Consequences of the fall of the Syrian regime (2)
(Continued from Wednesday)
A strategic blow to Iran As the Russians withdraw support, Iran is now left extremely exposed. There had been a sense of inevitability in Iran’s rise in the region, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula. The decline of al Assad’s regime is a strategic blow to the Iranians in two ways. First, the wide-reaching sphere of influence they were creating clearly won’t happen now. Second, Iran will rapidly move from being an ascendant power to a power on the defensive. The place where this will become most apparent is in Iraq. For Iran, Iraq represents a fundamental national security interest. Having fought a bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s, the Iranians have an overriding interest in assuring that Iraq remains at least neutral and preferably pro-Iranian. While Iran was ascendant, Iraqi politicians felt that they had to be accommodating. However, in the same way that Syrian generals had to recalculate their positions, Iraqi politicians have to do the same. With sanctions—whatever their effectiveness—being imposed on Iran, and with Iran’s position in Syria unraveling, the psychology in Iraq might change.
This is particularly the case because of intensifying Turkish interest in Iraq. In recent days the Turks have announced plans for pipelines in Iraq to oil fields in the south and in the north. Turkish economic activity is intensifying. Turkey is the only regional power that can challenge Iran militarily. It uses that power against the Kurds in Iraq. But more to the point, if a country builds a pipeline, it must ensure access to it, either politically or militarily. Turkey does not want to militarily involve itself in Iraq, but it does want political influence to guarantee its interests. Thus, just as the Iranians are in retreat, the Turks have an interest in, if not supplanting them, certainly supplementing them. The pressure on Iran is now intense, and it will be interesting to see the political consequences. There was consensus on the Syrian strategy, but with failure of the strategy, that consensus dissolves. This will have an impact inside of Iran, possibly even more than the sanctions. Governments have trouble managing reversals.
From the American point of view, al Assad’s decline opens two opportunities. First, its policy of no direct military intervention but unremitting political and, to a lesser extent, economic pressure appears to be working in this instance. More precisely, even if it had no effect, it will appear that it did, which will enhance the ability of the United States to influence events in other countries without actually having to intervene.
Second, the current situation opens the door for a genuine balance of power in the region that does not require constant American intervention. One of the consequences of the events in Syria is that Turkey has had to reconsider its policy toward countries on its periphery. In the case of Iraq, Turkey has an interest in suppressing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants who have taken refuge there and defending oil and other economic interests. Turkey’s strategy is moving from avoiding all confrontations to avoiding major military commitments while pursuing its political interests. In the end, that means that Turkey will begin moving into a position of balancing Iran for its own interests in Iraq.
This relieves the United States of the burden of containing Iran. We continue to regard the Iranian sphere of influence as a greater threat to American and regional interests than Iran’s nuclear program. The decline of al Assad solves the major problem. It also increases the sense of vulnerability in Iran. Depending on how close they are to creating a deliverable nuclear weapon — and our view is that they are not close — the Iranians may feel it necessary to moderate their position.
A major loser in this is Israel. Israel had maintained a clear understanding with the al Assad regime. If the al Assad regime restrained Hezbollah, Israel would have no objection to al Assad’s dominating Lebanon. That agreement has frayed since the United States pushed al Assad’s influence out of Lebanon in 2006. Nevertheless, the Israelis preferred al Assad to the Sunnis — until it appeared that the Iranians would dominate Syria. But the possibility of either an Islamist regime in Damascus or, more likely, Lebanese-style instability cannot please the Israelis. They are already experiencing jihadist threats in Sinai. The idea of having similar problems in Syria, where the other side of the border is the Galilee rather than the Negev, must make them nervous. But perhaps the most important losers will be Russia and China. Russia, like Iran, has suffered a significant setback in its foreign policy that will have psychological consequences. The situation in Syria has halted the foreign-policy momentum the Russians had built up.
But more important, the Russian and Chinese hope has been that the United States would continue to treat them as secondary issues while it focused on the Middle East. The decline of al Assad and the resulting dynamic in the region increases the possibility that the United States can disengage from the region. This is not something the Russians or Chinese want, but in the end, they did not have the power to create the outcome in Syria that they had wanted.
The strategy of the dominant power is to encourage a balance of power that contains threats without requiring direct intervention. This was the British strategy, but it has not been one that the United States has managed well. After the jihadist wars, there is a maturation under way in U.S. strategy. That means allowing the intrinsic dynamic in the region to work, intervening only as the final recourse. The events in Syria appear to be simply about the survival of the al Assad regime. But they have far greater significance in terms of limiting Iranian power, creating a local balance of power and freeing the United States to focus on global issues, including Russia and China. (Concluded).
Friedman wrote this for geopolitical weekly (mail@ response.stratfor.com)Share