suddenly finding themselves awash with weapons, and then proceeds to the diplomatic backstory:

The agreement had been secured by Saudi Arabia, which had resolved to do all it could to end the Bashar al-Assad regime and, more important, to quash the ambitions of Assad’s main backer, Iran, to control the course of the war. It signified a new phase in an age-old tussle between regional rivals for power and influence that was to have profound ramifications for the way the war in Syria, and proxy standoffs elsewhere in the Middle East, were to be fought.

In early March, senior regional figures had been summoned to Riyadh by the newly crowned King Salman to hear his plans for the region. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was one of the first to arrive. Qatari officials and Gulf Co-operation Council leaders soon followed.

His message was threefold: first, there was to be no more division along regional lines, which had seen the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned governments of Turkey and Qatar pour support into allied Syrian groups, while Saudi focused on more mainstream outfits. Second, Riyadh would agree to send gamechanging weaponry to northern Syria in return for guarantees of coordination and discipline. And, finally, the US would not stand in the way. “Quite frankly,” a Saudi official told the Observer, “it would not have bothered us if they had tried to.”

Within weeks, the new push had paid clear dividends. Armed with dozens of guided TOW anti-tank missiles, which could take out regime armour from several miles away, opposition groups – among them al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is proscribed by the US as a terror group and has long been viewed warily by Riyadh – started advancing into towns and cities that they had not dared to attack until then.

This really could be a gamechanger. The big winner will likely be Al Qaeda, and the biggest loser, beyond Assad, is  likely to be the United States and the Western world. The abject failure of American Syria policy has ended by driving Sunnis throughout the region, from heads of state to people on the street into a much closer relationship with the bad guys—something it ought to have been our prime mission to avoid.

“Before the Islamic State came along, we were the animals of the Shias,” said a surgeon speaking from the Isis-controlled Iraqi city of Fallujah. “No matter what we said or believed, we were treated as Isis anyway,” he said of the Shia-led government. “Well, we may as well be with them, because the government will never come to help. They have more power and authority than Baghdad has had since Saddam.”

However, this is all far from over. More shoes will doubtless drop. The enemy gets a vote, and Iran will be looking for ways to protect its clients—Hezbollah as well as Assad. And oddly enough, this could also make a nuclear deal with Iran more likely: the lifting of sanctions and the attendant boost to Iran’s economy would be just what Tehran needs as it scrambles to deploy new resources into the Syrian war.

It’s an excellent, wide-seeing article, that hits many of the themes we’ve been writing about on these pages. It’s well worth your time.

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  • Ellen

    Thanks for keeping us up-to-date. Now, will someone please explain to me how Obama’s policies in the Middle East conform to his famous motto: “Don’t do stupid stuff!” Virtually every policy he has promoted from day one has turned out to be not just stupid, but downright disastrous.

    Whatever happened to all those professors and intellectuals in the WDC foreign policy establishment who swore that Obama would raise America’s status in the world because of his understanding of how to use “smart” power. Where is the ‘smart’ part, and where is the ‘power’ part? I don’t see either.

    • theresanursemom

      All the professors and intellectuals theorizing has amounted to little more than mental masturbation in this case, and many others as well…

    • GS

      Actually, that might be the best possible outcome there: let the shia akbar the sunnis, and let the sunnis akbar the shias. What’s not to like? And the more bad guys could be pushed into that quicksand and stuck there, the better.

      • JR

        My point exactly. As long as this doesn’t affect oil prices, Islamic countries descending into a long bloody intra-religious civil war of sect vs. sect is the best thing that can happen.

  • Mike

    Doesn’t the US lose regardless of the winner? If the Sunnis win, ISIS wins. If Assad wins, Iran wins- and are already rewarded with a shiny new nuke weapons blessing from the US. If the US had stayed in Iraq and Afghanistan and had been proactive, none of this would be happening. But oh well….

    • JR

      To me, this is just the latest iteration of the Sunni-Shiite intra-Islam blood feud that has been going on for the past 1400 years. As long as the oil prices remain low, a bloody stalemate with useless excess populations blowing themselves up is in US interests.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Captains should study Tactics, But Generals MUST study Logistics” Most of warfare is dependent on resources. Over a year ago ISIS was getting most of its resources from the so called moderates which were being supplied by the west. Then last summer they started taking Iraqi territory and capturing resources from those stored there, in particular Iraqi arms and bank reserves. But they burned through those in less than a year, and were being pushed back until the recent infusion of resources which are clearly coming from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Now they have taken Ramadi and gotten another shot in the arm for a few months and if the supplies coming from Saudi Arabia and Turkey continue the lines may stabilize for awhile in an equilibrium of resources.
    I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think America and the West should stay out of this conflict, even encourage it as Jihadists killing Jihadists is the Ideal solution for the West. This strategy wouldn’t cost the West any blood or treasure, and in fact by selling arms to the losing side of the moment, could be kept hot and bitter for a very long time. Jihadists using all their resources to kill each other, would have nothing left to support the murder of innocents in the West.

    • Ellen

      In principal, I agree that the US should stay out, generally. But the greater enemy here is Iran, not ISIS or Nusra. Iran has ambitions for a hegemonic empire in the entire region, and is the biggest promoter of terrorism in the world. It has instigated effectively 4 civil wars in the Levant which is causing more death and destruction than all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. The jihadis will defeat the Iranian empire by bleeding it to death slowly, as they are doing already in Syria and Iraq. Iran cannot fight a war of attrition against a Sunni underclass that will fight to the bitter end because they have already lost everything.

      Once the Iranian Shiite empire is destroyed, the jihadis will destroy themselves through internecine warfare and inability to run a modern state (see Gaza with Hamas for exhibit A).

      The end result of all of this is that the Arabs and the Iranians are destroyed as useful countries and as powers. Who comes out on top? Three parties: Israel, Turkey and the Kurds. All are (or could be again) American allies and viable powers with political elites that actually represent the people they rule over. That is the long-term positive outcome. But before that is achieved, the twin axes of evil – Sunni and Shiite – will have to destroy each other in a war to determine which side is favored by Allah. The answer is neither.

      • Dan Greene

        “Iran has ambitions for a hegemonic empire in the entire region, and is the biggest promoter of terrorism in the world.”

        Proof? We are the ones who are in effect supporting AQ affiliates in Yemen and Syria. Have to laugh at your notion that Iran is a bigger threat than ISIS because it is the “biggest promoter of terrorism in the world.” ISIS just executed over 200 including many civilians in Palmyra, fairly typical behavior for it, but Iran is the “biggest promoter of terrorism in the world?!” I want whatever it is you are smoking.

        What “Iranian Shiite empire” are you talking about? There is no empire. There is a Shia-led government in Iraq that is the product of OUR overthrow of Saddam. There is an Alawite-dominated government in Syria that established itself in 1966 completely independently of Iran. There is Hezbollah that emerged to force an end to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and to assert Shia rights in a Lebanese constitutional environment that had historically disfavored them. There is an oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia and an oppressed Shia majority in Bahrain. In Yemen, there is an insurgency of Zaidi Shia–doctrinally closer to the Sunnis in key ways than to the Iranian Twelvers–that originated 15 years ago with no ties to Iran at all though now evidently with some support from Iran.

        It’s certainly true that Iran has strategic alliances with Syria and Hezbollah and significant influence in Iraq (mostly because of Sunni hostility to Shia empowerment.) But how does this inchoate mess amount to an “Iranian Shiite empire?”

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