Monday’s meeting of diplomats from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran represents a bold and welcome move by regional powers to end the bloody civil war in Syria and push for a political settlement to the conflict there. Conceived by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at the September 4 meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, the most innovative aspect of the initiative is the decision to bring Damascus’s main backer, Iran, into the negotiations over Syria. At some level, the Morsi plan may well indicate discontent among ordinary Arabs that their own governments have done little to bring about an end to a conflict that has killed 23,000 people so far and is growing worse by the day, with atrocities reliably reported on both sides. The move shows democratic responsiveness, particularly in Egypt, to the voters who have given the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, both a parliamentary majority and the presidency, and have thereby legitimised a stance much less subservient to American policies and interests than earlier Egyptian positions. It also stands in sharp contrast to the League’s conduct over the West’s regime-change operation in Libya in 2011.
The members of what has been called the new Middle East quartet may well be concerned that the Syrian civil war could start a Sunni-Shia conflagration throughout the region, particularly after Iraq’s collapse into sectarian violence following the illegal United States-led invasion in 2003. A significant advantage of the new plan is Tehran’s positive reaction, which includes suggesting that Iraq be included. In addition, 45 representatives of Syrian opposition groups have published a discussion document which details proposals for institutions Syria could have in a post-Assad transition period, including a non-party military under civilian control. These and the new quartet’s proposals have the great merit of emerging from regional governments and other actors, despite their internal differences, but the U.S. and the United Kingdom have said they do not think Iran can play a constructive role. British foreign minister William Hague has gratuitously added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power is “inevitable” and that his regime is “doomed.” Such negative responses can only imply that the major western powers are not interested in plans devised within the region and, worse still, might even want those to fail. One hopes, in the wake of this week’s deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi — the first Arab city to be “liberated” by occidental ordnance since 2003 — that the dangers of imposing “regime change” on Syria will have become more apparent to the West.