EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

On Wednesday 3 February, the UN Syria Peace Talks with the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva have been suspended until 25 February, only three days after they began. Whether the West had high expectations concerning the talks in order to both tackle the refugee crisis and the terrorist threat, their failure highlights the Western ignorance regarding the dynamics animating the Middle East.

Indeed, one main reason that such a political agreement cannot be reached stems from the interference and intransigence of the regional powers: the Islamic Republic of Iran (with the help of Russia) has remained locked in its defence of the regime while Saudi Arabia (with Qatar) and Turkey have been the most active sponsor of the opposition groups. Indeed, although the current falling crude oil prices weighs on the budget of most of these oil rich countries, they will remain locked in a zero-sum game for several fundamental domestic reasons.

 

Iran is, since the 1979 revolution, a theocratic regime in which the Supreme Leader elected for life holds all powers. This revolution is at the core of the state’s identity and is hence the driving force behind its foreign policy. Indeed, the first Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, directly fashioned himself as a pan-Islamic leader, trying to export its revolution across the Middle East. Such policy was obviously received with suspicion by the regional Sunni Heads of State and marks the beginning of the competition for influence between the Sunni states and Iran.

 

The election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, in the last presidential elections, who has been crucial in securing the recent nuclear agreement, has given the West hope for progressive relaxation of Iranian policy on the Syrian issue. Such a reading omits the fact that the one who holds the real power in the country is not the president but the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. In Iran, there is actually a domestic political struggle between moderates and conservatives, but the initiative remains in the hands of the latter. The Nuclear Agreement results thus from a consensus among all Iranian authorities on the necessity to lift the international sanctions in order to revitalize a collapsing domestic economy (e.g. Iran is facing a 30% unemployment rate). It would be however naïve and dangerous to think that the détente policy towards the Iranian rival could gather such consensus. On the contrary, in the wake of the nuclear agreement, the hard-liners will more likely attempt to prevent any further moderate political success, being tougher on the other issues.

It would be however naïve and dangerous to think that the détente policy towards the Iranian rival could gather such consensus.

 

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is also unlikely to make any compromise, mostly due to its numerous fears. First of all, Riyadh is very preoccupied by the regional instability brought by the American intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring, especially because Teheran has exploited this instability in order to expand its influence in the Peninsula. The Shia State is in fact taking part in the regional civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq by sending militias or supporting like-minded rebels.

 

This fear is even more considerable in the light of tensions between Riyadh and its Shia minority, which is perceived as an Iranian foreign agent. Saudi officials have for example reported that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed in an operation in the Shia Eastern Province. Whether the Shia discontent essentially has concerned their socio-economic discrimination, Teheran has always attempted to exploit it to undermine its neighbour. Virulent Iranian criticisms against the execution of the Shia Sheikh al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia represent the most recent symbol of Iranian interference in Saudi domestic affairs.

 

Furthermore, the hawkish Saudi stance towards Iran has to be interpreted in light of the importance of the Wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Riyadh fears an internal jihadist threat, which has already recruited 2,500 members of its numerous conservative population. Therefore, in order to preserve such a fragile domestic stability, Riyadh has given significant powers to the Wahhabi clergy, which is in favour of a warlike stance towards the Shia heretics. The execution of the Shia Sheikh Al-Nimr along to 42 Sunni jihadist terrorists demonstrates this Saudi desire not to upset its Sunni hard-liners.

 

Last but not the least, the hawkish Saudi foreign policy is also caused by the recent regional geopolitical evolutions. As a result of the serious instabilities in Egypt, Riyadh felt in fact obliged to fashion itself as the new protector of Sunni interests in the region. However, whereas the Saudi security policy had been so far based on American security guarantees, Washington gradual withdrawal from the region forced the Saudis to take their responsibilities. This shift towards a more active military approach has been even more perceptible with the transition to King Salman, who brought with him his favourite son, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), as Minister of Defence. MBS wants to succeed his father instead of the rightful heir, his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef, and has based his strategy to do so on a hawkish anti-Iran foreign policy. MBS is for instance responsible for the Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen against the Houti insurgency supported by Teheran.

Turkey benefits in a sense from the Syrian and Iraqi chaos and the emergence of DAESH despite the terrorist threat it represents.

 

For its part, Turkey benefits in a sense from the Syrian and Iraqi chaos and the emergence of DAESH despite the terrorist threat it represents. Indeed, the conflict allows Turkey to strike PKK positions in Iraq through its participation in the American coalition against DAESH. The “Kurdish threat” is in fact the main concern of Turkish President Erdogan who has exploited it for electoral gain, after the loss of his absolute majority because of the high results obtained by a pro-Kurd political party (HDP). Therefore, Turkish policy-makers by far prefer a collapsed Syria than a political agreement including a legitimate autonomous Kurdistan along its border. This is the reason Ankara has constantly excluded the political representation of the Syrian Kurdistan (PYD) in the peace talks, although a sustainable political agreement requires the involvement of the broadest slate possible of concerned parties.

 

Matthieu Crévecoeur

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