October 21, 2014
Dr. Jubin Goodarzi, Head of the International Relations Department, Webster University
Although typically described in binary terms, the ongoing civil war in Syria reflects a much larger, multidimensional conflict in the Middle East. For decades now, Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by Russia and the U.S. respectively, have utilized proxy groups to undermine one another’s interests across the region. However, as the war in Syria has escalated and become increasingly sectarian in nature, the U.S., Russia, Iran, and even the Gulf States, all now share a common threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other radical militant groups operating in and around Syria. Although IS clearly poses a regional threat, Dr. Goodarzi is worried that competing regional interests – particularly those between Iran and Saudi Arabia – will dissuade any attempts of cooperation.
In the past, the partnership among Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has threatened U.S. interests in the region. During the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Iran both played a role in hosting and arming fighters and extremists who opposed Western intervention. While the U.S. was present in Iraq, Dr. Goodarzi estimated that approximately 60-80% of the suicide bombers that struck within the country crossed the border from Syria.
In a similar vein, the U.S. and its allies have a history of working against Iran and its interests. Not even taking into account the role the U.S. played in propping up an oppressive government in Iran during the 1960’s and 70’s, Dr. Goodarzi pointed out that even recently the U.S. has engaged in a “Faustian bargain” with several of the Gulf States. In Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Naval Fleet, the U.S. has supplied arms and resources to a government widely seen as oppressing it majority Shi’ite citizens. In addition, the U.S. signed a $60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia in 2010 – the largest arms deal ever – and then an $11 billion dollar agreement with Qatar in 2014.
So far these preexisting tensions have prevented any direct cooperation between Iran and the U.S. led coalition. However, while fighting IS in Iraq, where the group poses a more immediate threat to Iran, the two parties have been able to work side-by-side in pursuit of a common goal. Although Dr. Goodarzi believes that Iran’s actions within Iraq are at least in part driven by fears that U.S. will establish a base of influence in the autonomous Kurdistan Region or that IS will in turn encourage Iran’s own Sunni minority to take up arms against the government, he also believes that these moves demonstrates a willingness by Iran to act pragmatically when its key interests are at stake. With Syria in its beleaguered state, Iraq’s strategic and economic value is increasing in Iran, as bilateral trade between the two countries grew to $12 billion dollars in 2013.
These demonstrations of pragmatism reinforce Dr. Goodarzi’s opinion that it was a “mistake” for the U.S. and Syrian opposition to exclude Iran from recent negotiations held in Paris and Geneva. Even in light of the fact that Iranian leaders have been trying to link cooperation in Syria with ongoing nuclear negotiations, Dr. Goodarzi believes that the U.S. can decouple the issues and “nudge” Iran into action in Syria. All the U.S. needs to do is pose as a credible threat to the Assad regime. It is his belief that, should the U.S. flex it military might and issue a strike against Assad, then Russia and Iran would recognize the futility of continuing to prop up the Regime and would allow it to fall.
However, Dr. Goodarzi also warned that this cannot be a one-way street, and that the U.S. and its allies must also be willing to curtail their own positions and rhetoric if there is to be any hope of peace. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia and its allies need to curtail the growing trends of sectarianism and extremism throughout the Gulf. Over the course of the Syrian war, it has become apparent that Gulf governments, organizations, and individuals have been instrumental in funding and supplying extremist fighters who are in turn fueling the conflict within Syria.
Although they are longtime partners of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other governments throughout the Gulf have a noted history of supporting and utilizing various ideological groups in order to procure their own regional interests. IS and the al-Nusra Front are the direct result of these policies. If there is to be any hope of peace in Syria and the wider Middle East, actors across the region must be willing to critically examine and change their own policies.
As we have seen in Syria over the past three years, military force cannot provide a long-term solution to the crisis. Cooperation, dialogue, and understanding are the only means to achieving lasting stability in Syria, and throughout the Middle East.