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Syria Becomes Battleground Between Shiites and Sunnis

By Alon Ben-Meir Created: April 14, 2012 Last Updated: June 5, 2012
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Nuclear Politics

As international sanctions began to bite and the Iranian leadership began to feel the pain, they agreed to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany—over the Iranian nuclear program.

Equally motivating to Tehran, however, is the situation in Syria. The deteriorating conditions of Syria and Iran’s nuclear issue have become intertwined because the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is driven not merely by national security considerations but essentially by Tehran’s desire to secure nuclear weapons to bolster its regional hegemony.

Assad’s Syria is key to this strategy, and its fall would further increase Iran’s isolation in a mostly Sunni neighborhood and cut the direct links between Tehran and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon.

Also, once Assad’s Syria is unraveled, the current substantial Iranian influence on Iraqi politics would weaken at a much quicker pace. Indeed, it is more than likely that Iraqi nationalism would eventually trump its internal Sunni-Shi’ite divide as Iraq historically takes pride in its unique place in Arab culture as the cradle of Arab civilization.

It follows that Iran may well be willing to demonstrate some flexibility in the Istanbul talks on the nuclear issue by using its Russian patrons to convince the West to curb the pressure on Syria to save the Assad regime, and buy time to prevent an attack on their nuclear facilities by Israel and/or the United States.

From the Iranian perspective they can always resume the nuclear program at a later date once the Assad regime is restabilized and in so doing, can safeguard the Shi’ite crescent. One can only hope that the West would not fall for the manipulative mastery of the Iranians. Note that the sacrifice of a temporary pause in the nuclear program in return for higher political purpose was also tried successfully by Tehran in 2003.

Sunni Opportunity

In the wake of the imminent collapse of the Kofi Anan plan to end the conflict in Syria, the leading Sunni countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, now have the opportunity and the obligation to bring an end to the Assad regime, end the massacre, and pave the way for the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus.

To achieve that, both nations (deriving their legitimacy from the Arab League) must provide military assistance to the rebels while Turkey should carve a significant landmass along its border and along with its NATO allies, enforce a no-fly zone to protect the Syrian refugees and the Free Syrian Army.

Moreover, both nations should make every effort to enlist the international community to bestow legitimacy on the SNC to provide the foundation for a transitional government. Such an effort will save Syria as well as the national interest of the Sunni states in the region while depriving Iran of its aspiration to become a regional hegemon potentially equipped with nuclear weapons.

Anything short of that would mean handing Iran a complete victory and surrendering the Middle East to an inevitable, but wider, violent conflict in the future between the two axes of Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. alon@alonben-meir.com





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