May 13, 2014

With Washington’s Syria Gambit in Tatters, Iran’s ‘Smart Power’ Strategy Working, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, May 4th, 2014


One of the more persistent tropes in Western discourse about the Syrian conflict is that, by “siding with” the Assad government, the Islamic Republic of Iran has marginalized itself in regional affairs and squandered much of the soft power it had accumulated as the champion of regional resistance to Western and Israeli abuse.  From the outset of the Syrian conflict, we have been critical of this view (and of the Western approach to Syria more generally).  For three years, we have argued that Iran is an indispensable player in any serious effort to negotiated a political settlement in Syria—and that such a settlement will necessarily be reached between the Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, and those elements of the opposition who understand that they cannot defeat Assad either on the battlefield or at the ballot box.  In other words, a political settlement may reform Syria’s current political order—but it won’t overturn that order.

Now, events of the ground are providing ever more abundant evidence that our analysis is correct.

Late last week, the Syrian government and opposition fighters in the city of Homs reached agreement on a ceasefire.  Beyond a ceasefire, the agreement is drawn to let opposition fighters leave Homs for other rebel-held areas, effectively surrendering Syria’s third-largest city back to the government.  Yesterday, the New York Times and other media outlets reported that, while the evacuation of opposition fighters had not yet occurred, the ceasefire in Homs is holding.  If the agreement is fully implemented, the departure of opposition fighters from Homs would constitute another significant military advance by the government in its campaign against rebel forces—helping set the stage for Syrian presidential elections on June 3, with President Assad standing for a third term.

One of the more striking things about this story is that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the talks between the Syrian government and opposition fighters that produced this agreement were “brokered by the United Nations and the Iranian Embassy in Damascus.”  Western discourse about Syria wants to limit any discussion of a “peace process” in Syria to the Geneva process—but the United States and its Western partners have rendered the Geneva process utterly dysfunctional by their continued insistence on Assad’s departure as an essential precondition for a political settlement.  By contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran, by having a clear political strategy of supporting elections and by being willing to deal with all relevant players—even “a hard-line Sunni Muslim rebel group,” as the Wall Street Journal describes its interlocutors in Homs—is actually able to accomplish things on the ground in Syria.

So, which parties are in fact marginalizing themselves in regional affairs by unreservedly aligning themselves with one side—and refusing to have anything to do with the other side—in the Syrian conflict?  At this point, it seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is pursuing a much smarter and more effective strategy in Syria than the United States and its partners.

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