A US detour via Syria to Iran
DAMASCUS - In the 1970s, the late Syrian comedian Nihad Quali coined a famous phrase in Syrian television when playing the role of a confused journalist, trying to understand the world around him by observing - for no reason - events in Italy.
He would say, "If we want to know what is happening in Italy, we need to know what is happening in Brazil. And if we want to know what is happening in Brazil, we need to know what is happening in Italy!" His words were funny and illogical.
They can be applied to today's world, however, and make much more sense when it comes to Iraq. After all, if we want to know what is happening in Iraq, we need to know what is happening in Syria and Iran. And if we want to know what is happening in the United States, we have to know what is happening in Iraq.
It is because of Iraq that the US administration has increased its campaign against both Syria and Iran since 2003. Four years later, it is because of Iraq that the United States finds itself obliged to sit and talk with both these states.
This culminated in the security conference in Baghdad last weekend. The Syrians, the Iranians, the Saudis and the Americans were there. Some see this as a great breakthrough and a U-turn in US President George W Bush's attitude toward the Middle East. Although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that the conference was the brainchild of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said it could not have been done without US approval, adding that it was a "very small but important step to break the ice and establish a true dialogue between America, Iran and Syria".
This was the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003 that Bush had agreed that members of his administration could sit face-to-face with Syria and Iran to solve Iraq's numerous problems. Despite all the denial and rough talk of the US administration, this is new to Washington. Some expected a high level of corridor diplomacy to take place in Baghdad, particularly between the US and the Iranians over the latter's nuclear program. US officials, mainly Zalmay Khalilzad, the ambassador to Iraq, have denied these speculations, saying that discussions were open and public and dealt only with Iraq.
This was echoed by Mohammad Ali Husseini, the spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among other things, the conference discussed leaving security affairs to the Iraqi government, arranging a timetable for the departure of foreign forces and taking steps to disarm militias and combat terrorism. While they were meeting, at least two mortar shells landed near the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite grand security measures, showing just how much counter-terrorism measures are needed in Baghdad.
Despite numerous press reports debating whether the conference was ceremonial and cosmetic or substantial, not much has been leaked on what exactly took place in Baghdad.
And the winner is ...
The Iranians are clearly pleased at the new US realization that events in Iraq can only be solved through the help of Tehran. These were the first public talks between the two countries since they cooperated on Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The US, very unintentionally, greatly served Iran's interests by toppling its No 1 enemy, Saddam Hussein, in 2003, and replacing him with a group of Shi'ite politicians largely supported by, created by or affiliated with the Iranian government. Four years into the occupation, the US has been unable to challenge the Iranians in Iraq - much to the displeasure of Bush.
All warnings by US officials that these Shi'ite politicians would not trade their relationship with Tehran for a marriage of convenience with Washington fell on deaf ears at the White House in 2003. Iran at the time was more willing to yield to US pressure, under the leadership of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, than it is today under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
In the spring of 2003, Iran sent a message to the US requesting unconditional talks. It wanted to place all issues on the table, ranging from Palestine to Iraq to Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program. Khatami proposed suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for commencing talks with the US.
According to Aria Mehrabi, a member of the leadership council of the New America Foundation, this proposal reached the State Department and was read by Flynt Leverett, the Middle East adviser at the National Security Council. He forwarded it to his superiors, but the proposal died there and Rice, then national security adviser, claimed to have never received it. The Iranians did not resend.
Why should they? The war played out in their favor. Tehran watched as sectarian violence swept Iraq. It condemned the chaos but never claimed that it was incapable of ending it. On the contrary, time seemed on its side in 2003-06. The US administration was being humiliated by the civil war, and Bush was unable to bring violence to a halt.
Iran waited for the moment when the US would become so desperate that it would call on Tehran to intervene in Iraqi affairs - perhaps a la Syria in Lebanon in 1976 - to stabilize the country.
Iran had the manpower to do so, after all. It knew the geography. It had the money. It had the connections - both politically and religiously. More important, it had legitimacy with Iraqi Shi'ites. The US, however, was willing to look in every other direction - including rapprochement with Damascus - rather than talk to Iran. All other directions, without Iran, have led to continued failure in Iraq.
It became clear to the United States by late last year that a deal could not be reached without Iran. The Shi'ites it had relied on since 2003 were clearly more affiliated with the mullahs than with the US. This applied to strongmen in Iraqi politics such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who heads the parliamentary majority and walks a fine rope between being both pro-Iranian and pro-American, and Maliki.
Also, according to Central Intelligence Agency reports last year, a bulk of the insurgency was coming from Shi'ite militias, such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, which is close to the Iraqi premier, rather than from Sunni tribesmen and al-Qaeda militants.
Despite the need for dialogue, the conference on Saturday was not as smooth as it needed to be. US and Iranian officials traded accusations, refusing to take blame for the chaos in Iraq. David Satterfield, the US envoy, who had not ruled out corridor diplomacy between the two countries, pointed to his briefcase, saying he had documents proving that Iran was arming Shi'ite militias. Iranian envoy Abbas Araghci snapped back, "Your accusations are merely a cover for your failures in Iraq."
Khalilzad, who advocated courting the Sunnis at the expense of Iraq's Shi'ites, also held direct talks with the Iranians, describing them as "constructive and businesslike". The Iranians objected to the kidnapping of six of their diplomats by US troops in January. Five of the missing were taken from the Iranian Consulate in the northern city of Irbil. One day before the consulate was raided, after all, Bush had said the US troops in Iraq would "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks.
Despite the coolness, the sides decided to hold follow-up meetings to discuss security, energy, and Iraqi refugees. These talks will include Group of Eight nations and take place in Turkey next month. Hours after the Baghdad meeting, Iraqi Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi, who had been critical of Shi'ite hegemony in Iraqi politics, arrived in Tehran to discuss relations with Iran.
There is a strong fear in Iraqi circles that a confrontation will take place between Iran and the United States, based on numerous media reports and a general mood in the international community. Much is being done to defuse the rising tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites, to appease an angry, hungry, insecure and frustrated Iraqi street. If Iran is attacked, it will unite Muslim opinion against the United States, rather than divide it, as some US analysts say.
Inasmuch as radical Sunnis might be anti-Shi'ite, they are certainly more anti-American. Ahmadinejad recently concluded a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah, who is believed to control a large part of the Sunni street in Iraq. While the delegates were meeting in Baghdad, US officials were busy in New York talking about tougher economic sanctions on Iran.
Yet while the Iraqis were holding their breath, awaiting outcomes of the conference based on US-Iranian talks, the media were painting a very different picture of where the world is heading under Bush. The British Broadcasting Corp said the US is planning a bombing campaign against Iranian military and nuclear targets, mainly in Natanz and Asfahan. The Israeli press paints a similar picture, saying that Ahmadinejad is a new Adolf Hitler who must be combated before he threatens the entire world with annihilation.
The British Guardian wrote last month that the US is in "advanced stages" of preparing for war on Iran. The London Sunday Telegraph wrote on February 25 that the US is funding ethnic separatist groups (non-Persian, which make up nearly 40% of Iran's 70 million) inside Iran to create trouble for the Iranian regime. These include Kurds, Azeris and Ahwaz Arabs.
Topping all came an article in The New Yorker by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who said a "redirection" is under way at the Pentagon and the White House, focusing on Iran. The new plan is to fund action against Hezbollah in Lebanon and encourage Sunni extremists to fight the Shi'ites, as the Americans did after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 - they encouraged Sunni extremists to fight the Russians.
Architects of this plan, according to Hersh, are Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, Khalilzad, Saudi National Security Adviser Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and US Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke from Australia of "all options" being on the table for dealing with Iran.
Hersh has one striking statement, quoting a source informed on the "redirection" as saying, "It's not that we don't want the Salafis to throw bombs, it's who they throw them at - Hezbollah, Muqtada al-Sadr, Iran and the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran." Hersh adds that a special planning committee has been created in the offices of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that could be implemented "upon orders from the president, within 24 hours".
If 10% of what is being said about the US attitude toward Iran is correct, then all the noise made about the Baghdad conference is nonsense. Iran will continue to use the Iraqi battlefield to pressure and embarrass the Americans. It is Iran's only way to push forward with its nuclear program, which, according to US intelligence, will be ready in the form of a weapon by 2015.
Iran wants to strike a deal with the Americans based on the premise that it will help in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq on the condition that its gets a free hand to pursue its national ambitions.
These areas of Iranian influence are a double-edged sword for the Americans. Either Iran can bring law and order to them - or unleash hell - if the Americans decide to attack.
There's always Syria
For these reasons, although the Americans are talking with Iran today, they would rather deal with Syria. They know, however, that Damascus alone cannot solve Iraq's problems, though it can be used to moderate Iranian behavior.
For some time, the world has been divided on what to do with the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Some talk about breaking it - but this would be too difficult. Others, currently in the ascendency, want to invest in it. They believe that Syria is a country that can be talked to and which speaks reason.
It does not have the ambitions of Iran, nor does it share in the history of anti-American sentiment that is high among Iranian leaders. True, Syria alone, without the help of Saudi Arabia, cannot curb the anger of the Iraqi Sunni street. Nor can it bring the Shi'ite militias to order. It can, however, better control its 605-kilometer border with Iraq and also try to mediate between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
More important, it can talk reason to Iran. Syria's actions, unlike Iran's often stubborn stance with regard to Washington, have been encouraging. In September 2004, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, delivered a letter from the Syrian leadership to the Bush administration, expressing Syria's willingness to cooperate in bring security and stability to Iraq.
The US did not reply. Again, he delivered the same message in 2005, pointing out, however, that if the US wanted Syrian cooperation, political engagement with Damascus must ensue. Again, according to a recent article by the Syrian ambassador, "the US was not interested".
The US attitude changed as the chaos and death toll rose in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group Report stressed the need to talk to Syria to help stabilize Iraq. Former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger made similar appeals to the Bush White House. Former secretary of state Colin Powell even gave an interview to Newsweek, saying that during his talks with the Syrians, right after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, he received plenty from them - shattering the long-lasting argument that says the US found a non-cooperating Syria in the Middle East.
Congress members from both sides have recently either spoken in favor of talking to Damascus or visited the Syrian capital to meet with President Bashar al-Assad. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that based on the National Intelligence Estimate, "Syria is not causing strife within Iraq." He added, "The Syrians have nothing to do with it."
Attending the Baghdad conference was Step 1 in the right direction toward Syria. It was accompanied by other gestures toward Damascus. One was when Colonel William Crowe, who is in charge of the border district between Syria and Iraq, spoke to reporters about the number of foreign fighters coming from across the Syrian border. He said, "There is no large influx of foreign fighters that come across the border."
One day after the Baghdad conference, Ellen Sauerbrey, the US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, went to Damascus with a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was the first such visit by a senior US official since 2005. She discussed Iraqi refugees, who number 1.5 million in Syria alone, arriving at a rate of 40,000 per month. Her visit spelled out dialogue, rather than confrontation.
Skeptics suggest that the US agreeing to meet with Iran and Syria at the same venue was simply a cosmetic move to contain Democratic ire in Congress, or a ploy to defuse talk of a US confrontation with Iran and show that it is pursuing diplomatic options.
The truth might be more prosaic: the US is finally admitting its faults and acknowledging that Iraq cannot be stabilized without its neighbors. Unfortunately, the "diplomacy to justify aggression" option remains on the table.
Sami Moubayed is managing editor of a new Syrian magazine, Forward.