Losing the Middle East to Iran (and Russia)
On Tuesday, the BBC opened its news with an account of Syria's expanding offensive against Yabrud, a key rebel stronghold near the Lebanon border. If it falls, a major supply line for those seeking the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship will be cut. The Sunni rebels are already short on ammunition and lack the heavy weapons needed to combat the regime's tanks and aircraft. The Geneva 2 talks which Western diplomats had hoped would lead to a political settlement (without much confidence, but even less enthusiasm for doing anything more) collapsed February 15. No Geneva 3 is in the offering. As long as Assad feels he is winning the war, he sees no need to step down in favor of an interim government that could hold elections favoring the Sunni majority.
Assad is emboldened thanks to allies who are actually willing to act on his behalf. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted on Feb. 17, “The regime stonewalled. They did nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country. And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hizb’allah and from Russia.” Kerry may regret that Assad has such outside support, but he cannot be surprised, since it has existed from the start of the uprising. Syria was for a long time Iran's only ally in the region, ruled as it is by a minority sect associated with the Shia denomination of Islam of which the theocrats in Tehran consider themselves to be the leaders.
The nature of the Sunni-Shia conflict, which goes back to a dispute over who should be the successor to Muhammad, continues to elude many. It is constantly said that Assad is killing his own people in Syria, but that is not how the Shia see it. Sunnis are not their people but heretics. Genocide is part of jihad. As the Economist reported, "Mr Assad’s strategy seems to be to take back control of territory by the simple expedient of clearing it of the people who live there."
Iran has gained a new ally in the capital of an old enemy: Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the U.S. foolishly allowed to take power even while it still had over 100,000 troops in the country, is a Shiite. During his exile when Saddam Hussein ruled, Maliki lived in Syria and Iran. He was eager for American forces to leave in 2011 and refused to allow a residual force to remain. Washington had promised the Sunnis in Iraq that they would get a fair deal under democracy. This pledge was key to the internal peace gained during the military surge. As soon as the last U.S. troops were gone, Maliki purged Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled to Turkey to avoid a death sentence. Maliki then unleashed his thugs on the rest of the Sunni community, reigniting the Iraq civil war, which is running parallel to the one in Syria.
On Feb. 24, Reuters reported that Iraq was buying weapons and ammunition from Iran to use against its internal enemies. A spokesman for Maliki was quoted, "We are launching a war against terrorism and we want to win this war. Nothing prevents us from buying arms and ammunition from any party and it's only ammunition helping us to fight terrorists." By terrorists he meant all Sunnis, not just al-Qaeda, which has been attracted by the new wave of violence. And Maliki is not just using arms from Tehran; Hizb’allah fighters and Iranian special operators have been present in Iraq for years.
The failure of the West to confront Iran has provided radical Islamic groups an opening. Sunnis who are fighting for their survival will naturally be drawn towards those who are willing to fight at their side. Those who cower on the sidelines are not going to be respected. If democracy is seen as the doctrine of cowards and losers, it will not embraced by anyone who wants (needs) to be successful. Bing West argued that the U.S. won the Iraq campaign by proving it was "the strongest tribe." That is no longer how America is perceived.
The flimsy arms control talks with Syria over chemical weapons and Iran over its nuclear program have been used to paralyze direct action by the West. Iran wants nukes to deter U.S. intervention, but has managed to get that outcome even before it has completed its development program. The U.S. is lifting sanctions just when Iran is under the most pressure at home and abroad. The chemical weapons agreement with Syria was the best outcome the Obama administration could get with a Congress poised to deny the use of force against Assad. The use of chemicals was only a pretext for air strikes to reverse Assad's momentum that had been building over the summer as Iran and Hizb’allah increased their direct participation in the civil war. That opportunity to act has passed and it will be much more difficult to turn the tide of battle now.
Last week, intelligence chiefs from the 11-nation Friends of Syria coalition (Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, UK, U.S.) met in Washington. They concluded that further diplomacy is useless until Assad loses his military advantage. They reportedly called for an increased effort to aid the Free Syrian Army, including the provision of heavy weapons. President Obama would have to approve such an escalation. Yet, with the U.S. Army about to be cut to a smaller force than existed prior to 9/11, the administration does not look as if it's thinking about a new confrontation in the Middle East.
On paper, the Friends of Syria represent a coalition far stronger than the Russia-Iran axis. Yet, on the ground, it is literally no contest. The Friends are overmatched in force of will.
The fallout of a U.S. collapse in the Middle East will be felt elsewhere, and very soon. One reason Moscow has been so strong in its support for the Assad regime is the Syrian naval base at Tartus. It is the only Russian military facility outside the former Soviet Union and provides a presence in the Mediterranean. Another Russian naval base is at stake in Ukraine: Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea fleet. How far President Vladimir Putin will go to protect Sebastopol and the ethnic Russian population in the Crimea depends on what kind of reaction he expects from the West. Putin doesn't see much to concern him at the moment. If Washington has been afraid to confront Iran or even exploit an opportunity as ripe at the Syrian civil war, then it will be unlikely to challenge the ambitions of a resurgent Russia -- or so the Kremlin and others around the world (especially in Beijing) are being led to believe by Washington's passivity.