Monday, July 30, 2012

Calling 'bad boy' to do good deed

Different foreign policy wonks have been tossing back and forth the question of whether to ask Iran to use its tremendous leverage in Syria to find a political solution to the 16-month crisis there that has now left more than 20,000 Syrians dead.

Vali Nasr, former assistant to late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, has an op-ed in the New York Times, where he claims that the Western and Arab strategy to focus on toppling Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad takes that country down the slippery slope. In his view, Iran is the most significant actor in this game, which major powers ignore. Given the fact that any indulgence granted to demands of Iran has reapead a horrible harvest in the past few years, it is legitimate to ask why Tehran could possibly play a constructive role in the Syrian crisis. The article is fascinating because hardly anything claimed in the piece is theoretically wrong.

Iran is an unreliable and unpredictable country -- it takes extra caution and patience to work with this country. History shows that it would be a mistake to bet on Iran's words and pledges. Working with Iran in difficult cases such as Syria is a sure path to a room full of trouble. For years, the Western countries have worked tooth and nail to move Syria out of Iran's orbit and accused the Islamic republic of aligning with Syria in a bid to extend its influence to the eastern Mediterranean. How could now Western nations ask Iran to play a constructive role in Syria when it believes that Iran should have no business in the country? In addition, Iran blatantly backed Assad and gave no sign that it would agree to a Sunni-dominated government once the Syrian president steps down.

In Nasr's article, few of these concerns are mentioned or addressed adequately. Nasr claims that with or without Assad as its leader, Syria now has all the makings of a grim and drawn-out civil war. He argues that the United States and its allies must enlist the cooperation of Assad’s allies — Russia and, especially, Iran  — to find a power-sharing arrangement for a post-Assad Syria that all sides can support, however difficult that may be to achieve. In his view, involving Iran in any resolution to the conflict could throw Tehran a lifeline, but repercussions of prolonged conflict in Syria would have devastating consequences for both Syria and its vicinity. He then goes on in length to explain how powerful Assad's "killing machine" is and how it carries the risk of becoming another Lebanon. Nasr contends that the West has already bungled its attempt to topple Assad and he says the Western strategy of supporting opposition to oust the Syrian president is a wrong goal.

To find a way out of this impasse, Nasr offers a transition plan that includes most importantly Iran and Turkey, which he says has a military muscle to influence the conflict. According to Nasr, Iran will join in the bargain because it is not sure what will follow Assad if he exits.

Syria is a battleground between Sunni majority, backed by US allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Alawite minority, supported by Hezbollah and Iran rather than a fight for democracy. Why would Turkey or Iran agree to such a transition plan when each side believes that it is winning the war? Iran seems unwavering in its support and its foreign minister said this week that such a plan is nothing but "an illusion." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan already said twice last week that rebels in Syria are putting final touches to the revolution.

Theoretically, Nasr is correct. Underlying this strategy is the view that a country, especially one which could use its political weight to shift troubling trend in another country, will most likely agree to a midway formula with which everyone would win.
But realities on the ground make it impossible to work with Iran for a peaceful solution in Syria due to regional bickering and too much antagonism between the U.S. and Iran. Besides, it is hard to imagine that Syrian rebels will agree to any role Iran would play in Syria's transitional government.

Nasr's article would make more sense if he wrote this last summer and replaced words "Iran" with "Turkey," which had enormous influence on both Syrian opposition and the Assad regime but abandoned it for reasons still can't make me sleep well.

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