A New Levant: a possible way through in the Syrian crisis

War is not the only solution. Iranian flexibility and political creativity in Syria, and Saudi flexibility as well as political creativity in Iraq, could offer a way through.

The “civil war” appears to have reached a stalemate. Up until now winner-take-all has dominated the discourse, with calls for total military and political triumph by all sides. There now seems to be a greater sense of realism, with recognition that there have been war crimes by both government and rebel forces. Whilst the international dimension will be critical, future power brokers may well have to address the regional mutations under way. Tragically, the violence in Syria has been fuelled right from the beginning by the regional geopolitical rivalries.

The Syrian crisis did not begin in 2011 and it did not begin in Syria.  It was and is a way to avoid a frontal conflict between the two continental Islamic shelves, Shiism and Sunnism, which may well clash in a third chess game, the previous ones having been in Afghanistan and Central Asia over the last 30 years. Egypt, Qatar and Turkey have emerged as the powerful Sunni axis of influence with Shiite Iran attempting to counter this influence in its alliance with Hezbollah and failing Syria. The most powerful political rivalry currently being fought out in a proxy war in Syria, is between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Today’s Syria was invented by the colonial powers and is the fruit of the Sykes Picot 1916 agreement, and of WW1 which effectively at the time divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of future British and French control or influence. A century later, things are looking different. Not only is the architecture of the Cold War removed, but the Levant over the last 50 years or so has seen a decline in the influence of major outside powers and an increased activism of the Gulf States. Whilst Russia and the US are still influential, the key dynamic is the rivalry been Iran and Saudi Arabia which appears to be defining the future shape of the region.

Part of the shift in the regional dynamic has been as a result of the strengthening of Iran’s influence in Iraq, not least as a result of the contribution western governments played in deposing the secular government in Iraq in 2003. The war of the last decade in Iraq opened the door to the return of the Shiites to power in Iraq after five centuries, connecting the country back to the historical moment  in 1534 when the Ottoman Suleiman the first conquered Mesopotamia and ended the leadership of the Shiites over Baghdad.

The nation state of Iraq as devised by Gertrude Bell - the writer and explorer who mapped out the boundaries of Iraq in 1920 - is no more. One of the features of colonialism was colonial power support for the leadership of minorities: this is no longer acceptable. It may now involve the redrawing of the political architecture of the Levant, a drafting which would now be written not by the early colonialists but by the inhabitants of the region.

The relationship between Tehran and the new Baghdad, are destined to be different from those between the two capitals in the time of Saddam, with a much closer link between Iran and Iraq in the future. This change will not be acceptable to the Saudis, but war is not the only solution. Iranian flexibility and political creativity in Syria, and Saudi flexibility as well as political creativity in Iraq, could offer a way through without further conflict. Recognising the regional power play between Saudi Arabia and Iran is more likely to put an end to a Syrian civil war than any military option.

If the Syrian fighting continues to fester it could become another chapter of the conflict which has evolved over the last 30 years, but further east.  Once the violence escalates, communities which previously lived together with their religious and cultural differences, become defined by these identities and see it as a point of conflict. But if this Syrian/ Iraq redistribution of power can be achieved peaceably, it will require political structures that are inclusive of a genuine participation of minority groups.

A new modus vivendi may need to be established in which Shiism would have to relinquish its dominance in Syria in exchange for its dominance in Iraq. An accommodation will have to be found in which there is genuine participation for minority groups in each country: whilst in Iraq, the Shiite management will have to find a modus vivendi with the Sunni minority and the Shiite minority with Sunni dominance in Syria. In both cases the Kurdistan region may require a new vision by all.

Quiet behind the scenes mediation by credible mediators will be required to engage both Iran and Saudi Arabia to prepare the ground for what an end of conflict could look like. A second negotiating table could include a local Syrian formula for government and the opposition; and an international minilateral table that included Russia, US and China will all have a role of supporting the creation of a new architecture.

Those involved in mediation would need to encourage a different kind of culture, in which the inevitable regional changes are not brought about by hostility and body bags, but a model that recognizes the ‘main objective’: namely to avoid a major confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran. The real ultimate objective is to avoid chess game number three, that is a major clash of Sunnis and Shiism along the Tigris and the Euphrates. Whether President Assad stays or remains needs not to be a precondition but rather a result of the negotiations, one outcome of an agreement by the parties.

The war in Syria is not a national civil war but rather another manifestation of the changing  architecture of the region. Attempts at mediation which do not recognize this reality are unlikely to have sustainable results. The Levant is the only region worldwide to have retained the same architecture of post WW1.

Radical though it may seem, a new architecture for the Levant needs to emerge that is not rooted in identities which “need to kill” in order to exist.  But they will have to find ways to live with religious and cultural differences, thus becoming a harbinger for the construction of a new region. Such efforts are more likely be successful if pursued by those who are familiar with the national  and ‘individual’ narratives  of the region and not just the ‘realpolitik’ of an architecture which is no more.  

About the authors

Giandomenico Picco is a consultant to the Oxford Research Group and is co-authoring with Gabrielle Rifkind, The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Peace-making to be published in 2013.

Gabrielle Rifkind, is the Director of the Middle East Programme at the Oxford Research Group.