FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Iran, Syria and the Balance of Power in the Middle East

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Turkish artillery is firing across the border into Syria. Explosions have torn apart buildings in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, making their floors collapse on top of each other so they look like giant concrete sandwiches. The country resembles Lebanon during its civil war, the victim of unbearable and ever-escalating violence but with no clear victor likely to emerge.

In Iran, Syria’s most important ally in the region, sanctions on oil exports and central bank transactions are paralysing the economy. The bazaar in Tehran closed after violent protests at a 40 per cent fall in the value of the currency, the rial, over the past week. Demonstrators gathered outside the central bank after finding they could no longer get dollars from their accounts. Popular anger is at its highest level since the alleged fixing of Iran’s presidential election of 2009.

Will these events lead to a change in the balance of power at the heart of the region? Iran and Syria were the leaders for the past 10 years of the so-called “resistance bloc”, the grouping that supported the Palestinians and opposed the US-led combination that brought together Arab dictatorships and Israel in a tacit alliance. This anti-American bulwark was at the height of its influence between 2006 and 2010 after the failed US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon and Gaza.

At first, the Arab Spring seemed to favour the “resistance bloc”. Without Syria and Iran having to lift a finger, President Hosni Mubarak and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were driven from power in Egypt and Tunisia. And Bashar al-Assad seemed confident, in the first months of 2011, that his opposition to the US, Arab autocracies and Israel would protect him against the revolutionary wave.

Eighteen months later, it is the “resistance bloc” that is fighting for its life. Turkey is becoming ever more menacing to Syria and impatient of American restraint. After the US presidential election, Washington could well decide that it is in its interests to go along with Turkish urgings and give more military support to the Syrian opposition. The US might calculate that a prolonged and indecisive civil war in Syria, during which central government authority collapses, gives too many chances to al-Qa’ida or even Iran. It has had a recent example of how a political vacuum can produce nasty surprises when the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed in Benghazi last month.

An ideal outcome from the American point of view is to seek to organise a military coup against the Syrian government in Damascus. Zilmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine that the US should take steps “empowering the moderates in the opposition, shifting the balance of power through arms and other lethal assistance, encouraging a coup leading to a power-sharing arrangement, and accommodating Russia in exchange for its co-operation”.

By becoming the opposition’s main weapons’ suppliers, the US could gain influence over the rebel leadership, encourage moderation and a willingness to share power. Mr Khalilzad envisages that these moves will prepare the ground for a peace conference similar to that held at Taif in Saudi Arabia in 1989 that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. It is also what the US would have liked to have happened in Iraq after 1991.

More direct military involvement in Syria could be dangerous for the US in that it could be sucked into the conflict, but outsourcing support for the rebels to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf may be even riskier. Arms and money dispensed by them are most likely to flow to extreme Sunni groups in Syria, as happened when Pakistani military intelligence was the conduit for US military aid to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s.

Instead of a fight to the finish – and that finish would probably be a long way off – a peace conference with all the players may be the only way to bring an end to the Syrian war. But it is also probably a long way off, because hatred and fear is too deep and neither side is convinced it cannot win. The Kofi Annan plan got nowhere earlier this year because the government and rebels would only implement those parts of it that favoured their own side.

How does Iran view its endangered regional position in the Middle East? Iran’s policy is usually a mixture of practical caution and verbal crudity – the latter often represented to the outside world by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But in its struggles with the Americans in Iraq after 2003, Iran was realistic and seldom overplayed its hand. It may be under pressure from sanctions now, but its situation is nothing like as serious as it was during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988. More recently, Iranians joked that only divine intervention could explain why the US had disposed of its two main enemies, the Taliban and Saddam, in wars that did more good to Iran than the US.

But the success of sanctions on oil exports and Iranian central bank operations seems to have caught Tehran by surprise. Oil revenues have fallen and the cost of food, rent and transport is up. In recent years, Iranians have become big foreign travellers, but last week were stopped withdrawing rials from their dollar accounts. No wonder they’re angry.

But enemies of the Iranian regime should not get up their hopes too early. An Iranian journalist in Tehran sympathetic to the opposition said to me last year that “the problem is that the picture of what is happening in Iran these days comes largely from exiled Iranians and is often a product of wishful thinking”. The Iranian regime is far more strongly rooted than the Arab regimes overthrown or battling for survival. The Iranian-led bloc in the region may be weaker, but it has not disintegrated.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Mark Schuller
So What am I Doing Here? Reflections on the Inauguration Day Protests
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail