Increasingly intense diplomacy among the Nato powers about the turmoil in Syria has been a feature of the last few weeks leading to this week’s G8 meeting hosted by Britain in Northern Ireland, once a similar scene of political-religious and military turmoil. The European powers have been pressing an apparently reluctant President Obama to join them in supplying military assistance to what are called the rebels in Syria. And just before the G8, they were joined by an American eminence, former President Bill Clinton, with his almost unprecedented criticism of Obama as unwittingly setting himself up to look like a “fool.”
The President has now conceded that what he had referred to as his “red line” not to be crossed by President Assad of Syria – the use of chemical weapons – has now been crossed; though this has looked more like a diplomatic convenience to appease the pressure coming from within the US, as well as from the British and French in particular, among the European powers.
Yet, former President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has instantly disputed that what is claimed as a crossing of the red line (a crossing also disputed by Russian President Putin), has been of sufficient gravity to draw the United States President into any substantial commitment of military aid to the Syrian opposition coalition. For critics like Brzezinski, the conflict in Syria is still pre-eminently a domestic event of opposition to a military dictatorship, regionalized because of its ethnic and religious character, to a dispute between the Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and the wealthy but small Gulf states, and those dominated by those of the Shi’ite religious persuasion, in particular Iran, and now Iraq, itself still in a partial state of turmoil.
But even as the G8 has been discussing Syria this week (the results of which will not be evident before this editorial is written), a fear which appears to have dominated Obama’s thinking since he came to office, that the play of Middle Eastern politics substantially dominated by its ethno-religious dimension, is too unstable for the United States’ direct intervention, would appear to be being borne out as true, just as he now appears to be changing his mind.
For the results of the Iranian presidential elections which appear to have been won by an individual who in their terms is deemed a political and economic moderate, will have been bound to have been given belated thought by the discussants at the G8. For Iran, deemed in the West to be a major player in recent years, in their view dirtying the political and diplomatic waters in the Middle East, would now appear to be adopting a new strategy, suggesting as the president-elect indicated in his post-election press conference on Monday, that this is a time for what he kept calling “moderation” in Iranian political and economic policymaking.
So whatever will have been discussed and decided, at the G8 meeting, the major policymakers, from Obama right down, will have had to have been consciously operating on the basis that an important player was absent. And this means that immediately after whatever will have been decided in Northern Ireland, and whatever the anxiety of certain European powers to arm Assad’s opponents and to lift the “no flight zone” agreement vis-à-vis Syria, the first order of business will be to try to determine where the Iranians will now be standing on the issue.
Yet it is improbable that this will become immediately apparent, since there is a period of waiting before the new President assumes his functions, though what President Putin refers to as a “domestic struggle” will not be waiting for that. In the meantime, then, the United States in particular, will be trying to restrain its sometime Shi’ite protégé Iraq, from seeking, as it is doing now, to influence what has essentially become a major Shi’ite-Sunni struggle in Syria, with Assad being seen as a useful ally by the Shi’ites, against the Syrian Sunnis supported, as we have seen, by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, traditional allies and dependents of the Nato powers.
President Obama, when he gave his now famous speech in Cairo, seen retrospectively in the Western world as a predictor, if not a promoter, of the Arab Spring, could perhaps not have clearly perceived the inevitability of a connection between the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and the intensity of the ethnic-religious battle simmering there, as either Sunni or Shi’ite popular majorities, and sometimes political minorities Rather he saw what was going on as a fight against dictatorship. The issue has now been viciously played out in Syria where Assad’s Alawites are part of the larger Shi’ite group.
Complicating all this for the European powers in particular, has been the drawing in of Turkey, made a secular state by its post World War I founder, Ataturk, but now led by one committed to the Sunni faith, President Ergodan. Erdogan, himself fighting a rearguard action at home, has for years promoted the Turkish commitment to membership of the European Union, but has faced resistance and foot-dragging from the Europeans, while many smaller entities of the post-communist era have been given membership. A certain resentment now characterizes his diplomacy.
Turkey, while apparently hoping to have been able to play a moderating role at the beginning of the Syrian struggle, has now essentially taken a stance of opposition to the regime, as Syrian exiles come flooding into his country. His own domestic problems of the last fortnight or so, perceived unsympathetically in West, have now inhibited him from having any major influence on G8 strategising at this time. And in fact, both in Turkey and in Israel, minds must now be on what cards Iran, as a major actor, will be playing in the next few months under its new leadership.
So the G8 will have been taking their decisions, trying to find a compromise between the European hawks like Conservative Britain and Socialist France and a somewhat reluctant Obama, under pressure from the Europeans and probably Canada, still apparently haunted by the nightmare of involvement in the Middle East that characterized relations between President Carter and Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran, and then George Bush’s intervention which has now left a broken Iraq, democratic in form, but increasingly led by Shi’ites and appearing to seek a firmer relationship with Iran.
President Putin, still haunted by the stance taken by Nato powers, and the Europeans in particular, in their intervention in Libya, will have been fighting a rearguard action, yet unable to strengthen any resistance that Obama might have initially had, to a more active Western presence in Syria.