Two years down the line and the bloodletting continues in Syria. Despite the fact that the opposition to the Assad regime consists of many different groups with wildly varying agendas, a crucial component of most international peace plans is that the Syrian President should step down. Kofi Annan’s plan for the UN said this, as did the Arab League’s. Similar proposals were put into practice in Yemen; the president stepped down, but many major players were left in positions of power so there was a managed transition to move the revolution from the streets to the negotiating table. Although Syria’s population is divided between support for the government and for the rebels, most foreign powers (if not all) concede that the idea of Assad ruling a united Syria after the bloodshed of the last two years is unrealistic.
However, that does not make the question of Syria’s future any less vexed for the international community. The question is particularly potent for regional powers, which are concerned that the chaos will spill over Syria’s borders and into their territory.
Since November 2011, when the position was suspended, Syria’s seat at the 22-member Arab League has been empty. That changed last week, when the League decided at its meeting in Doha to give the seat to Moaz Al-Khatib, a leading figure from Syria’s opposition coalition. Al-Khatib, who was invited to Doha by the Emir of Qatar, was accompanied by other senior opposition figures, including newly-elected opposition prime minister Ghassan Hitto. Mr. Al-Khatib called for Assad’s assets to be frozen, demanded “full support from our friends and brothers” and, in an apparent warning to regional heavyweights Qatar and Saudi Arabia, said: “They ask who will rule Syria. The people of Syria will decide, not any other state in this world.” The summit endorsed the provision of military aid to Syrian rebels.
This has not gone down well with everyone. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, has slammed the move. The semi-official news agency Fars quoted Abdollahian as saying: “We condemn the Arab League’s recent move to hand Syria’s seat to a small group, which does not represent the Syrian people.” Nor was he impressed with the summit’s decision on military aid, adding, “It is a wrong decision to support the Syrian opposition by supplying weapons to them because it will cause problems for the Syrian people.”
Iran is one of the staunchest allies of the Syrian regime. The two countries have had a close strategic relationship ever since the Iran-Iraq War, when Syria sided with non-Arab Iran, despite the country’s Arab nationalist ideology. The two countries have co-operated on smuggling arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Tehran sees Syria under Assad as a crucial supporter of its opposition to Israel and Sunni extremism. Since the uprising began in 2011, it has been reported that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has upped the amount of security support and personnel it was giving, to help Syria deal with protesters. There have even been reports that Iranian snipers were deployed in Damascus.
What this latest incident tells us is that the gulf between Iran and the Arab League is growing ever wider on the subject of Syria. That is, perhaps, unsurprising. The relationship between the two has never been simple; historical conflicts in the Middle East have traditionally coloured how Arab nations view Iran. This long-standing mutual suspicion is itself a reason that Iran holds Syria’s support and security so dear. The best chance of finding peace would be for Iran and the Arab states to work together, pressuring both the opposition and the government to seek a compromise solution. But as the member states of the Arab League up their diplomatic and military support to Syria’s rebels, and Iran continues its unwavering support to the regime, the hopes of bridging the gap look ever slimmer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.