As the Syrian crisis continues its descent into a protracted civil war, a ‘political solution’ remains the professed preference of all actors, including the warring parties, if for often transparently tactical motivations. One of the major obstacles to acting on this ostensible consensus is the often underrated, or at least underreported fact that, unlike a military solution, a political process would require both parties to the conflict as well as their regional and international supporters and patrons to give up some of their declared and undeclared objectives. It means swallowing concessions that will be hard to stomach, and even harder to sell to the hardliners in each camp.
Given the motley multitude of groups passing for the Syrian Opposition, as well as the divergent interests of its regional and international sponsors, it remains something of a puzzle just what kind of compromise may fly without being shot down at short notice, be it by open veto or by tacitly boosting militant actors on the ground, by one or some of the actors in Washington, Istanbul, Riyadh, Doha and Cairo, currently home to the headquarters of the Syrian National Coalition. Conversely, for the Syrian regime, the matter is clear: the key is in Tehran.
The reason for this is not only or perhaps not even mainly Iranian economic and military support, but the fact that the Iranian and the Syrian leadership share the same ideological outlook of Anti-Imperialism, 3rd-Worldism, and Anti-Zionism. Syrian oppositionists with leftist leanings are quick (and mostly correct) to dismiss the ideological discourse of the regime as an entirely self-serving, deeply cynical tactics to justify its corrupt and brutal ways. Indeed, the point here is not to engage in guesswork about the extent to which individuals in the Syrian power structure actually believe in the pretend epic battle they profess to be fighting. What counts is that regime actors still have to rationalize, justify and communicate their strategies and decisions in the discursive frame of the ideological cause – within the power structure, and vis-à-vis what remains of their social base. If these decisions then also serve the ulterior motives of those who take them, and play to sectarian fears, so much for the better.
To be able to continue pretending that one is still struggling for the ideological cause, it is essential to retain power, or at least a share of power, that is decisive enough to make sure that the outward trappings of the struggle can be preserved as they were in the past -such as, using Palestinian, Lebanese and other proxies to do the actual fighting, and absorb its cost - and that no political force within Syria will (ever) be able to amass enough power to decisively change that orientation. Again, securing immunity from prosecution for war crimes and protecting privileges and illicit gains may be an important or even the most important motivation, but claims to defend the cause remain the decisive source of legitimation to hold on to power.
That obviously rules out anything resembling liberal democracy, let alone free elections which, as one Hosni Mubarak is said to have complained, come with the problem that the results can be difficult to predict. It may still leave a slim margin for a rigid and very much constrained power sharing solution that establishes an institutional power base for the opposition, while leaving the Assad regime – with or without Bashar – entrenched in a part of the state.
Admittedly, signing up to such a deal – calling it a ‘solution’ would appear preposterous - that re-legitimizes those who bear the overwhelming part of the responsibility for, by now and counting, 100,000 dead and three million displaced, would be ethically repulsive. But it would not be the first time and it won’t be the last that the only available option to stop a grueling war is to accommodate the warmongers, perhaps with some cosmetic withdrawals at the very top level which then allow whitewashing the rest. The only alternative would be to end the conflict militarily, along the lines of Libya, with a fair chance that much more substantial support to the rebels and significantly stronger international intervention will be needed. As it stands, and even if we dispense with the question of international law, there are no volunteers for either.
Still, such a deal would be a hard sell even to hardliners in Damascus who are accustomed to monopolize power and its spoils. They plausibly fear that even the most rigid arrangement is unlikely to hold for long once its rivals have a foot in the institutional door, and are continuously backed up by vast external resources, in particular from the Arab Gulf States.
Here is where the Iranian key comes in.
To Damascus, Iran is much more than a source of scattered imports, oil deliveries and die-hard basij militia fighters. Rather, Tehran today is where the ideological compass of the Syrian regime points, to some extent like what Moscow was for East Berlin before 1989. In addition, and while Bashar Al-Assad’s awkward public performances mislead observers to conclude otherwise, the Syrians are no fools. They know perfectly well that the Iranians do not support them out of the milk of human kindness, and not only for ideological considerations, but also for hard strategic interests which, in the current situation, largely converge. What is good for Tehran is, for now, good for Damascus. Hence, if the Iranians tell the Syrians that a certain arrangement may be of value, they will at least consider. Nobody else is in that position, not even Russia. The Syrian regime will go many an extra mile to avoid embarrassing Moscow, but if put on the spot to choose between losing Moscow and losing power, there is no question what the choice will be.
So what IS the Iranian strategic interest? Starkly put, the Iranian power elite sees itself in an existential struggle to defend the model of the Islamic Republic against a concerted onslaught waged by several international and regional actors – in particular the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – who all have their own reasons to not only push back Iranian influence, but to get rid of the current regime altogether. Radicals have already coined the formula that losing Damascus means losing Tehran, but even much more level-headed foreign policy experts in Iran fear that a serious setback in Damascus will set them on a slide, and that pushing against it with all might they can muster is the only option. They believe that giving in now will encourage their enemies to take them out.
That means three things:
One, that Iranian foreign policy will do EVERYTHING to avoid any semblance of defeat. They will keep the Assad system in power, at serious expense to themselves and the Iranian people (not even to mention the Syrian people), or at least prevent any development in Syria where the loss or collapse of Iranian influence becomes plain to see and impossible to deny.
Two, for their behavior to change, their strategic perceptions must change first. A process is needed that leads away from scenarios of open confrontation and regime change that influential actors in Tehran – and certainly, the most influential actor, Khamenei – are obsessed with. Clear and credible offers to solve the nuclear issue – which Tehran does not see as a separate file but as part of the same conflict configuration that drives the events in Syria – could work a long way to achieve this.
Three, a ‘grand bargain’ will most likely remain elusive, and searching for one may not just be a waste of time but counterproductive. Ideology, indeed fierce ideological struggles, is still the nuts and bolts of Iranian political discourse. Any grand bargain would inevitably imply compromise with substantial ideological consequences, something the Iranian political system is not equipped to process.
Rather, a series of ‘small bargains’ on some of the many issues where Iran is now, often in exaggerated terms, cast as the main problem, but might well be part of the solution (Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Maritime Security in the Gulf, regional strategic infrastructure projects such as pipelines) would help alter the zero-sum, win-lose perceptions that now inform decisions and strategies in Tehran. Changing the regional signals from confrontation to detente will also reassure the leadership in Damascus that going for a deal means preserving, not losing power. Such a deal may well include a withdrawal of Bashar Al-Assad or, perhaps more realistically, preventing him from running for reelection once his term expires in 2014. In contrast, setting this as a condition to start negotiations not only amounts to asking for the goods before a price has even been quoted, but also means demanding an open admission of defeat. It just won’t happen.
What should be clear, however, is that small bargains are not likely to yield big rewards in the short run. Liberal democracy in all of Syria is highly unlikely to be in the cards for the foreseeable future. Power sharing may very well end up organized on a territorial basis, in recognition of the effective control on the ground that is now being established by military means. Strong international bias against state dissolution makes it extremely unlikely that these developments will lead to a formal partition of the country, as suspected or feared by many, most importantly since there is no political project and no popular support for separation among the Syrians themselves. Still, Syrian citizens may end up living under several effective authorities, with varying degrees and types of authoritarian disposition. Foreign actors may try to boost forces pushing for more democratic options – such as the local structures of self-governance that now exist in the ‘liberated‘ regions, and some lone fighters in government controlled areas – and may even succeed in that to some degree. But it will be a steeply uphill struggle.
To repeat it once more, these are bleak prospects, they are nothing that anybody would want for Syria, and the Syrians who have paid such a high toll to get rid of a despicable dictatorship have the perfect right to reject such a deal. The alternative choice is to give the Syrian rebels the means to win the war, which may imply fighting the war with them. The fear is that Western and international diplomacy will continue to avoid any choice, providing the rebel with just enough support to avoid defeat, and humanitarian organizations with just enough means to keep the refugees from swamping the shores of Europe, while focusing their efforts on hedging the conflict rather than solving it. In the end, some years down the road, the outcome may well be the very same unpalatable solution sketched out above, only with an even more exorbitant human cost to the conflict, complete destruction of the social fabric, and even deeper sectarian and ethnic rifts in society.