America Is Winning the Syrian Civil War
The Geneva II Conference this month was the product of years of U.S. diplomacy aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian civil war. America’s interest in quickly ending the fighting in Syria is based on moral concerns, as well as fears that the sectarian war will further engulf neighboring states.
The U.S. is right to seek a quick settlement to the civil war in Syria. The humanitarian costs alone compel America to push for reconciliation between the warring sides. Nonetheless, the legitimate desire to end the conflict does not diminish the reality that the U.S. is winning in Syria. From a purely strategic standpoint, no country has benefitted more from the horrible tragedy in Syria than the United States.
The most significant way the U.S. has benefitted from the Syrian civil war is by seeing its regional and global adversaries undermined by the conflict. Just as the U.S. has been the primary external benefactor of the Syrian civil war, no third party has been a bigger loser in Syria then Iran.
The prospect of the Alawites losing power in Damascus threatened to roll back all the gains Iran made over the last decade, not only undermining Iran’s position in Syria, but also by extension in Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Iranian leaders quickly sprang into action, providing significant assistance to Assad’s regime. They undoubtedly realized the danger of being seen as propping up Assad, as evidenced by their refusal to acknowledge doing so in the beginning. Moreover, Iranian leaders probably believed the rebellion could be suppressed quickly given their experience following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.
With the conflict nearing its third year, it has proven anything but short. Over the past two years, Iran and its ally Hezbollah have been forced to devote considerable blood and treasure into preventing Alawite rule from collapsing in Syria. Although the Alawites’ rule no longer seems to be in imminent danger, they also appear no closer to reasserting control over the entire country. Thus, the material costs for Iran are likely to continue to mount.
From Iran’s strategic perspective, the larger cost of supporting Assad has been its loss of Iran and Hezbollah’s softer power in the greater Middle East. Lacking the ability to project conventional military power, Iranian influence in the region is largely based on the soft power it accrues from its defiance and denouncements of Israel and the United States. For decades this soft power has allowed Iranian leaders to bridge the ethnic and sectarian divide with the Arab Sunni street.
The Syrian civil war, and Iran’s support for al-Assad, has quickly eroded Iran’s favorability among this demographic. Although Iran’s popularity in the Arab world began diminishing before the Syrian conflict began, it has virtually fallen off the cliff over the last few years. As James Zogby notes, in 2006 Iran had a 75 percent favorability rating among publics in twenty Middle Eastern nations, with 85 percent of Saudi Arabians viewing Tehran favorably. By 2012, Iran’s favorability ratings in those same countries declined to just 25 percent, and 15 percent in Saudi Arabia.
This has had real and immediate repercussions for Iran. For example, Iran’s support for al-Assad caused a serious rift in its relationship with Hamas. Similarly, after considerable diplomatic pressure, Egypt and Iran resumed tourism ties in April of last year. Egyptian Salafists responded days later by storming Iran’s chargé d'affaires in Cairo. Months later, Egypt quietly severed tourism ties. Elsewhere, in Yemen, multiple Iranian diplomats have been kidnapped and killed in recent months. The latest one was evidently beheaded after being held hostage for months (at the time of this writing, Iran is denying this account).
The growing sectarian divide in the Middle East poses a real threat to Iran. It is for this reason that the Rouhani administration has made repairing ties to Arab states a top priority, and why Supreme Leader Khamenei has made Muslim unity an ever-more prevalent theme of his public addresses.
Al Qaeda sits on the other side of this sectarian divide. Despite the current narrative in the West, Syria has been a disaster for Al Qaeda as well. Although the Arab Spring was a complete refutation to Al Qaeda’s central ideology, the increasingly desperate organization sought to capitalize on the civil war in Syria by establishing a localized branch in the country under the banner al-Shura. The decision to avoid using the Al Qaeda name underscored just how unpopular the group has become in the Arab world.