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U.S. Naval Institute, Council on Foreign Relations Panel Outlines Divisions in Syria Conflict, John Grady, Jan. 5, 2016. http://news.usni.org/2016/01/05/council-on-foreign-relations-panel-outlines-divisions-in-syria-conflict
The path the United States has been on since 2011 to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad immediately from power is not working, but “tamping down the [civil] war” while working for a longer-range transitional government is no guarantee that such a shift in emphasis would led to the defeat of the Sunni-dominated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Speaking Tuesday at a Council on Foreign Relations forum in New York City, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute said “Syria is the center of gravity, not Iraq.” The danger, he said, is that Iraq would be viewed by American allies and partners in the region as working with Iran and Russia in support of a non-Sunni regime.
Paul Pillar, from the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, said that although the fighting on the ground, even with Russian and Iranian military intervention, has flatlined. “The [moderate Sunni] opposition is as divided as it has always been” in whether to take on the Islamic State before their goal of overthrowing the Assad regime and undermining the influence of Shiia Iran.
Three panelists agreed that in the Syrian war there have been about a quarter-million civilian casualties, “multiple millions” displaced internally or emigrated. The conflict also has threatened to de-stabilize Jordan and Lebanon and fueled Sunni Islamic extremism.
Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “The main battle in Syria is not against ISIS but against the regime.” The Assads, who come from the Alawite community of Shiia Islam, have ruled Syria, a Sunni majority country, for 45 years.
Right now, the American-led air campaign “is directed against ISIS” and not the regime, while Russian air strikes have been launched against moderate Sunni and Kurdish opposition groups, he said.
In Gordon’s view, “there isn’t a legal basis” for the United States to strike the Assad regime. The U.S. intervention against the Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, came at the request of the Iraqi government.
“We have to decide whose side we are on”—Sunnis in Syria and traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf states or Iran and Russia, Doran said. “We have been shifting in the direction of Iran and Russia” [in moving away from the immediate removal of Assad], and “that has annoyed the Saudis,” who have their own agenda in the Middle East.
He added, “We won’t win without Sunni [tribal] allies” in Syria and outside from nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Doran called for more active support U.S. military support, including air strikes and heavier equipment such as man-portable air defense weapons, for opposition groups. Gordon said the administration “doesn’t detail how it supports the opposition.”
A way forward in Syria could come through diplomatic negotiations that guarantee protections for Alawites, Christians and others who have supported the Assads. This would be in contrast to what happened in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein and his primarily Sunni supporters in Iraq when U.S. and coalition forces left the country.
Protecting Assad supporters in the future “is very much on the table” in diplomatic talks in Vienna and within the United Nations, Gordon said. The problem is “neither the regime, opposition on the ground” or their allies now support that idea, he added.
Another possibility would be to “have a cease-fire in place” where different groups control territory they already hold, even if it is not contiguous, and given some kind of autonomy in a different kind of Syria. With the Assad regime gone and new autonomous regions in place, forces from them could take on the remnants of the Islamic State.
The “old Syria is not going to be put back together,” Gordon said. Doran sees a regionally, federalized Syria and Iraq as possibly emerging where homogeneity not heterogeneity was the political goal.
Pillar said such a solution could hold back revenge-killings as power shifts. That might allow a new Syria to follow a reconciliation model similar to South Africa’s when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president.
New York Times, Saudi Arabia’s Barbaric Executions, Editorial Board, Jan. 4, 2016. The execution of the popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other prisoners on Jan. 2 was about the worst way Saudi Arabia could have started what promises to be a grim and tumultuous year in the kingdom and across the Middle East. It is hard to imagine that the Sunni rulers of the kingdom were not aware of the sectarian passions the killings would unleash around the region. Saudi Arabia’s rulers may even have counted on the fierce reaction in Iran and elsewhere as a distraction from economic problems at home and to silence dissenters. America’s longstanding alliance with the House of Saud is no reason for the administration to do anything less than clearly condemn this foolhardy and dangerous course.
The predictable and immediate consequence of the executions was a burst of hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two rivals are already backing opposite sides in civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Iranians infuriated by the killing of a revered cleric promptly ransacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Though Iranian leaders condemned the action and arrested many protesters, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-led allies in Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates were quick to cut or curtail ties with Iran.
That in turn promised to set back international efforts to resolve the wars in Syria and Yemen and to combat the Islamic State and other Islamist terror organizations. Just weeks ago, a series of talks led by the United States and Russia and including the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers had brought rival powers to the table to discuss a road map for peace in Syria. Then, on Saturday after announcing the executions, the Saudis ended a shaky cease-fire in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s income has sharply declined as a result of the prolonged drop in oil prices — caused, in part, by the regime’s insistence on maintaining production levels — and the government has announced cutbacks in the lavish welfare spending that Saudis have long taken for granted. The executions provided both a sectarian crisis to deflect anger over the cutbacks and a graphic warning of what can befall critics.
But then the executions were not out of character for Saudi Arabia. The country has a dismal human rights record with its application of stern Islamic law and its repression of women and practitioners of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam. The regime has become only more repressive in the years since the Arab Spring. According to Human Rights Watch, the mass execution on Jan. 2 followed a year in which 158 people were executed, the most in recent history, largely based on vague laws and dubious trials. Sheikh Nimr was a vocal critic of the regime and champion of the rights of the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, but not an advocate of violent action. He was executed for offenses that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “inciting sectarian strife.”
The tangled and volatile realities of the Middle East do not give the United States or the European Union the luxury of choosing or rejecting allies on moral criteria. Washington has no choice but to deal with regimes like those in Tehran, which also has an abysmal human rights record, including at least 694 executions last year, or Riyadh to combat the clear and present danger posed by Islamist terrorists or to search for solution to massively destabilizing conflicts like the Syrian civil war. But that cannot mean condoning actions that blatantly fan sectarian hatreds, undermine efforts at stabilizing the region and crudely violate human rights.
New York Times, European Sympathies Lean Toward Iran in Conflict with Saudi Arabia, Sewell Chan, Jan. 4, 2016. In the days since Saudi Arabia inflamed tensions with Iran by executing 47 people, including a Shiite cleric, European observers have been quick to condemn the action, reflecting broader concern across the Continent about Saudi policy and its role in the tumult rolling through the Middle East.
Opposition in Europe to the death penalty — and harsh corporal punishment, including the flogging of a Saudi blogger who has become something of a cause célèbre in Europe — is just one element of the criticism of the Saudi monarchy. Even as European governments continue to view Saudi Arabia as a vital if problematic stabilizing force in the region, as well as a rich market for European arms and other products, European opinion has grown increasingly critical of Saudi support and financing for Wahhabist and Salafist preachers who have contributed to the Sunni extremist ideology that has fueled Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In addition, the European Union and six major world powers reached a deal in Vienna over the summer to contain Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran is seen as essential to ending the five-year-old civil war in Syria, which has fueled a surge of migrants to the Continent, the highest number since World War II.
So for many Europeans, Iran — long a pariah because of its anti-Western rhetoric and its nuclear program — has suddenly become, at least in comparison with Saudi Arabia, an object of sympathy.
“As long as Saudi Arabia is led by its obsession to put Iran in its place, all attempts at peace in the Middle East will fail,” Rainer Hermann, a Middle East expert in Germany, wrote in a column in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, warning that Saudi Arabia might destroy the carefully wrought attempt to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
While it was difficult to gauge broad public attitudes, a review of elite opinion — as expressed by political leaders on social media, commentators in major publications, and a few experts in interviews — suggests that many Europeans blame Saudi Arabia for instigating the latest dispute by executing the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The crisis quickly escalated with the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday and with the decision of Saudi Arabia and several of its allies to sever diplomatic ties with Iran.
Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who was a central player in resolving the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s, warned on Twitter that the decision to execute the cleric “doesn’t bode well for the stability of the Kingdom” and called Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties to Iran “a distinctly bad move.” (He added, “It goes without saying that Iran gravely neglected its duties to protect Saudi diplomatic premises.”)
European governments were more circumspect in their criticism — but not much more. The French Foreign Ministry said it deplored the executions. The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherlini, said they had the “potential of inflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region.”
Britain, a major supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, was the most cautious in its criticism of the executions. Its government’s statement on the situation came from a junior minister, Tobias Ellwood, not from the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond. Mr. Ellwood said that Britain was “firmly opposed to the death penalty” but also chastised Iran for failing to prevent the attack on the Saudi Embassy.
Reprieve, a leading human rights organization in Britain, criticized Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government as too tepid toward the Saudi executions, saying it should “not turn a blind eye to such atrocities.”
In an editorial, Le Monde noted that France supplies arms to Saudi Arabia but also that it has improved relations with Iran — whose president, Hassan Rouhani, had planned a state visit to France that had to be delayed because of the Paris terrorist attacks in November.
The newspaper, noting “centuries-old confrontation between Arabs and Persians,” compared the clash of Iran and Saudi Arabia to that of Europe’s great powers in the period leading up to the World War I.
In an interview, Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and an authority on the Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, said that Western opinion in this case was weighted in Iran’s favor — in part because of the European Union’s desire for rapprochement with Iran.
“Europeans think the dispute is serious but they think — and so does the White House — that Saudis don’t want reconciliation with Iran, want to exclude Iran from all regional discussions and want to provoke Iran into an action that would then derail engagement with West,” Dr. Nasr said. “This crisis was started by Saudi, and Riyadh was quick to use it to break ties, which means end to any broad regional engagement like the Vienna talks.”
Guillaume Xavier-Bender, a trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an interview that “Europeans are worried that this will escalate and keep on escalating.”
He also expressed alarm that countries with mixed populations — Syria and Yemen, where civil wars are raging, and Bahrain, where a Shiite population is governed by a Sunni monarchy — could fall into even further chaos.
For average Europeans, “it’s the executions themselves that are revolting to the general public.” Policy makers, he said, were more focused on not losing the momentum of the European détente with Iran.
“Iran has been, relatively, good in implementing the nuclear deal so far, and elections are coming next month,” Mr. Xavier-Bender said. “The normalization of relations with Iran is almost going too well. So Saudi Arabia is now making a show of force.”