First Fruit of Iran Deal: Assad Getting a Break?

Will the US or its traditional allies drag Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in from the cold along with Iran? Recent reports rounded up by the AP suggest that may be the case—with potentially explosive results in the region:

— In the wake of mediation by Assad’s Russian patrons, a quiet, ice-breaking meeting took place in Riyadh in late July between Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s powerful National Security Bureau, and Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defense minister. That represented a significant shift and an opening of channels between two countries that have become arch foes in Syria’s conflict. Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf states has been a key backer of rebels fighting to topple Assad.

— Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem flew Thursday to Oman after a two-day visit to Tehran, amid unconfirmed reports in pro-Assad media outlets that the Omani government was trying to broker a meeting of the foreign ministers of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

— Iran has said it is preparing to submit a four-point peace plan proposal for Syria to the United Nations. According to some reports, it includes a “national unity government.” That is code for allowing Assad a face-saving period in which he shares power — and elections under international supervision. But it would also bring some prominence to the otherwise marginalized relative moderates who have failed to dislodge Assad militarily.

As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out in these pages and in Congressional testimony recently, the Iran deal sets the Administration up to do one of two things in the Middle East. Either it can confront Iran’s expansionism now that the nuclear threat is, as the White House would argue, off the table, or it can reconcile with an increasing Iranian hegemony in the region. The first would take a great deal of diplomatic finesse to pull off while keeping the nuke deal intact. The second seems easier, but could help fuel an increased Sunni-Shi’a sectarian war in the medium-to-long-term, as well as pose grave threats to U.S. national interests in the Gulf.

Syrian diplomacy can be a bit opaque. Recent U.S.-Russian meetings, for instance, have hinted at some sort of post-Assad Syrian rapproachement between the two powers, and the Gulf Sunni monarchies seem to be hedging their bets in the wake of the nuclear deal. But if Assad stays in any form—and both he, the Russians, and the Iranians seem loath to accept any other solution—and is accepted by the outside powers, it will be taken as a clear sign of an assent to Shi’a hegemony, with all the dangerous reactions from the Sunni that would entail.

For U.S. Senators and Congressmen voting on the deal, meanwhile, this bears close watching. Even within the short span of sixty days, it may be that by this deal’s fruits, ye may start to know it.

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