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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