United States, Iran, Russia, Syria and the geopolitical shift: Anything for the region’s oppressed?

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Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov (right) and US Secretary of State John Kerry during a May 2013 joint press conference in Moscow on "finding ... common ground" on the conflict in Syria.

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By Michael Karadjis

December 19, 2013 -- Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- In recent weeks and months, a pronounced geopolitical shift in US policy related to the Middle East has been widely discussed. This shift consists mainly of the US-Russia deal with Syria’s Assad regime to get rid of its chemical arsenal, in exchange for the US dropping its brief threat of air strikes over Assad’s chemical attack on August 21; and the high-level US-Iran negotiations over its nuclear arsenal, which led to a new agreement, involving a slight reduction on imperialist sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iranian concessions on its civilian nuclear program.

In a very general sense, it is a good thing to reduce tensions. In the Syrian case, if it headed off potentially catastrophic US “punishment strikes” on Syria, it can be called the lesser evil at that particular moment, but at that moment only; in the Iranian case, if it reduces (and eventually leads to the abolition of) imperialist sanctions on Iran, which cripple the ordinary people but do little to hit the theocracy, then that is certainly a good thing.

It is even more a good thing if it moves the region further away from the possibility of a US or Israeli attack on Iran over their bogus claim of an Iranian nuclear weapons program; it would even be better if both the Syrian and Iranian processes exposed Israel as the only state in the region with a massive nuclear weapons’ arsenal and made it more difficult for Israel to maintain it, an unlikely outcome at this stage however. Finally, to the extent that regional tensions of a sectarian nature are reduced (if this were to be the effect, which is doubtful), then that should also be welcome.

At the same time we ought to remember that the US isn’t reducing tensions to please the international left and progressive and anti-war movements, still less as a concession to the oppressed in the region, but for the sake of imperialist stability, something badly disrupted by the Arab Spring and the ensuing genuine people’s revolutionary movements, not only by the sectarian and geopolitical tensions which often overlay this.

Before looking at this, it is first worthwhile understanding how genuine these moves are. Three recent revelations underline this.

First, the revelation that the US and Iran, whatever the public displays, had been secretly engaged in these negotiations for many months before they became public, and the US had not only not shared this information with the Saudis, but also not even with Israel, the local white racist outpost that expects the US to only do things in consultation with it. These talks were going on during the period since early 2013 when Iran was drastically stepping up its military support to the Assad regime’s savage war against its people: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/.premium-1.559788

Second, the revelation that the US government had been well aware that the Assad regime had used small amounts of chemical weapons over the last year and “had watched the regime carry out about a dozen small-scale chemical attacks before the big one,” the whole time suppressing the information, seeing it as essentially routine, while also denying opposition requests for provision of gas masks. In addition, US and Israeli intelligence had intercepted Assad regime communications from three days before the massive August 21 attack, but “had not yet translated them,” but officials claimed that even if they had been translated, “they likely wouldn’t have acted because there were no indications it would be out of the ordinary”: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303914304579194203188283242

Third, perhaps the most surprising, though hardly after the last two were revealed: the UK has been mediating indirect secret talks between US and Hezbollah over a number of months, reportedly dealing with “the fight against al-Qaida, regional stability and other Lebanese political issues” and “are aimed at keeping tabs on the changes in the region and the world, and prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the
international community” (http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Report-London-is-mediating-indirect-secret-talks-between-US-and-Hezbollah-333245).

On the other hand, understanding how genuine these geopolitical moves are should not be understood to mean the US is doing a complete shift and is about to dump its traditional allies, such as the Gulf monarchies, let alone Israel. Rather, the US is simply doing what it does best: looking after its strategic interests, not subservient to anyone. It will maintain its geopolitical alliances, and adopt new ones as it sees fit; if older allies complain, tough.

The US overtures to Iran and positive Iranian response have to be understood as part of a long-term process of bringing the relatively powerful Iranian bourgeoisie back into the fold – militarily, diplomatically and economically (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/iran-spotlight-western-oil-companies-tehran-ready-make-deals) – where it always belonged. It has clearly been useful in the post Cold War era for the US and Israel to use Iran, as part of using “Islamic fundamentalism” (whether Shia or Sunni or both) as a scarecrow to replace “communism” in order to maintain a permanent war threat in the region, sell lots of weapons, feed the masses with irrational fear of an “enemy” and so on. Despite this, the fact remains that Iran is a very capitalist state, and as such, there has been nothing about the Iranian bourgeoisie for decades, since its very bloody suppression of the revolution there in the 1980s, that necessarily stands in fundamental conflict with imperialism.

Certainly, Iran’s relationship with imperialism has been of an antagonistic nature to an extent that appears qualitatively greater than conflicts such as those, for example, that have pit Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies against imperialism, such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, or Saudi anger with Washington today. I would argue, however, that the difference is quantitative, even if the “quantity” is significant. To some extent there is the grandstanding of a powerful and growing Iranian national bourgeoisie, which can have its own tactical conflicts with greater imperialist interests; and specifically, the interests of this rising bourgeoisie often clashes with the interests of more powerful rival regional bourgeoisies, particularly those of the Gulf, which have had Washington’s favour for a protracted period. However, the greater power of the Gulf bourgeoisie, and Washington’s long-term relationship with it, does not necessarily mean that Washington must always favour this bloc as if such an alliance is as fundamental as its alliance with Israel. It is not. In fact, when the Gulf bourgeoisie throws its weight around too much, that might be precisely the point at which the US looks to balance this by bringing in a lesser, but rising, Iranian rival.

In fact, it is not just over Syria that the US and Saudi Arabia have blown apart (despite the fantasies of a lot of the left that they are allied over Syria); they have also long had a different perspective over Iraq, given that it was the US that essentially brought the Shia-led Maliki regime to power, which the Saudis viewed as facilitating an Iranian regional victory, while the Saudis actively back rival Sunni-led forces there. Indeed, since the Saudis played such a prominent role in mobilizing Sunni forces into the ‘Sawha’ (Awakening) militias to defeat Al-Qaida in Iraq, they expected a better deal from Washington. This article looks at how active this conflict still is: http://www.eurasiareview.com/25022013-saudi-arabia-and-qatar-ratcheting-up-sectarian-and-ethnic-tensions-in-iraq-oped

It is in US interests to shift the balance of power around between such regional heavy-weight bourgeoisies with their clashing regional projects. The assertions sometimes made in tabloid-left analyses that there exists a solid, long-term US “pro-Sunni” bias are superficial to put it mildly. If anything it was distinctively “anti-Sunni” for a time after 9/11; and Iranian and US interests partially coincided over the US invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, precisely the subsequent Iranian/”Shiite” advances in Iraq and Afghanistan along with Hezbollah’s moment of glory in 2006 may have shifted the US tilt back to “Sunni” powers after that.

We need to understand such “Sunni” and “Shia” blocs as representing the attempts by powerful regional “sub-imperialist” forces to project their geopolitical interests in the region under these ideological covers; at the same time we also need to understand that there is nothing absolute about them, and that there are vast differences within each alleged “bloc.” For example, the “Sunni” bloc consists of a Qatar/Turkey/Muslim Brotherhood bloc, a Saudi/GCC (except Qatar) monarchial bloc, and an Al-Qaida bloc (largely privately funded by sections of the Gulf bourgeoisie opposed to the narrow monarchial regimes), and all are mutually hostile, in addition to other secular regimes in Sunni-majority states outside any of these frameworks, eg Gaddafi’s Libya. The “Shia” bloc is also divided; while currently the “Alawite”-led regime in Syria is conveniently classed as “Shia” to ideologically justify the Iranian and Hezbollah alliance, before the Arab Spring, the Assad regime’s closes allies in the region were Qatar and Turkey (and both, along with Saudi Arabia, initially came out strongly in support of Assad when the Syrian uprising began), while different Shia blocs inside Iraq have differing perspectives on regional issues.

But the Arab Spring – the revolutionary uprising of the Arab masses – has been overwhelmingly a Sunni-based affair; and at a similarly fundamental level, the Palestinian population are overwhelmingly Sunni. That obviously does not mean the US wants to shift all support to an Iranian/Shia bloc; that would be entirely counterproductive from the point of view of quelling the Sunni-based uprisings. But it does perhaps mean it is time for more balance of power, especially given the situation in Syria.

The Syrian situation is perhaps the most widely misunderstood in this regard. Both the Saudis and Iranians see it in sectarian/geopolitical terms; the US sees it as requiring the victory of counterrevolution. Of course the Saudis and Iranians also want counterrevolution, naturally enough, but it matters to each how it happens. The US preference for either continuing bloodshed to weaken all sides, or a restabilisation involving the core of the current Assad regime (perhaps without Assad himself) but broadened to include some bourgeois opposition figures, both represent outcomes based on balance. In fact, most likely the first followed by the second.

And both these US preferences represent the Israeli interest, that is, the interest of the US’s main ally in the region that has no love for either Muslim-based project getting too powerful. For Israel, and thus for the US, if Sunni and Shia jihadists are fighting it out and bleeding each other in Syria, and sucking in the energies of Iran and the Arab states, then that’s OK for Israel.

But ultimately even for Israel, as for the US, restabilisation is necessary. And this can only occur with the core of the current regime in one way or another maintaining power. And the irony of the current situation is that, while on a regional level Israel’s saber-rattling has long been directed against distant Iran and the pretence that it has nuclear weapons which threaten Israel (something they know is a lie), on the more local level Israeli and Iranian interests partly coincide in Syria, much more so than either do with Saudi/Gulf interests. I know that this is disputed (and certain individual Israeli leaders have said different), but at a fundamental level it is true – they both prefer the Assad regime, or some modification of it, over a victory EITHER of secular, democratic revolution OR Saudi-aligned Sunni Islamists OR Sunni jihadists a la Al-Qaida, OR any combination of these, especially if any of those alternatives were to come anywhere near the Israeli-stolen Syrian Golan Heights – which the Assad regime has protected without a shot being fired in 40 years, a policy Israel does not trust any of the alternatives to continue with.

It may be objected that the growing dependence of Assad on Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia gangs and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 2013 now equalizes the two sides in Syria from the point of view of Israeli interests. To some extent this is true. But as long as Hezbollah is bloodily wasting its cadres and resources in Syria rather than in Lebanon or anywhere near the borders of Israel, then that suits Israel very well. Israel’s occasional attacks have very clearly been directed against shipments of advanced Iranian weapons from Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon, never against Hezbollah using its weaponry to kill Arabs in Syria. This factor merely means Israeli preference for both sides fighting on and bleeding each other is enhanced. But it in no way changes the Israeli preference, stated repeatedly over the last three years, for at least the main core of the Assad regime to remain in power to prevent a victory of any combination of opposition forces.

This was explained recently by Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, one of Israel’s best-known academic experts on Syria and Lebanon and the former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies:

“At first, Israel wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, thinking it was “the devil we know” and fearing the spread of chaos along the border. Then Israeli leaders came to the conclusion that Assad is finished. But then they became aware of the presence of al-Qaeda elements in Syria, like the rebel Nusra Front. So now the real position—not the official one—is that we wish both sides good luck and that it is in the interest of Israel that they continue fighting. Essentially, we want Assad to stay in power. We want him to be strong enough to keep the border quiet but weak enough so he will not present any real threat to Israel” (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53831).

This highlights an important difference between current Israeli and Saudi opposition to Washington’s current strategy, involving the nuclear dealing with Iran and the chemical dealing with Assad and Russia. Saudi Arabia views Iran through the prism of Syria (and other regional conflicts where Saudi-Iranian rivalry are played out, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but principally Syria at the moment); whereas Israel, on the odd occasions when it puts on its hawkish rather than dovish face over Syria, is viewing Syria through the prism of Iran.

That is, for Saudi Arabia, the US-Russia deal over Syria, essentially aimed at bolstering Assad, after the Saudis had invested so much in publicly helping the Syrian opposition (indeed the secular opposition, the SMC and SNC, which they had actually helped much more than Washington had wanted them to), made them feel they were being laughed at in the face by Washington; the Saudis were thus already furious about this before the onset of US dealing with Iran consolidated the idea that Washington was presenting Iran with a regional victory. Thus Saudi Arabia has reacted by “going its own way” in Syria. On the actual nuclear deal with Iran, as opposed to the geopolitical shift behind it, the Saudis are not so concerned; indeed, the official statement by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states gave it cautious support as the beginnings of comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear program; moreover, both Saudi Arabia (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/11/25/Riyadh-Solution-on-Iran-needs-goodwill-.html) and Qatar (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/11/25/Qatar-Kuwait-welcome-Iran-s-nuclear-deal-with-world-powers.html) stressed this could lead to, in the words of Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja, “the “removal of all weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear, from the Middle East and the Gulf” – an obvious reference to Israel’s massive nuclear arsenal.

For Israel it is the complete opposite. Israeli leaders put out mixed reactions to the US-Russia dealing over Syria; reactions in general though were cautiously positive. In fact, what Israeli leaders had continually stressed was that the “worst possible outcome” in Syria, and, as Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, explained, the only reason Israel would ever intervene was if Sunni jihadists got their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons in the case that the regime should collapse (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57582025/syrian-rebels-to-get-1st-direct-u.s-support-as-$8m-in-medical-supplies-rations-set-for-delivery/); whereas, as Defense Ministry strategist Amos Gilad explained in May, Israel was not currently interested in attacking Syria’s chemical weapons’ stock because “the good news is that this is under full control (of the Syrian government)” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/04/us-syria-crisis-chemical-israel-idUSBRE94309720130504). Thus the chemical deal basically addresses this Israeli concern; in fact, the Saudi-backed leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, described the US deal with Assad on chemicals as the adoption of the Israeli interest.

To the extent that Israel was somewhat cautious in its support however was entirely related to the Iranian issue; when the US did not go ahead with threatened strikes on Syria over a “red line” on a form of WMD that the US had drawn, Israel’s concern was what this would mean for the US-Israeli red-line on Iran over nuclear weapons. So when the subsequent negotiations with Iran opened soon after, Israel’s opposition was very much within this context. How can you use the Iranian nuclear “threat” to keep the whole region, and the Israeli public, on a permanent war footing, in a permanent state of crisis, if the US takes away the imaginary pretext.

For these reasons, and others, the fantasies of Israeli-Saudi alliances being pushed by the conspiracist wing of the left and the tabloid wing of imperialist journalism are impossible. The LondonDaily Mail’s claim that Israel and Saudi Arabia had agreed to jointly attack Iran in reaction to the deal is inconceivably insane. Saudi Arabia’s reaction to this article, that it is fiction and that it has “no relations or contact with Israel of any kind at any level” (http://world.einnews.com/article/177082808/-XymoaCc3o3Ar1OJ?afid=777&utm_source=MailingList&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Breaking+News%3A+world540-Tuesday), is in fact highly believable. From a purely pragmatic point of view, if Israel did attack Iran (which is also very unlikely), it would bolster Iran’s standing among Muslims – Sunni and Shia alike – in the region, just at the moment when Iran’s and Hezbollah’s standing has dropped so low among the vast masses of Sunni Arabs due to Syria. If Saudi Arabia participated in such an attack, it could lead to the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy by both the Shia masses in the east and the Sunni jihadists, even if both then slaughtered each other.

Little wonder, therefore, that in 2012 Saudi Arabia had threatened to shoot down any Israeli aircraft over its airspace en route to Iran (http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article32129.htm); similarly, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Al Thani had declared “we will not accept any aggressive action against Iran from Qatar” (http://www.jpost.com/Headlines/Article.aspx?id=263818).

(As an aside, a Sunday Times story several months ago, that alleged a military agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey to cooperate against Iran (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1255088.ec)was angrily denied not only by Saudi Arabia, but by Turkey, which described it as “manipulative reports which have nothing to do with the reality” (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-foreign-ministry-dismisses-report-on-regional-cooperation-against-iran.aspx?pageID=238&nID=46250&NewsCatID=338). The inclusion of Turkey, if anything, made it more of a joke; Turkey’s relations with Israel have been bad for years, and while relations deteriorated with Iran over Syria, Turkey has opposed any US or Israeli aggression against Iran, explicitly giving strong support to Iran’s nuclear program (http://www.payvand.com/news/12/mar/1271.html); and anyone interested in the geopolitics of Mediterranean gas will be well aware of the rapprochement between Israel and Greece and Cyprus on an anti-Turkish basis).

Furthermore, the Saudi monarchy, whose legitimacy is based on protecting Mecca and Medina, cannot simply “go into alliance” with a regime illegally occupying Jerusalem of all places (on top of a regime illegally occupying any Arab or “Muslim” territory) and survive. Just because the monarchy is reactionary and would probably be happy for the entire Palestinian people to disappear, this doesn’t alter the fact that they have not disappeared and the occupation is a fact; it is not coincidental at all that two major Arab-wide peace initiatives, the 1982 Fahd Plan and the 2003 Saudi Plan, were launched by Saudi Arabia; both had the support of virtually all Arab states (only Libya dissented in 1982, and no-one in 2003); in 1982 had the support of the PLO and in 2003 the support of both Fatah and Hamas; and both demanded the complete withdrawal of Israel from all Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied or annexed by Israel since 1967 and the right of Palestinians to set up their independent state over the entire part of Palestine occupied in 1967. This would the minimum for a Saudi-Israeli “alliance,” and it is clear that this has never been the plan of any wing of the Zionist leadership, including most “doves.”

When discussing the effect of the US dealing with Iran perhaps moving the US away from Israel, these fundamental facts have to be taken into consideration. How likely is it that the US will now turn around and demand Israel accept and act on international law and withdraw from the occupied territories, when for years the US hasn’t even objected to the continual and massive increase of Israeli “settlement” of the West Bank? In other words, while the new regional dealing is bad news for the Syrian oppressed, is it possible that it may have spin-offs for other sections of the oppressed in the region due to geopolitical coincidence? I suggest, highly unlikely. So far, there is not a scrap of evidence that the super-oppressed Palestinians will be among those benefiting; if anything, with Israel demagogically screaming blue murder about the Iranian deal, the most likely US response will be to allow Israel to get away with more settlement building, more ethnic cleansing, and more murder. Indeed, as Ali Abunimah suggests, Israel may already be “reaping rewards from Iran deal at Palestinian expense” (http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/israel-already-reaping-rewards-iran-deal-palestinian-expense?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter).

The one section of the region’s oppressed who stand to gain are the Iranian masses, to the extent it brings some mild relief from imperialist sanctions. This is certainly not unimportant. At the same time, this should not be exaggerated: while Rouhani has been projecting “moderate” image to the West, that is a desire to work with imperialism, back home there has been a surge of executions – some 500 for the year, but 200 since Rouhani came to power in August. This includes political opponents, disproportionately Kurds.

In fact, while all deals involve a certain amount of compromise, at least cosmetically, on both sides, the revelation that the UK has been organising secret negotiations between the US and Hezbollah over a number of months (http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Report-London-is-mediating-indirect-secret-talks-between-US-and-Hezbollah-333245) suggests the likely direction of the pressure that will be exerted. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the latter’s alleged “threat” to Israel is a major US-Iranian difference; but the negotiations suggest attempts to ensure Iran’s interests in Lebanon while presumably trying to keep Hezbollah tamed. The fact the negotiations include the topic if “fighting Al-Qaida” suggests a very different western view of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria than that publicly projected (And the fact that the CIA warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning to bomb Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, “with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah,” and which Hezbollah acknowledged (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/15/196755/lebanese-officials-say-cia-warned.html#.Ug6CQLzgKCQ) suggests this orientation is already being acted upon).

What is often forgotten is that Hezbollah’s success in driving the Israeli occupation out of Lebanon – ie the reason it was seen as the “resistance” – is over a decade old, and even the 2006 moment is a long time ago. Hezbollah has not fired a shot at Israel since then, the Lebanese people have no appetite to undergo such slaughter again, only the relatively tiny Shaaba Farms remain in Israeli hands to give “resistance” any clear meaning, and the link with Hamas in Palestine which was an important aspect of the “resistance” back then has been broken over Hezbollah’s support for Assad. It is therefore not hard to imagine a deal that allows Hezbollah to continue with a certain amount of bluster but in fact continue to do what it has been doing, with a “new Iran” guaranteeing this situation.

All that said, will current US geopolitical dealing with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime in Syria simply mean an out and out support for victory of the latter? Or might Iran’s role with the Syrian solution, while reactionary to boot, perhaps be to help edge Assad aside and allow a ‘Yemeni solution’, an ‘Assad regime without Assad’, that the US and other imperialist powers have long believed was the only way to bring the revolution to a grinding halt and end the destabilization that is boosting the anti-imperialist jihadist fringe?

The answer to that of course remains to be seen. It is possible however to sketch some possible scenarios and examine some hints.

First, in the short-term, the outcome has been a victory for Assad’s regime of bloody counterrevolution. Assad successfully tested the US “red-line,” and now, under the guise of cooperating with the US and Russia to get rid of its chemical weapons, Assad has been assured a year or so of unfettered – indeed stepped up – use of his massive arsenal of conventional WMD with which he has done nearly all his killing anyway; to this has been added a series of horrific starvation sieges on various towns around Damascus and Homs. The US has essentially moved into alliance with the regime; indeed, the Assad plan of cleansing the region from Damascus to the Alawite heartland on the coast is being justified as necessary to secure the path for vehicles removing the chemicals to ports. In October, even the minimalist non-lethal US aid to the FSA in the north was officially halted (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-halts-aid-to-syrian-rebels.aspx?pageID=238&nID=56624&NewsCatID=358). As Iran and Hezbollah continue to play a significant role in the slaughter – indeed Hezbollah has been heavily involved in the regime’s recent bloody offensives around Damascus – the distinctly counterrevolutionary nature of the US-Syrian and US-Iranian understanding is clear.

Recent articles in the mainstream media have clarified this further. Former senior US diplomats Daniel Kurtzer and Thomas Pickering and former Iranian Ambassador Seyyed Hossein Mousavian wrote this week for Al-Monitor that “timely implementation [of the joint plan of action] will not only build trust and credibility, but will also significantly improve the atmosphere and prospects for a full agreement within the next six months. Such a trend would facilitate further constructive cooperation between Iran and the world powers on other crises in the Middle East such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The interim agreement — and its faithful implementation — is a significant opportunity which should not be missed or it will constitute a failure of unimaginable proportions” (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/syria-emirate-fears-iran-nuclear-deal-week-in-review.html#).

More specifically regarding the Assad regime, the December 3 New York Times reported:

“Some analysts and American officials say the chaos there could force the Obama administration to take a more active role to stave off potential threats among the opposition groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But striking at jihadist groups in Syria would pose formidable political, military and legal obstacles, and could come at the cost of some kind of accommodation — even if only temporary or tactical — with Mr. Assad’s brutal but secular government, analysts say.
“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/world/middleeast/jihadist-groups-gain-in-turmoil-across-middle-east.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimesworld&pagewanted=all&_r=1&).

These views have been bolstered by almost daily rhetoric in the mainstream media about the jihadist threat in Syria, and by almost daily statements by ruling class figures that an Assad victory is currently the most preferable outcome: Michael Hayden, retired US Air Force general and CIA head till 2009, and former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Dan Halutz, have said as much in recent days (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-13/240934-assad-win-may-be-syrias-best-option-ex-cia-chief.ashx#axzz2nKspUd4f, http://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-idf-chief-israel-prefers-that-assad-stay-in-power).

More long-term, however, the US will still have the problem of restabilising Syria, and unless the unlikely scenario of a total crushing of the revolt by Assad comes to pass, ultimately the same issues will remain. Certainly, the leeway being given to Assad currently to smash the revolution will significantly weaken it, thus forcing the opposition to agree to a worse bargain than they may have otherwise hoped for, and this is undoubtedly the imperialist plan. But most likely, opposition in parts of the country will remain; and the simple demographics of a country where 70 percent of the population are (mostly poor) Sunnis under an Alawi-dominated ruling clique strongly suggests that some broadening of power in the central regime, while maintaining it military-security-bureaucratic core, giving the dictatorship a cosmetic facelift, will be essential to winning a significant enough section of the bourgeois opposition leadership over to the perspective of some kind of ceasefire. Given regional dynamics, this would also be the minimum concession necessary for Saudi/GCC agreement to a settlement.

While in theory, a broadening of the regime to include some bourgeois oppositionist and Sunni figures may be possible with Assad still in some kind of role, in practice he is seen as the key symbol of the regime that has waged ferocious war on the people for 3 years and no section of the opposition so far has said it will even consider an agreement that does not involve Assad stepping down. Indeed, much of the opposition refuses to even attend the Geneva talks, scheduled for late January, if Assad is present. Under massive American pressure, the main exile-based Syrian opposition leadership, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has agreed to drop this condition and will attend Geneva, alongside the Assad regime and some other smaller forces. But the SNC still insists it will not agree to anything that leaves him in power; they see leaving the regime in power as compromise enough, while Assad has insisted there is no way he won’t stay in power.

It may be that Iran’s role will be to try to edge Assad out, secure some safe place for him and ensure the interests of the Alawite and Shia factors in the make-up of the regime’s new face. There are a number of indications of Iran’s flexibility on this question. The chemical attack itself strained Assad’ relations with both Iran and Hezbollah, especially given Iran’s own history of suffering chemical attack by the Iraqi Baath regime in the 1980s; some Iranian leaders explicitly blamed Assad for the attack (I guess they weren’t reading “Global Research”). Leading Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah Sistani recently called on Assad, and Iraq’s Shiite leader Maliki, to step down; Iran and Turkey, a country prominently backing the Syrian opposition, recently made a joint call on government and opposition to stop fighting and declare a ceasefire even before Geneva, to ensure Geneva proceeds (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/iran-forecast-turkey-tehran-proclaim-reconciliation/); the two states also called for reconciliation and a joint approach to the region’s problems. And on a tour of the Gulf, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on Saudi Arabia to cooperate with Tehran on “achieving regional stability” (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-02/239605-irans-zarif-urges-saudi-to-work-jointly-for-stability.ashx#axzz2mQ3jab6V).

Finally, some Iranian revolutionary guards have expressed criticism of the Syrian military, whether on the one hand, due to oppressive practices towards the people, or on the other, due to the fact that many ordinary Syrian soldiers, quite rightly, have little interest in fighting (http://www.albawaba.com/news/syria-iran-military-536246), unlike these foreign mercenaries. The recent abandonment of Hezbollah ‘true-believers’ by Assad’s army south of Damascus during an opposition counterattack, leaving them to face the music, may have also opened a few eyes there.

On the other hand, what even this regional and pan-Syrian agreement from the top can achieve is dubious. While the SNC has accepted going to Geneva, on the ground none of the fighting forces have: not only the jihadist groups, but also the mainstream Islamic groups gathered in the new Islamic Front, and even the secular exile-based Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the FSA have all refused to attend; indeed, the SMC/FSA has insisted it will not even announce a ceasefire during talks, putting it at odds with its SNC partners (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/26/us-syria-crisis-talks-rebels-idusbre9ap0bb20131126?utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2amideast%20brief&utm_campaign=mideast%20brief%2011-26-2013). Just what can be achieved without fighters represented is unclear. Even among the political opposition, a major section of the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian National Council (the first exile-based opposition group) has rejected attendance at Geneva (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/10/13/Key-Syrian-opposition-group-rejects-peace-talks-.html).

Arguably a ceasefire achieved via a political solution at Geneva, however transitory, would be a positive step compared to the ongoing war with its catastrophic bloodshed, absolute military superiority of the regime, and political inability of the opposition to win certain sectors of the population (particularly minorities). While the proposed set-ups, featuring the maintenance of the core of the regime, are far from ideal, whether it is positive or negative depends a lot on the detail, and on the relationship of forces. For US imperialism and its current allies, the aim would be to stabilise Syria’s capitalist state and contain the revolution enough to be able to crush any recalcitrant elements; however, given the alternative being a continuation of the current bloody stalemate, for the Syrian revolution the aim would be to take advantage of any such opening to deepen and broaden the revolutionary struggle by allowing a return to mass civil struggle and allowing the people some relief from the impossible situation.

However, this is just the analysis of a writer from afar. If things are seen by those on the ground differently to how it may look to us from afar, it is best to try to understand why, especially given the fact that in rejecting attendance at Geneva, they are standing up to massive imperialist pressure to take part. Aside from the question of Assad’s attendance at the conference, the broader question is the relationship of forces. The FSA leadership did not reject negotiations in principle, but stressed the conditions are not right; they clearly see they are being railroaded into a potential agreement in conditions when they have been starved of weaponry by the same imperialist powers who insist they attend, thus attending at a moment when they are in a weakened bargaining position. Their gamble is that fighting on may either reverse this before future negotiations, or lead to uprising within the centres of regime control. From afar, such scenarios seem highly unlikely. But the unanimity among fighting forces on the ground, from the most secular through to the jihadists suggests they may know things we don’t.

More recently, there have been contradictory indications from the SMC, some suggesting they would attend Geneva after all despite Assad’s presence, with the very strict condition that Geneva must lead to Assad’s departure; yet at the very moment that such flexibility has been expressed, imperialist states have apparently seen it as a sign of weakness, with a December 18 report claiming “Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace next month talks may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration,” because “because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue” (http://in.news.yahoo.com/exclusive-west-signals-syrian-opposition-assad-may-stay-193919109.html). Where exactly this would leave SMC or even SNC participation remains to be seen.

Whether this plan by virtually the entire armed opposition to fight on will work any more than the US-Russia-Turkey-Iran plan to stabilise a modified regime remains to be seen. But as someone recently posted to the FSA website, there remains another scenario: the regime and main opposition leadership attend Geneva; they are forced into agreement, which is imposed on Syria; the US then declares all those on the ground opposed to the “international” agreement to be “terrorists,” with whatever punishment that flows from that …