As part of the activities of the second day of the 9th Al Jazeera Forum, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies hosted a session entitled "The Future of Syria and Iraq." The speakers were Ahmad Tumah, Prime Minister of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces; Basil Hussain, professor of international relations at the Ahmad Bin Hamad Military Academy in Qatar; Fayez al-Duwayri, a military expert; and Marwan Kabalan, researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
Tumah declared that the Arab world is one body despite the multiple crises it currently faces. He broke the Syrian issue down into three phases:
- The opposition's capture of Al-Qusayr
- The regime's restoration of Al-Qusayr.
- "Operation Decisive Storm" and its impact on the events in Syria.
He asserted that the basis of the revolution in Syria was the pursuit of dignified life and freedom but the regime turned it all into a military battle. The revolution managed to achieve peaceful as well as military victories while the regime sought to militarize it and drag demonstrators into confrontations. Nonetheless, the revolution was initially able to achieve great victories on the ground and take control of key areas in Syria, but the international community did not show enough solidarity with the Syrian people. Rather, some countries even proposed bizarre solutions such as removing Bashar al-Assad from power without toppling his regime, arguing that the Syrian file cannot be delivered to only one party even it was supported by the whole people.
The Islamist opposition and other opposition forces did not realize the urgency of drafting a clear political project especially with regard to the application of Islamic shari'ah. Moreover, the counter-revolution backed by Bashar al-Assad rose as was the case in Egypt and Yemen.
As for the phase that followed the regime's restoration of Al-Qusayr, the regime received full support from Iran, Hezbollah and others. The situation reached the point that Al-Malki's government in Iraq, who was almost an enemy to Al-Assad's regime, gave Bashar al-Assad its support. Some allies of Syria even suggested coexistence with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
However, when Operation Decisive Storm came along, it caused the revolutionaries to become fully resolved to confront Iran and take control of the situation in Syria as soon as possible before a new ugly reality is devised and imposed on the Syrian people by international decision-makers.
Professor Hussain maintained that the situation in Iraq will continue to change and that the conditions will only become stable when Syria becomes stable. The crisis in Syria must come to an end through realistic solutions in order for the Iraqi issue to be resolved. In post-occupation Iraq, both unity and division are strongly advocated for by many.
The United States' occupation of Iraq established what is known as consensual democracy based on the division of society into Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, as was the case in the pre-state phase. The political circumstances in the country have not been this terrible since 1921. Everyone observed how a corrupt elite has turned Iraq into a sectarian state in which the true concept of state is absent.
Furthermore, violent groups such as ISIL and the popular opposition forces are outlawed militias that do not adhere to any constitution. Although the popular forces enjoy the support of the government, the latter has framed and directed them toward the implementation of a sectarian agenda as the government's position is against the Sunnis. When talks about supporting the Sunnis began, the current government in Baghdad started to worry about its future.
Before 2003, Iran did not have any influence in Iraq. However, the Iranians eventually came to power and took control of the Iraqi scene. Moreover, Iraq has become a landfill site for Iranian policy, and Iran is even running the lives of Iraqis. Commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qasem Soleimani is the de facto ruler in Iraq, and the United States even discusses the Iraqi issue with Iran. It is ironic that the United States claims that it did not develop a specific strategy toward Iraq, which, if true, is absurd for a major state like itself. It probably does have a strategy but conceals it for one reason or another.
The most dangerous thing in the Iraqi situation is the systematic policy of division which may lead religious leaders in Iraq to become directly affiliated to Iran and eliminate the border between Iraq and Iran. If Iraq is divided, it is not unlikely that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will be divided as well.
In the same context, al-Duwayri warned against the amplification of the Iranian role in Arab affairs. No one can deny that Iran seeks to control vital areas and even to expand vastly in the region as it always seeks military superiority. It has several political arms abroad and boasts the superiority of its pre-Islamic Persian culture while also promoting Shiite ideology among Arabs and supporting Arab Shiites.
The situation in Iraq differs from that in Syria. Iraq has multiple militias that are worse than ISIL militias, as they have committed massacres and atrocities against the Sunnis in particular.
On the other hand, there are achievements in Syria on the ground which should not be a cause for vanity but need to be invested in an orderly manner. Opportunities for joint action should be created to unify the efforts of the various revolutionary forces so as to control Homs first and then prepare for an attack on Damascus followed by the coastal areas. If this is achieved, Syria will not be divided and an Alawite state on the coast cannot be created.
Nevertheless, a peaceful solution must be reached because the regime will continue to kill thousands of civilians before it is finally overthrown. We need to consider dialogue.
Kabalan also argued that the revolutions started as mere social demands for the improvement of living conditions but believes they soon turned into a regional conflict. We should not evaluate the Iranian role only from a sectarian perspective because in this case Iran would fight until the very end to defend Shiites in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq notwithstanding the fact that it tends to ally even with the devil himself for the sake of its own interests.
Iran has a huge manpower and an economy that is internationally noted. Also, since the bloodshed and destruction are those of the Arab peoples and the Arab world and its interests are served in the long run, it risks nothing. It is dominant in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and it has the final say in Iraq and Syria.
It is widely recognized that Iran has an expansionist and nationalist project and believes that Iraq and Syria are a strategic priority. Tehran considers investing in the regimes of these two countries regimes while controlling the level of force in Iraq so it does not become a potential threat in the future.
Iran was able to improve its relations with Russia even though it found great competition from other parties such as China, Afghanistan, and India.
When the United States toppled the Iraqi regime, the real force that stood in the face of Iran in 2003, a strategic vacuum was created and Tehran found itself the most prominent player in the region. It thus was capable of controlling vital state institutions in Iraq. It also allied with Syria in pursuit of interests based on doctrinal grounds, although the Syrian regime had historically been at odds with Iran.
Undermining the Iranian role can only be achieved through Syria. ISIL managed to control areas in Iraq from Syria. When the Iranian grip on Syria is loosened, its role will become limited in other areas as well. The battle in Syria will determine Iran's fate.