Syria peace talks will be fault line for post-US Middle East

‘Win or die’: Free Syrian Army rebels. VOA

Syrian rebels have dealt another blow to the prospects of a peace summit in Geneva in November. On Sunday, 22 of the armed groups fighting on the ground, including four of the most powerful, issued an announcement that unless the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, steps down, they would consider it a “betrayal” to participate.

Their stance is not new – and perhaps the only point on which Syrian rebels can agree is that Assad must go. A peace summit that does not provide for his departure has no appeal for them. What has changed is the position of the international players currently trying to agree the composition and agenda for Geneva.

The United States and Russia are now at one in wanting to see through the UN-backed initiative to locate and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, with the cooperation of the Assad regime. Russia instigated that initiative in the face of the US threat to launch a military strike on Syrian government targets following the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21. And the Russians persuaded Assad to go along.

Exactly how chemical weapons stockpiles could have been safely decommissioned without Assad’s cooperation is difficult to imagine. Even with his acquiescence the task is daunting – though the Syrians have delivered their first formal inventory and plan for the destruction of such arms slightly ahead of the UN deadline.

Should I stay or should I go? Wikimedia Commons

In light of this development it would make little sense for the US and its Western allies to block the opportunity presented by the Russian initiative, which has even been backed by Assad’s other main ally Iran. Added to which the Iranians are now engaged in new diplomatic talks with the UN Permanent Five and Germany (the P5 + 1) about Tehran’s nuclear programme. And under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani the Iranian negotiating team appear more serious about reaching a deal than was the case under Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Saudi rift

All fine and good, except the spectre of an American-Iranian rapprochement, coupled with a reprieve for Assad has caused consternation in Saudi Arabia – Washington’s key ally in the Gulf and wider Middle East. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, says the kingdom will review its relationship with the US and chart a more independent path in future.

Israel, the Americans’ closest ally is none too pleased either – for fear Iran will do a deal that permits it to retain its nuclear programme and thence the potential to develop a bomb at a later date. The Israelis can take some comfort from the fact that Syria’s chemical arsenal will likely be demolished. Yet the Israeli government does not want to be pressed into making concessions to the Palestinians to accommodate US secretary of state John Kerry’s new peace initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Independent path: Bandar bin Sultan. Kremlin Archive

Washington is thus proceeding along a trajectory that places it at odds, for now at least, with both the Israelis and the Saudis. And its longstanding relationship with Egypt, another linchpin state in the region, has faltered following the ousting of the former president, Mohammed Morsi, by the Egyptian armed forces leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In Cairo the US government is accused by Sisi supporters of having supported Morsi, and thence the Muslim Brotherhood – which is now the object of suppression by the Egyptian establishment – in the name of protecting Egyptian national interests and regional stature. The Saudis agree with them, having long regarded the Brotherhood as their rivals for power in the region.

The Al Saud were aghast when the Americans stood aside as Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, and now that Washington has cut some of its aid to Egypt to demonstrate disapproval at the military intervention against Morsi, the Saudis have promised to make up any shortfall in US financial assistance.

New Middle East course for US

The prospect of the US charting a new path in the Middle East that ignores or conflicts with the agendas of its closest Arab allies was actually foreshadowed in Barack Obama’s UN speech in September. He appears determined not to let the region absorb his attention to the detriment of his broader economic (and social) agendas.

What is taking a while to sink in, among America’s allies, however, are the consequences of Washington’s return to foreign policy pragmatism. They seem not to have grasped yet that the US took such a toll from its engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq that it no longer has the capacity to shape the future of the Middle East – even if it wished to.

Obama: no more good cop in the Middle East. White House

What the preparations for the Geneva summit on Syria demonstrate is that the Americans really do not intend to take a lead on sorting that country out. They may indeed regret now that they called for Assad to go and thereby raised expectations among the rebels and others that they could somehow see him off. Yet, not only can there be no going back now, but also it is highly debatable that early intervention by the US, with or without allies, could have saved the situation without dragging the US into a broader war.

The prospects are not auspicious for Geneva and thence for an early end to the fighting in Syria. Not only is much of Syria in ruins, it increasingly looks like the cockpit of a much wider struggle, with the regional powers backing different factions and sectarian animosities poisoning the mix.

Yet even if they have their wish and Assad is ousted, that in itself is unlikely to end the power struggle now unfolding. In the circumstances it could be wiser to keep Assad in the mix for now, including at Geneva, with a view to using that opportunity to oblige Assad to cooperate on a humanitarian agenda to rescue at least some of the civilians trapped and besieged in their neighbourhoods or else displaced around the country. US military intervention cannot automatically deliver that, even if that were on the cards.

Therefore, let necessity be the mother of invention and let the bargaining take its course, with the various parties seeing what they can extract ahead of the summit. But to cancel Geneva altogether is to assume there is a military solution – which there is not.