June 8, 2014 6:04 pm

Iran’s plan for Syria aims to woo Saudi Arabia and the west

Its diplomacy over Syria is reminiscent of role Damascus played in Lebanon, says Ibrahim Hamidi

The election in Syria last week that secured Bashar al-Assad a third term as president has been denounced by the opposition and many western governments, who called the poll a sham and said it was rigged. Meanwhile Iran, the Syrian leader’s chief ally, is trumpeting the victory as its own.

The vote comes after several months in which Mr Assad has strengthened his position. Last month rebels retreated from Homs in central Syria, returning control of the city to the regime. Their departure, which was brokered by Iran, coincided with the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi as UN envoy after the failure of the Geneva process, which had tried to find common ground between the Syrian regime and the western-backed opposition.

The election also follows significant military advances in which the regime, supported by Hizbollah, regained territory it had previously lost; important cities in the north and northeast, such as Aleppo, remain in the hands of opposition fighters and al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel forces. But the regime aims to carve out a belt of territory stretching from the port cities of Tartous and Latakia, through Homs in the centre of the country to the capital, Damascus.

Iran had long feared the possibility that the Syrian regime might one day collapse – an outcome that Mr Assad’s “victory” makes less likely. Tehran is now turning its mind to solutions that might command acceptance in the west, and which would shelter Iran from further losses on the Syrian battlefield.

Mr Brahimi has told the UN Security Council of an Iranian proposal for a political settlement in Syria. The plan calls for a ceasefire and creation of a cabinet of “national unity”. Political groups based in Syria would be allowed to participate, but the opposition in exile – which was present in Geneva – would be excluded. The Syrian constitution would be “reviewed”, with a view to reducing the president’s powers.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has gone into greater detail, saying through an envoy, that Syrian state institutions – including the army – should be preserved. The Sunni Muslim majority would be genuinely represented in the new political structure, while the rights of the minority Alawites would be protected. Mr Rouhani suggested that Mr Assad could have a role in interim “confidence-building” measures, in return for ceasing to “deny” that his regime has committed atrocities. The proposal also grants Mr Assad and other top Alawite officials legal immunity, and the right to establish a new political party in postwar Syria.

Iran believes all sides should stop searching for a political solution from above. Instead, it is suggesting reforms from below: local ceasefires making way for a new settlement, which would maintain the “Shia Crescent,” a strategic alliance that runs through Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Tehran.

Iran’s diplomacy over Syria is reminiscent of the role that the Syrian regime played in Lebanon after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The Islamic republic wants to seduce Saudi Arabia and the west with a grand deal on Syria. This would entail a Saudi-Iranian understanding over Syria, similar to the one reached by late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon in the 1990s. Like Lebanon, this solution would be based on power sharing between the Alawite minority and Sunni majority. Mr Assad would remain as president but he would have to rule with a strong Sunni prime minister, presumably drawn from the domestic opposition, who would hold executive powers, held by the presidency itself since 1970. The speaker of the parliament would be a Kurd. Christians and Druze would also be represented.

The sticking point is that Saudi leaders, like many Syrians and oppositions leaders, are loath to see Mr Assad keep a role in government after a conflict that has seen 162,000 Syrians killed and 9.3m displaced. Iran wants to translate a military balance that currently favours its ally in Damascus into a lasting structure for sharing power.

The Syria question will inevitably weigh on multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear programme. The result may be a power-sharing formula where Saudi and Iranian interests meet, and sometimes overlap.

The writer is head of Syrian affairs at the al-Hayat newspaper

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