With four civil wars raging in the Mideast and everyone pouring gasoline on their neighbor’s fires, what can the various arsonists be thinking?
“No,” all will claim, perhaps with some justification, “we are not pouring on gasoline but constructing, by carefully…pouring on gasoline, firebreaks.” Beyond that, all will agree that “We can control it, we can benefit from it, and defeat is unacceptable.” Yet it is hard to identify any Mideast or South Asian war in recent decades that has been controlled, the harm has far exceeded the benefit, and even battlefield victors have tended to end up worse off than they were before the fighting. A little delusion goes a long way…
After a month of Saudi bombing of Yemen, all sides in that conflict—in particular, Riyadh, Tehran, Islamabad, Ankara—are voicing the same wise words about violence provoking terrorism, but evidence for real change in tactics is hard to find in the Yemeni civil war. Meanwhile, the other three civil wars (omitting Israel’s endless effort to colonize and absorb Palestine, as well as the nearby violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia) in Libya, Iraq, and Syria continue to receive all the fuel they need.
One reason for this is the clear preference for violence on the part of ISIS, al Qua’ida, and Israel, with all three deriving much influence from the spreading chaos. But the rest are far from innocent victims struggling to re-establish peace; war, in general, trumps not only defeat—even minor defeat—but also both compromise and game-changing positive-sum outcomes. That set of preferences virtually assures a region-wide negative-sum outcome.
Watching the Neighbor’s House Burn
Iran. The Iranian strategic calculus appears to center on insistence that Assad personally constitutes Iran’s core national security interest. Throwing one’s country wholly at the feet of a single foreign individual is almost never a wise strategic decision.
Riyadh. The Saudi strategic calculus appears to center on the assumption that Saudi-Iranian relations are zero-sum: no good can ever come from anything that benefits Iran.
Tel Aviv. Whether remaining in Tel Aviv or succeeding in turning Jerusalem into the capital of their dreamed-of new Jewish empire by absorbing all of Palestine and maintaining military dominance over all their neighbors, the Israeli rightwing, now firmly in control of national affairs with the collapse of the Israeli left, rests its foreign policy calculus on military superiority (paid for by U.S. taxpayers but employed for Zionist goals) readily used with overwhelming force against civilians to send crystal clear messages to all real and imagined enemies within Israel’s self-defined area of strategic interest. No ambiguity here. This strategic calculus has stood firm for decades even as its definition of its geographic area of strategic interest has inflated from Palestine and Jordan (1948) to Egypt’s Sinai to Lebanon (1982), Syria, Iraq (1980s), and now—with the fall of Saddam—to distant Iran. Israel guards its position of superiority, along with various offensive measures, by insisting with great success on the right to tell all the other states in this region what weapons systems they are “permitted” to own.
Albeit sounding idiotic when so baldly stated, these “cartoon” strategic visions are tragically close to accurate representations of the thinking of powerful political currents of the respective ruling circles. And note that this discussion is focused only on neighbors; the domestic actors whose lives are actually at stake in these civil wars are not even under consideration here.
Islamabad. For whatever reason, Pakistan stood up this month and took a clear stand against fighting yet another Muslim war on behalf of the Saudi oil billionaires and their Salafi partners. That stance, now two weeks old, may or may not endure, but it sounds a fresh regional diplomatic tone of which Pakistan should be proud while illustrating the possibility of an elite discarding old prejudices.
Ankara. Lately, it is hard to identify any strategic calculus on the part of Turkey at all. The refreshing “good relations with all” policy of a couple years back bit the dust to be replaced by a determination to eliminate Assad that was pushed aside by the short-term temptation to strike a blow against the Kurds that gave way to a bit of dreaming about becoming the new Sunni leader (caliph? Ottoman overlord?) that in turn was replaced in early April by a willingness to follow Riyadh into Yemen and then a week later by a decision to work with Tehran and Islamabad to pull Riyadh quickly out of its desert quicksand: many tactics, no strategy.
Nothing illustrates the inaccuracy of glib overviews like attention to a little detail, e.g., the remarkable differences between the flexibility of Iranian policy toward a regional civil war at the edge of its area of prime security interest (Yemen) and toward a civil war in what it has, somewhat arbitrarily, defined as inside its area of prime security interest (Syria). Trying to seize the high ground as the proponent of moderation and reason on Yemen, Tehran seems in contrast to be hoisting itself on its own petard in Syria, insisting on covering its eyes to avoid perceiving any of the enormously rich array of potentially beneficial compromises that could spare Iran ending up throwing out the baby (national security) in order to keep the bath water (freedom to use Syria as a launching pad for Iranian influence-peddling in the Levant). Taking seriously its own words—stated in the Yemeni context–about the dangers of the spreading violence and searching for a positive-sum outcome (Iranian voice in setting the terms of an international settlement leading to a government of national reconciliation) could dramatically enhance its global status, national security, and economic prospects, for it is not the Syrian civil war but the Iraqi one that lies truly at the heart of Iranian national security interests.
But the analysis of the above paragraph constitutes a view of Iranian national security in a vacuum. In reality, Iranian national security is a function of Washington’s intent, and Washington’s refusal to welcome Iran into the international dialogue over Syria despite Iran’s obvious interest in combination with Washington’s publicly touted support for Israel’s regional military superiority constitute the two core considerations for Iranian national security thinkers. Herein lies the likely explanation for Iranian intransigence over the fate of Assad: no one seems to be requesting it to offer a compromise! Forcing Iran into a humiliating retreat has appeared, at least up until this week’s State Department hint of a changing U.S. attitude, to have been a more important goal in the eyes of Washington than resolving the Syrian civil war. It tells volumes about the (lack of) U.S. flexibility that it could have been struggling for more than half a year against the ISIS onslaught as an unspoken ally of Iran without facing up to the contradiction between its need for Iranian support in Iraq and its refusal even to speak politely to Iran concerning Syria, a country of far more importance to Iran than to the U.S. Thus, no one knows if Iran has a genuinely flexible foreign policy strategic calculus or not, because it has been shoved into a diplomatic straightjacket and prevented from playing its cards. A skillful foreign policy reveals a country’s options; a brilliant foreign policy enhances them; a foreign policy that conceals one’s own options from one’s own eyes is a policy designed to drop rocks on one’s own feet.
Intertwining Strategic Calculations
Two sets of strategic calculations stand out as core regional political dynamics: the Iranian-Israeli system and the Iranian-Saudi system. As with two stars orbiting each other, the two orbit a shared center of gravity, each simultaneously attracting and repelling the other in a complex dance complicated by differences in orbital path and relative weight. The state systems are yet more complex due to accelerations and decelerations caused by both changes in real relative power and arbitrary policy shifts, not to mention the obvious impact of each system on the other.
The Iranian-Israeli System. The Israeli-Iranian system is characterized by the steady intrusion of each into the other’s sphere of influence, naturally generating shock waves. Despite being quite distant from each other and arguably having few significant genuine conflicts of interest, the Persian Gulf power has not been able to resist seeking influence in the Levant since Israel attempted in 1982 to colonize Lebanon or at least the Shi’a south (which it occupied for two decades). Centuries-long cultural ties between Iranian and Lebanese Shi’a produced an entirely predictable reaction in the face of Sharon’s heavy-handed repression, and Iranians have subsequently often found verbal support for Palestinians to be an easy route to international glory; Israeli politicians trying to distract the world from their occupation of Palestine have in turn found “the Iranian menace” an invaluable tool. Geography plus various sectarian interests trapped Syria in the middle, particularly after the U.S. invasion of 2003 transformed Iraq from an anti-Iranian wall into an Iranian client state. As the mantle of “Best Friend of Palestine” shifted from the shoulders of Iraq to the shoulders of Iran and as Iran moved from trying to manage the Persian Gulf to leading the Shi’i world, Israelis transformed themselves from a pioneer society living in peace with their Palestinian neighbors into a colonial power whose subjugation of all of Palestine sucked them into conflict with ever more distant neighbors until the Levantine power banged into the Persian Gulf power. Since the impact occurred gradually, on neutral territory, and through proxies, it proved not just threatening but also useful, with the result that each side now finds civil war in someone else’s backyard to be an enticing prospect.
In result, an enormous contradiction lies at the heart of the strategic calculus of both Iran and Israel: i.e., the contradiction between the risk of a fire next-door burning down your own house and the hope that your neighbor will pay well for your help in putting the fire out. To cite what is perhaps the most clear-cut example of pursuing short-term gain at the expense of long-term security, ISIS may be an obvious long-term threat to Iran, but it is an immediate and mortal danger to Assad, thus cementing his alliance with Iran, his only ally. ISIS would logically seem to be a long-term threat to Israel but currently is busy elsewhere and has shown itself willing to cooperate with Israel to attack Palestinians in Syria, a deal with the devil that certain Israeli politicians up for reelection apparently find irresistible. Each side can therefore find short-term benefits from facilitating the continuation of the Syrian civil war.
Given this murky context, consider how each might react to the convening of an international meeting to promote the creation of a Syrian government of national unity containing representatives of Assad’s faction (but not Assad personally) and following a neutral course (e.g., cooperating with Iran, perhaps by allowing Iranian gas pipelines, but not allowing the passage of Iranian arms to Hezbollah; cooperating with Israel but not allowing Israeli overflights used to threaten Lebanon; giving safe harbor to Palestinians).
The U.N., surely in consultation with Washington, has announced plans to convene a low-keyed international conference on the Syrian conflict and has invited the essential participation of Iran. Two immediate questions are:
Will Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters figure out a way to scuttle this move toward peace?
Will Iran accept the invitation?
Assuming Iran ends up at the table, the whole regional diplomatic situation will have been transformed: Iran as a participant rather than an outsider constitutes a new Mideast ball game.
The Iranian-Saudi System. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia need to find compromise solutions to the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars before these conflicts suck the two competitors into direct conflict. Iran, aspiring to lead the world’s Shi’a, and Saudi Arabia, aspiring to lead the world’s Sunni, in principle could live with each other. Iran, now on the verge of becoming an accepted member of the international community and with its security consolidated on its border with Iraq can afford to take a conciliatory stance on Syria…provided that the rest of the world offers it a genuine positive-sum outcome. Saudi Arabia, domestically conflicted by the strange-couple arrangement of a petro-elite and a fundamentalist religious establishment sharing power, may have more trouble accepting compromise, as it will continue to have trouble deciding whether to fight against or cuddle up to fundamentalist Sunni ISIS. Resolving the Syrian conflict will sorely test both Tehran and Riyadh, each of which will have to come to terms with modern, national-security-oriented, diplomatic compromise in order to avoid being burned by a Syrian crisis intensified by ISIS. To the degree that Iran can gain in Iraq, perhaps it will have to give ground in Syria to mollify Saudi Arabia, but a resolution of the Syrian mess that does not leave Iran with some benefits will be hard to find. Given the inability of all the major regional players to resolve the internal contradictions in how they calculate their national interest, simultaneous resolution of both the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars will require a diplomatic miracle.