Syria and Iran reveal Western weakness as well as strength


PARIS: Threats of war and economic sanctions may have resulted in a double diplomatic breakthrough in the Syrian and Iranian crises but, analysts have warned, they also reveal the limits to Western power.

The UN Security Council unanimously passed a landmark resolution Friday ordering the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and condemning a murderous poison gas attack in Damascus.

The major powers overcame a prolonged deadlock to approve the council’s first resolution on the Syrian conflict, which the UN says has left more than 100,000 dead in 30 months.

Meanwhile US President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone in the historic, first direct contact between leaders of their estranged nations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a televised statement, revealing the most intriguing turn yet in relations between the Islamic Republic and a superpower it branded the Great Satan.

That landmark call was presaged when US Secretary of State John Kerry shook hands and met briefly with a smiling Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the United Nations on Thursday.

“We now have more belief in the goodwill of both sides,” Paul von Maltzahn, the former German ambassador to Iran and vice-president of the German Society for International Policy (DGAP), told Agence France-Presse.

“We are witnessing the beginning of a more solid basis for trust between the parties.”

Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations, believes: “We can say that Western economic sanctions worked in Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russians have taken seriously the threats of Western military strikes and changed their behaviour.”

For Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, personal chemistry plays an important part too.

“We are lucky that we have Kerry and (Russian counterpart Sergei) Lavrov as leading players, as they have a personal chemistry,” he told Agence France-Presse, while cautioning that “untoward things can suddenly happen.”

All in all “there is some measure of cautious optimism on both issues (Syria and Iran) that there wasn’t a few weeks ago. But we are not out of the woods by a long stretch,” he concluded.

Carrot, stick or another approach?

Is it possible, therefore to speak of a breakthrough for the West, even of a diplomatic victory? The experts are not so sure.

“To say, ‘it worked, we showed them that we were the strongest and they had to bow to our will’ does not correspond with reality,” cautioned Moisi.

“The reality is that in both cases, the Syrians, like the Iranians, like the Russians, realised that the West couldn’t really strike. Our stick is very weak so their carrot can go further.”

Thierry Coville, of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) believes that “Americans have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to resolve the regional crises—Syria, Iraq, Afghanista— without direct talks with Iran.”

“The Syrian crisis has also opened the eyes of a number of people. They realised that it was not consistent to say ‘We want a political solution in Syria’ while holding a hawkish stance in Iran.”

But while there appears to be more confidence between the major powers, there is more distrust on the ground in Syria.

The divisions between the Free Syrian Army and radical movements is getting deeper and deeper and “Syria will become a bit like Lebanon during the 1980s,” says Karim Emile Bitar, an expert on Syria.


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