The Syrian conflict has led to the failure of the Syrian state, which has had consequences for not only the Middle East, but a host of other nations with interests in Syria. This has prompted these states to intervene in the crisis in an effort to end the violence there.
Prominent international actors in the conflict include the US, Russia, Turkey, the European Union (EU), Saudi Arabia, and Iran. I will divide the policies of the aforementioned actors into two categories. These categories are determined by relative similarity between interests, policies, and goals. The first category will be the West, which includes the US and EU. The second will be termed the East for convenience, and includes Russia and Iran, as well as the beleaguered Syrian regime. It must be noted that some states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as other inter-governmental groups like the Gulf Cooperation Council, play a role in the Syrian conflict. However, their role is less pronounced and influential than the West and East categories, and are largely idiosyncratic and circumstantial, placing them outside the scope of this paper.
West: Immigration Crisis, Counter Terrorism, and Human Rights
The US and the EU share a great deal in common in terms of interests in Syria. These can be summarized as attempts to deal with the refugee crisis, countering terrorism, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the enforcement of human rights. These three interests have variably assumed priority among the Western states, with enforcing human rights taking the primacy of place at the outset of the conflict only to be supplanted by addressing the refugee crisis and most recently a concerted counter-terrorism effort. Importantly, the call for protection of human rights has included attempts to bring the conflict to an end by brokering a political solution and insisting that the Assad regime step down, placing regime change at the core of the Western position on Syria (Ollivant, 2013). This has also led the US and its allies to support certain opposition groups, deemed moderate by Western governments, including provisions of lethal aid (Entous, 2015). While this policy officially remains, the immediacy of the refugee crisis and the threat posed by ISIL has caused Western states to pay more attention to these problems.
The focus on countering ISIL and managing intra-EU squabbles over refugees has obscured the root causes of the conflict, as well as elements of Western policy which is at odds with the Eastern category involved in Syria. The refugee crisis will persist until the Syrian state is able to function again, rendering all attempts by the EU and its member states to deal with the influx of refugees ineffective. Admittedly, ISIL represents a threat to the security and stability of Syria and beyond, and neutralizing it is a prerequisite for reinstating a functioning government in the country. Thus, while there has been success in countering ISIL among Western nations, this has not been oriented within a broader policy approach to solving the problem of Syrian state failure. Furthermore, the Western approach, particularly the arming of rebels and insistence on regime change put it at odds with the Eastern bloc.
The East: Supporting an Ally and the Triumph of Realpolitik
Like the US and the EU, Russia and Iran share many interests in Syria. For both, the Syrian government represents a threatened ally in the region. Both pragmatically value the perceived stability of authoritarianism over enforcing ideals like human rights; both see Western calls for Assad’s ouster as providing a pretense to attempt regime change in Russia and Iran; and both seek to use the conflict to demonstrate their diplomatic and military prowess to validate claims to global and regional power status. These interests have resulted in similar policies toward Syria, but both are aligned against Western positions, with very little overlap between East and West.
While both continue to support the Assad regime, support from both has also begun to wane. In 2012, Iran courted a number of opposition groups, probably perceiving the Assad regime’s inability to govern, but has since decided to continue backing the Assad regime (Goodarzi, 2013). In Russia’s case, it was quick to come to the ailing Assad regime’s aid when it was losing territory to the various opposition groups (Ioffe, 2015). However, the relationship, already downgraded from the one enjoyed by Bashar al Assad’s father, has suffered from the Assad regime’s inflexibility in negotiating a political settlement (Slim, 2016). Yet despite these difficulties, both Iran and Russia remain committed to the Assad regime.
Russia and Iran both feel threatened by the West’s insistence on regime change. The Kremlin has long argued that much of what the West considers to be universal human rights violates state sovereignty. Since the “color revolutions” of 2003 and 2004, Russia has increased its emphasis on protecting its sovereignty, seeing those revolutions as consequences of the expansion of NATO (Smith, 2013). More recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the West of attempting regime change via the imposition of sanctions due to Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian unrest (Devitt, 2014). The Russian interpretation of protecting sovereignty has extended to accusing the West of violating the sovereignty of Russia’s allies, in this case Syria. In response to US plans to increase its military forces in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that “it is impossible for [the Russian Federation] not to be worried that such an action by the [US] is being carried out without the agreement of the legal government of Syria,” claiming that such actions violate Syrian sovereignty (Al Arabiya, 2016). It is clear that Russia sees in the West’s attempt to oust the Assad regime a parallel: threats to its ally’s sovereignty are threats to its own. Therefore, Russia has established a hardline policy of support for the Assad regime.
Iran similarly fears regime change in Syria; surrounded by hostile Sunnis and its arch-nemesis Israel, and with frequent calls in the US for regime change, Iran is quite fearful of losing its principle regional ally. Thus, despite its reluctance, Iran has been forced to remain a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime. Iran’s alliance with Syria is based partly on its strategic interests, for example providing “a geographic thoroughfare to Lebanese Shi’a militia Hizb Allah,” but also on its “deep concerns about the composition of a post-Assad government” (Sadjadpour, 2013). This explains Iran’s support for the Assad regime, as well as its reluctance: should a successor suitable to Iran’s interests appear, it is likely that Iran would cease its support for Assad.
The Syrian state has failed. The conflict has expanded beyond Syria’s borders, drawing in members of the international community. Europe is beset by mass refugee migration; the US and Europe are united in the need to subdue the threat posed by ISIL; Russia and Iran face the loss of a strategic ally should the Assad regime fall. The Assad regime has proven incapable of governing Syria, necessitating international interventions. Yet the very countries best postured for these interventions have competing interests and thus competing policies for how best to end the chaos in Syria. On the one hand, the West seeks regime change, seeing the Assad regime as illegitimate due to its violations of human rights and inability to govern. This is unacceptable to the East, who both value the Assad regime as a strategic ally. Furthermore, Russia and Iran are concerned that Western-led regime change in Syria may be a precursor to similar attempts elsewhere. To this end they continue to emphasize state sovereignty. In some ways, the bloc politics taking place now inside of Syria have almost very little to do with the actual end game IN Syria and is much more about the politics and consequences that might happen OUTSIDE of Syria. Unfortunately, what these ‘competing interventions’ have shown first and foremost (and seems likely not to end or change anytime soon) is that the Syrian civilian population is only going to suffer more for the foreseeable future.
Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit
The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.
The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.
In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.
It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.
The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.
Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.
Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.
The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.
Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations
Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.
Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.
Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.
How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.
Consider three recent instances.
First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.
Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”
Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.
Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.
Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.
Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.
For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.
In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.
Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.
Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.
In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”
Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.
These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.
The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.
China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate
By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.
The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.
By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.
It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.
Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.
To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.
China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.
Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.
That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.
China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.
Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?
The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.
Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.
A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.
There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.
This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.
To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.
China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.
Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.
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