Prospects for peace in Syria are dim
The recent break in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran comes during a major escalation in the proxy war between the two countries and their respective allies that is reshaping the Middle East.
Syria is the nexus of duelling world views as Iran struggles to expand its network of proxies from Baghdad to Beirut while Saudi Arabia and its allies work to stem Tehran’s extraterritorial ambitions.
Peace talks are scheduled for Vienna, with the Syrian opposition — both political and armed factions — to negotiate with Bashar Assad’s representatives for the first time since previous attempts collapsed in 2014.
Riyadh has publicly signalled that its support for a political solution to the war in Syria will not waver in light of Tehran’s latest provocations. Contrast this with Iranian and Russian efforts to undercut negotiations by purposefully targeting Syrian opposition figures in the field.
The recent assassination of Zahran Alloush, the most prominent Syrian rebel commander in the Damascus area, in what was likely a Russian-directed air strike was part of a systemic effort to eliminate the most effective and popular opposition figures.
For any peace process to hold hope of success, it would necessitate the buy-in of men such as Alloush who maintain the credibility and command of fighters on the ground. Implementing ceasefires, isolating extremists who profit from state failure and building the requisite conditions for a sustainable and just peace entail bringing together all parties to the conflict. Killing Alloush sent a signal to the international community and all of Syria: No opposition to Assad’s reign will be brooked.
But the strike against Alloush and his deputies is also part of a wider underlying sectarian paradigm at the heart of Iran’s military strategy in Syria — one that is shared by many pro-regime militia leaders. It is a pattern that refuses to acknowledge that a political transition from Assad’s rule as the means to ending the horrific violence, starvation campaigns and barrel bombs inflicted upon the Syrian people on a daily basis.
At its core, it is a paradigm that views unbowed Sunni communities and effective Sunni opposition commanders — even those who had stated support to the Vienna peace process as had Alloush — as an inherently existential threat.
When Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that Assad has a choice — “Either leave through negotiations or be forcibly removed from power” — Tehran and Moscow immediately reiterated their support for Assad. Iran and Russia adamantly condemned a conference in Riyadh convened to unite the Syrian opposition to effectively participate in peace talks.
The Russians claim the Syrian uprising against Assad was a Western-orchestrated affair. The Iranian regime is convinced that the civil war was a product of a Sunni conspiracy to weaken Iran and Hezbollah’s influence rather than an end product of Assad’s incompetency and naked brutality. Until the core designs of Iranian and Russian policy shift from these sectarian and myopic world views, it is difficult to see how the talks in Vienna can progress.
Peace in Syria remains elusive because Iran prioritises its ability to maintain control over the security and military apparatus of what’s left of the Syrian state, rather than supporting a process that can end the violence. In short, Iran defines “peace” in Syria as submission to Assad — a zero sum game that will bring neither peace nor a resolution to nearly five years of unrelenting slaughter.
Hundreds of Sunni opposition fighters die every month fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). In the Damascus suburbs, it was rebel forces led by Alloush that prevented ISIS from establishing a foothold, while regime forces were content shelling civilian neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital.
In that light, the killing of Alloush exposes the contradictory nature of Russian and Iranian claims that their involvement and escalation of military support to Assad is meant merely to battle extremism.
Russian air strikes across Syria are primarily intended to shape the military and political conditions ahead of the Vienna negotiations. Iranian and Russian diplomats continue to peddle the notion that there is no workable alternative to Bashar Assad as they diligently work to eliminate all possible alternatives. A sectarian maximalist policy underlies the carefully crafted narrative that Iran, Assad and Russia are fighting the rise of extremists fuelled by Sunni Arab states.
The peace talks in Vienna are highly unlikely to prove productive until the balance of power in Syria decisively shifts one way or another. Meanwhile, another bitter winter sets in as millions of displaced Syrians and their families suffer the consequences of politicians unwilling to set aside their paranoia and pettiness for the sake of humanity.