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Opinion: Another Year of the Syrian Conflict | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Syria. Assad has made a rare visit to the frontline spending New Year’s Eve with his troops […]

We are entering a new year bearing unresolved regional wars, such as the Syrian crisis which is threatening to engulf the entire region. The reason that this conflict endures is not due to the struggle between the two Syrian parties—the opposition and the government—but the struggle between different Middle Eastern states. If the Iranians succeed in keeping Bashar Al-Assad at the helm of the Syrian regime, they will have succeeded in taking de facto control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Syria is the key to Iraq’s national security. Therefore, if Assad remains in power Iran will have succeeded in imposing its presence over the entire Gulf region. While it is only natural for the United States to recognize the new regional reality which may change the old balance of powers—a balance which lasted for decades.

What’s most interesting is that Iran’s victory will not have been achieved via military battles on the ground but rather through political maneuvers. Iranian ally Bashar Al-Assad has been under siege in the Syrian capital Damascus for over two years—he is in control of just one third of Syrian territory. As for Iraq, the central government is weak and reliant on foreign and domestic support.

So how did Iran secure a political victory where it had failed militarily? It did so as a result of two canny diplomatic maneuvers. First, Tehran convinced the West that it can confront insurgent groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that Iranian soldiers have fought on the same side as American troops. Tehran also carried out airstrikes on ISIS positions and deployed military experts on the ground in Syria and Iraq. However, we must also acknowledge that Iran was only able to do all this thanks to Gulf reluctance and Egyptian absence.

The second diplomatic maneuver saw Iran convince Arab states that have no involvement in the Syrian dispute, like Egypt, that this could be resolved politically. In reality, this represented a defeat for the Gulf states in their confrontation with the Iranian regime over Syria. The Russians also played their part by helping the Iranians promote the idea of establishing a new government that includes opposition figures, but with Assad remaining as president. Practically speaking, this is nothing more than a superficial change, with the regime remaining the same.

Egypt initially remained distant from the Syrian crisis because it was preoccupied with its own revolution. Egypt, since the beginning, has adopted a negative stance towards the events in Syria. This was true during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and under the presidency of Mohamed Mursi and it remains the case under the current administration of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. While the Syrian regime has tried to appeal to the sentiment of the Egyptian people for years, putting forward the false narrative that what is happening is part of a broader conspiracy against Arab armies and seeking to engage with the Egyptian people’s pride in their armed forces. However, as we all know, there is a big difference between the Egyptian and Syrian military institutions. The Syrian military is governed by a minority sect which uses Syria’s military and security forces to serve its own interests.

The Egyptians don’t view Iran as a direct threat except in terms of the changing balance of regional influence and interests. I am confident that if the Mubarak regime was still in power, Cairo would have adopted a far tougher stance to eliminate Assad and support the Syrian revolution. This is because it knew that Assad is the Iranian proxy that opposed Egypt in Gaza and the West Bank and also backed the Muslim Brotherhood. The current Egyptian government is either not paying sufficient attention to what is happening beyond its borders, or it doesn’t understand this, or it is reserving its responses to deal with what it perceives to be more immediate concerns, like its dispute with Turkey.

In my own opinion, any Syrian reconciliation based on keeping the same regime in power without making real concessions is a major mistake which will strengthen Iran, not just in Iraq but also in the entire Gulf region. This is something the United States will accept because it falls within its new vision of dealing with the Middle East, one based on neglecting its previous regional commitments.

I think that there can be no political solution that doesn’t put an end to Assad’s rule. The current situation on the ground will continue so long as Iran continues to support Assad. While we must also not forget that the Turks are providing support for some extremist armed groups, like the Al-Nusra Front. This is taking place in a manner that contravenes support for the Syrian civil opposition as represented by the Syrian National Coalition. The Turks will likely only change their position after it is already too late. This Turkish support of extremist groups only serves to promote Assad’s position and polish Iran’s position internationally. So, as we enter 2015, the Syrian crisis remains the most pressing one.