Putting out the Syrian fire
The Syrian conflict has become the world's greatest proxy war since Vietnam. It reflects every major fault line that has defined the Middle East for the past half-century and has drawn in local, regional and global actors, many of whom see this as an existential fight that they cannot afford to lose.
This is why the conflict is so vicious, and so difficult to settle diplomatically. But the war's proxy status also holds the key to its resolution: The fighting will only cease when the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia feel the negative consequences of the war and conclude that it is in their best interests to end it.
In Syria, the list of players stretches far beyond the demonstrators who faced off against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Iran and Hezbollah assist the Assad regime with money and troops; Shiite Iraqi militants are fighting in Syria on Assad's behalf.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and other conservative Arab monarchies support the rebels because they feel that toppling Assad would weaken Hezbollah and Iran, and reduce Shiite and Iranian influence in the region. Sunni Salafis in Lebanon and Kuwait are likewise providing support to the opposition. And Pan-Islamic Salafist militant movements, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, exploit the chaos in order to establish "pure" Islamic communities or states.
In some ways, Russia and America are fighting, in Syria, the last battle of the Cold War.
Russia wants to prevent the United States from determining the fate of Middle Eastern regimes. It also hopes to defeat anti-Assad Islamist rebels who have close ties to anti-Russian Islamists.
The fall of Assad would enhance America's standing in the region. Along with France and other foreign powers, the Obama administration seemed poised to attack Syria (as Israel has done twice recently) to deter it, Hezbollah or others from using advanced or banned weapons, and bring about a more compliant Arab order.
Thus far, the Geneva communiqué, drafted in June 2012, is the only framework that all parties have agreed on to end the fighting and explore a path to a political transition. A second Geneva conference has been proposed for this autumn, but seems unlikely to get off the ground: Assad will not negotiate his own exit, as demanded by the opposition.
But the very nature of the conflict as a proxy war may provide a way out. The ability of the Syrian government and opposition groups to keep up the fight largely depends on the continued support of their external patrons. But two developments may soon change the political landscape: the Russian-American agreement, backed by the United Nations Security Council, on removing Syria's chemical weapons, and the accelerating willingness of America and Iran to negotiate seriously on nuclear issues, sanctions and other matters.
The Russian-American accord showed that the global powers could initiate actions that local proxies must accept, and it also revitalised the role of the Security Council. Successful American-Iranian cooperation, meanwhile, could significantly change Tehran's calculations on how best to achieve its goals in the region.
But resolving the Syrian conflict requires the involvement of one more external entity: Saudi Arabia.
Among its many objectives, Saudi Arabia wants to weaken Iran and end its alleged nuclear arms ambitions, topple Assad, contain Hezbollah, stop the expansion of Shiite influence, reassert Sunni political predominance in much of the Arab world, and strengthen pro-Western or conservative regimes in the Middle East.
Riyadh would enter a dialogue with Tehran, Moscow and Washington if it felt that most of these goals could be achieved peacefully. And if American-Russian-Iranian dialogues generated enough regional momentum, the Saudis would be eager to join the conversation in order to ensure maximum gains.
Other regional actors—including Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Qatar—would have no option other than to follow the Saudi-American lead.
The new regime in Qatar has curtailed its regional interventions in the face of more robust Saudi initiatives in Syria and Egypt, and in the wake of the relative decline of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and across the region.
Once at the table, each of these four key drivers of the many wars within Syria would likely decide that an agreement best serves their strategic interests.
America and Saudi Arabia would see Assad removed from power and check what they see as Iran's hegemonic and nuclear aims (and, significantly for Saudi Arabia, Shiite influence across the region).
Russia would feel it had weakened Islamist rebels, given Assad a dignified exit and stopped Washington's unilateral assaults on Mideast regimes; Iran would secure formal American acceptance of its regional significance and its right to a peaceful nuclear capability and an end to the sanctions against it.
With Saudi Arabia in the mix, another Geneva-style gathering would finally have the backing needed to produce results: a cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and refugee repatriations, and a peaceful transition to a post-Assad, post-Baathist government, with significant decentralisation of power from the central government, and strong legal protections for all religious groups.
The writer is Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
© The New York Times 2013. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate