In early August, the Foreign Ministers of Iran (Mohammad Javad Zarif) and Syria (Walid Muallem) and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister (Mikhail Bogdanov) met in Tehran to discuss the Syrian war. The Iranians, now emboldened by the nuclear deal, presented a plan for a solution to the fratricidal Syrian war. Iran’s plan has four steps: 1. Forge an immediate cease-fire; 2. Create a national unity government; 3. Rewrite Syria’s Constitution with a more expansive inclusion of minorities; 4. Hold national elections under international supervision. These points are not new. The call for a ceasefire has been on the agenda since 2011, and the other steps have been discussed in the United Nations and in various regional gatherings over the past four years. What is novel is that the proposal comes from Iran, with Russian and Syrian backing. The idea of a national unity government implies that President Bashar al-Assad would not have to withdraw from politics. But it does suggest that Damascus has softened in its view that President Assad must be allowed to serve out his new term in office.
Western capitals should look at this proposal as an olive branch. This proposal does not roll out a complete path toward peace, but it does open the door to negotiations. Other Western approaches toward Syria have failed. The most recent attempt to create a moderate rebel force to take on both the Islamic State (IS) and the Assad government collapsed. The al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra easily trounced Western-trained Division 30, seizing its arms and killing many of its fighters. That Western intelligence believed that Division 30 and its predecessors could hold their own on the dangerous battlefields of Syria, shows how out-of-touch they have become. The U.S. has now decided not to spend the $500 million it had allocated for the creation of a new rebel army.
Western diplomatic attempts to isolate Damascus have also not borne fruit. Confounded by the resilience of IS, even Saudi Arabia has opened discussion with the Assad government — Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk visited the kingdom in early August to discuss, among other things, the new proposals for a ceasefire. Saudi intelligence cables released by Wikileaks show the kingdom obsessed with Iranian power. But the fear of IS remains greater than their paranoia over Iran. This has come as a surprise to the West, which assumed that Saudi Arabia would be the least liable to alter its Syria strategy.
Anarchic region Chaos has now erupted in Syria’s north, where Turkish jets bomb the positions of the Syrian Kurdish militias (YPG), which are supported by the guerrilla wing of the Turko-Kurdish PKK. In exchange for this Turkish vendetta against the Kurdish gains, U.S. drone aircraft now use Turkish airfields to bomb IS positions. There is no question that the main Turkish firepower is for the Kurdish fighters, who have taken significant losses in the past week. The West has made a significant bet. Aerial bombing of IS has not yielded major gains on the ground. As an investigation from Airwars — a collaborative, not-for-profit transparency project, aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against IS, in both Iraq and Syria — shows, the allied bombing has resulted in considerable civilian casualties, offering IS propaganda against the idea of the West as deliverance. Meanwhile, the Turkish bombing of the YPG-PKK has pushed the Kurds to seek a new arrangement with the Assad government. Senior YPG officials are warm to the Iranian proposal for a national unity government. It would give them leverage against the Turkish assault. Turkey has been unable to secure its strategic ambitions. The West has been cool to its call for a “no-fly zone” in northern Syria. There is pressure within Turkey to stop the assault on the YPG-PKK, which many observers see as revenge for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inability to gain total victory in elections earlier this year.
The IS remains in control of its swathe of territory across northern Iraq and Syria. Neither the Western air strikes nor the Iraqi military advances have been able to break through and clear IS from its major urban centres. Along the spinal cord of western Syria, the main advances are being made by al-Qaeda backed insurgents, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa. Infighting between these groups in Idlib did not stop their coordinated attack on Division 30 and on the forces of the Syrian government. Even worse, Division 30, beaten by al-Nusra, nonetheless pledged that it “will not fight Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Western strategy to contain and defeat the growth of IS and al-Qaeda in Syria has utterly failed. Matters are so poor that Washington’s military and intelligence community has now taken to debate which is more of a threat — IS or al-Qaeda.
Zero-sum game On July 26, Bashar al-Assad acknowledged Syria’s grave predicament. The war has devastated the country, torn it apart and create territorial fissures that will not be easily healed. No force is capable, at this time, of dislodging any other. Battles on the edges of these blocs of authority are bloody and largely futile. Refugees inside and outside Syria are in a permanent state of agitation. Their return home is not on the cards.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government’s forces suffer a severe crisis of manpower. Recruits are not easy to find. Reliance upon Lebanese and Iraqi militias as well as Iranian specialists is not enough. Assad admitted that his forces are exhausted. But so are the troops of the rebels. The IS cannot any longer easily recruit from the reservoir of the international jihadis . Access to Syria is harder than it was. The war is at a standstill though it does not seem like that for the fighters who are at the edge of their territories. For them the sound of gunfire is now normal, and yet terrifying. If a deal is on the horizon, will these fighters — who have given so much for so little — be able to understand the deals being made beyond the range of their rifles?
On August 3, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, confident after the successful nuclear talks, published an opinion piece in leading Arabic language newspapers (Egypt’s al-Shorouk , Kuwait’s al-Rai, Lebanon’s As-Safir and Qatar’s al-Sharq ). He called for a regional discussion to solve regional problems. Wars in Syria and Yemen, alongside the spread of extremist groups such as IS, poses a significant problem to the region. Mr Zarif went to Damascus to discuss the overture directly with President Bashar al-Assad. His visit came just as Turkey and Iran helped broker two crucial forty-eight hour ceasefires in Zabadani and in two towns in Idlib district. Such events indicate a willingness by the regional actors that needs to be supported. Every once in a while, the various parties to the war in Syria and their sponsors seem amenable to regional talks. The formation of the Syria Contact Group (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) in 2012 was one such moment. This is another. The West and its Gulf Arab allies should take the démarche from Iran seriously. It might be the last chance for Syria.
(Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College, is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.)