The goals of Washington and Moscow in the Syrian War

Raghida Dergham

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Russia is not hiding its goals in the Syrian war, and is not ambiguous about its alliance with Iran, Iranian-backed militias, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow decided from the outset that the war in Syria is a Russian war on “Islamic terrorism”, and will not stop until it declares victory.

Whether it prevails or becomes bogged down in a quagmire in Syria, Russia – at the orders of President Vladimir Putin – has decided not to back down whatever the cost of the battle will be, including the cost of Syrian lives. It has become an existential war ever since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring, before it was endorsed by the Western powers to propel Islamists to power.

To Moscow, this was a threat to its national and strategic interest. Its alliance with Tehran, meanwhile, goes beyond their mutual agreement on shoring up Bashar al-Assad. To be sure, Moscow considers Islamic terrorism as purely Sunni terrorism, and finds the Shiite ally indispensable in its war with this “Sunni terrorism”.

Moscow: intent, Tehran: ready, Washington: supportive

Russia’s adventure in the Syrian conflict also proceeds from its conclusion that the U.S. has given it implicit consent, is a silent partner, and that when needed Washington is prepared to wave its stick and overturn equations. This is exactly what happened during the first week of the first round of negotiations between the regime and opposition delegations in Geneva, part of the Russian-owned and internationally implemented Vienna process.

Efforts to launch negotiations were coupled by Russia with an intensification of airstrikes on the armed Syrian opposition. Moscow refused to stop its strikes, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even said Russia will not stop bombing Syria until terrorists there are defeated—whether in partnership with Iran, the U.S., or the devil himself.

Moscow is intent, Tehran is ready, and Washington is supportive. The Obama administration is still in awe of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is willing to turn a blind eye to Iranian actions in Syria without accountability in appeasement of Moscow, while its eyes will be trained on Iranian elections and the expected fierce battle between moderate and hardline mullahs, who are backed by Revolutionary Guards that are overseeing the Iranian war in Syria. These elections are crucial, and it is important to stop and analyze them given their implications for Iran, Iranian-Saudi relations, and regional ambitions as seen by moderates and hardliners respectively.

The regional backers of the Syrian opposition are providing meagre support in comparison to the extent of military, political, and diplomatic support for the regime from Russia and Iran.

Raghida Dergham

But first, the first round of the Geneva talks need a pause. The decision by the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) to go to Geneva was the right one, regardless whether this took place under regional and U.S. pressure. Its presence in Geneva allowed the HNC to highlight the Russian military escalation in Syria in parallel with diplomatic escalation, through the stubbornness of the regime delegation and the pro-regime opposition figures. As a result, the negotiations were a farce rather than a serious attempt in placing Syria on a road to recovery.

The announcement by U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura suspending negotiations for three weeks before they started in earnest reflects the difficulty of holding these talks amid escalation of bombardment of and political pressure on the Syrian opposition. This strategy of making negotiations impossible should have been met with bold stances by the U.N. Secretary General and his envoy, with a clear call for Russia to end this approach. They have both failed in doing what it takes to make the talks a success and to address accusations that they are overlooking Iranian, Russian, and regime violations in a manner that has undermined the two men’s claim of neutrality and moral leadership.

The fact is that Russia and Iran are direct parties to the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, the backers of the Syrian opposition have washed their hands clean politically and militarily, using pretexts such as the fight against ISIS and al-Nusra Front, and such as ensuring the success of the negotiations. In short, the U.S. has decided to dissociate itself from the Syrian war, giving cover to Russia and Iran to act as they please in Syria. Meanwhile, the regional backers of the Syrian opposition are providing meagre support in comparison to the extent of military, political, and diplomatic support for the regime from Russia and Iran.

Jan. 2018 elections possible?

The balance of power on the ground is increasingly moving in the direction of partitioning Syria while keeping Bashar al-Assad in power on one part. The program drafted by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) for a transitional period in Syria is “overly optimistic”, according to de Mistura in a document published in Al-Hayat. De Mistura said it would not be possible to hold elections by January 2018, the end of the 18-month period stipulated in the Vienna plan. In other words, the timetable for a settlement in Syria will extend further if it is peaceful, and much further if it is not. This would increase Russia and Iran’s involvement in the costly quagmire, especially in light of falling oil prices and the collapse in the value of the Russian currency, at a time of U.S. isolationism and encouragement of others to intervene.

Indeed, Washington has no intention of stopping Tehran and Moscow in Syria, and their strategy of altering the balance of power on the ground in favor of the regime against the rebels that the Obama administration claim to support.

According to an expert closely familiar with internal Iranian politics, the battle for Khamenei’s succession is between hardliners themselves, some of whom see the suggestion of appointing a committee to succeed the Supreme Leader weakens the clerical regime of velayat-e faqih.

Raghida Dergham

The Obama administration is determined to reinforce the truce with Iran, and is betting on the moderates to shift Iranian policy towards more cordial relations with Washington. The US is not concerned by the alliance between Moscow and Tehran, or Russian funding for nuclear projects in Iran. The Iranian fruit, according to US thinking, will be ripe for cultivation later, but there is no rush now except to invest in Iran strategically with one eye on the elections.

The Iranian elections will be held on February 26, but the results will not come out until six weeks later because of the Nowruz holiday. Iranians will elect deputies for the Shura Council, where hardliners currently control around 200 out of 295 seats, and members of the Assembly of Experts, which elects the new Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

The Khamenei question

The current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spent almost 25 years in power, previously holding the post of president. According to some experts, Khamenei has stage-four cancer, and is currently being treated by Iranian and German medical teams. Khamenei, nearly two months ago, himself hinted for the first time that the Assembly of Experts elects his successor, which was interpreted as a reference to his weak health condition.

The Assembly of Experts comprises 88 members, usually experts of Islamic jurisprudence, and is elected every eight years by the people on the same day the Shura Council elections are held. The assembly was chaired by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then replaced with Mohammad Jannati, who died and was succeeded by Mohammad Yazdi. Iran's Assembly of experts is the leading elected body in the regime.

According to an expert closely familiar with internal Iranian politics, the battle for Khamenei’s succession is between hardliners themselves, some of whom see the suggestion of appointing a committee to succeed the Supreme Leader weakens the clerical regime of velayat-e faqih. The Revolutionary Guards, for their part, are categorically opposed to anything that reduces the influence of this system, and is fighting a fierce battle with moderates.

Experts also say current President Hassan Rowhani has a chance to succeed Khamenei. If this was decided, then Hassan Rowhani would resign as president and a new one would be elected.

Raghida Dergham

The moderate camp includes Hashemi Rafsanjani, current President Hassan Rowhani, as well as Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, all in the centrist camp. Reformers include former President Mohammad Khatami, and are allied to the moderates and centrists.

The hardliner camp controls the levers of power currently, its real leader is Supreme Leader Khamenei. Out of 200 hardliner deputes, according to the Iran expert, there is a bloc dubbed the Rock Bloc, comprising around 80 deputies and effectively represent the Revolutionary Guards.

Another battlefield for the two camps is the Guardian Council of the Constitution, whose members are appointed by Khamenei, comprising 6 laymen and 6 clerics. The regime uses this council to vet candidates, to keep away undesirables from power. The council has disqualified many reformist candidates, including Hassan Khomeini.

The realists in the moderate camp want to reduce the number of hardliners, but the problem will be in the Assembly of Experts that elects the Supreme Leader.
In fact, Hashemi Rafsanjani's candidacy has been approved. But experts say it would be impossible for Rafsanjani to be elected Supreme Leader because he is confrontational. Rafsanjani himself has declared that he is not interested in failure, but wants to obtain more than 1 million votes to have a popular mandate.

Experts also say current President Hassan Rowhani has a chance to succeed Khamenei. If this was decided, then Hassan Rowhani would resign as president and a new one would be elected.

Reformists vs hardliners

For the record, experts say that the three other names being circulated as possible successors to Khamenei are: Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who the experts say is the most knowledgeable but note that his problem is that he hides his views. Another name is Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, who is a hawkish hardliner.

Experts say that if it was up to the reformists, they would want Rafsanjani as head of the Assembly of Experts. Currently, Rafsanjani is the head of the Expediency Council, which deals with disputes such as those between the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts.

The concern is for hardliners to continue to disqualify reformists and moderates from the final list of candidates for the Shura Council. Particularly so as a group of commanders from the Revolutionary Guards are for the first time running in the election in public. The battle is thus raging, so the question is who will come out on top? The pro-state camp led by Rowhani and backed by reformists and moderates, or the pro-revolutionary camp led by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards?

There are around 53 million voters in Iran, 30 percent of whom are under the age of 30, and 70 percent under the age of 50. The balance of power in Iran today is different from 2009, when Ayatollah Khamenei controlled all levers of decision-making. At the time, it was said the elections had been rigged against the reformists, after which the hardliners brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Today, Khamenei is weaker.

President Rowhani has returned from Paris after a European tour during which he signed several lucrative contracts, giving the pro-state camp a boost. Some colleagues have written comparisons with how Khomeini returned from Paris in 1979, ushering in the revolution. Hassan Rowhani is today popular, perhaps the most popular in Iran. His experience in public service, ever since he headed the negotiations team with the US in 2003, thereby preempting US or Israeli invasion, and his presidency has forged his reputation as a statesman locally, regionally, and internationally. Those who know him closely say that Rowhani’s thinking is in line with the strategic policies of the Iranian state, but not with the appetite of the revolutionary camp for regional hegemony.

If the Iranian elections reflect a clear decision by the Iranian people to choose the pro-state camp, there will be a qualitative shift in the Iranian policy, especially after the moderates and reformists were able to conclude a historical nuclear deal that lifted the sanctions and allowed the Iranian president to go to Europe and bring back important contracts for development, rather than pompous promises of destruction and devastation.

The world is watching the Iranian elections, and the Arab region should follow suit.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 5, 2016.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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