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April 15, 2012, Sunday

Playing for time in Iran and Syria

After the last two summits in İstanbul it seems like the international community has come to a shared point in attempts to deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions and the Syrian regime’s agenda to crush resistance.

In both cases, the primary objective is to avoid military involvement and allow maximum flexibility for a diplomatic breakthrough. This situation is partly dictated by the American electoral calendar. The Obama administration will be extremely reluctant to take any kind of military action in either the Syrian or the Iranian context before November, when the American people will finally go to the ballot box and hopefully re-elect the incumbent.

Washington is reluctant to take radical steps in Syria and Iran because the top priority of the administration right now is to maintain a certain amount of stability in oil prices. The price of oil is a critical issue for the American economy and consumer confidence. The price of gasoline and consumer confidence are key determinants of electoral behavior. In other words, to make it abundantly clear, Obama cannot afford a military confrontation in the Middle East which will easily double the price of oil. Such a scenario could easily cost him the presidential elections because the American economy is undergoing a very weak recovery and unemployment is still at 8 percent. Obama’s Republican opponent will have a real shot at winning if consumer confidence drops further.

To be sure, there are reasons other than just the election calendar explaining why Washington would not want to have a military confrontation with Iran or the Syrian regime. In the case of Iran, a militarization of the problem would come in the form of airstrikes against nuclear sites. As it has been argued several times, Washington is reluctant to bomb Iran because in addition to the economic consequence of oil prices mentioned above, the likely outcome would be the strengthening of the Islamic regime and only a temporary postponement of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. When you add the likely Iranian retaliation against the West and Israel in places like Afghanistan, Gaza and Lebanon, the cost-benefit analysis of bombing Iran would reveal such action to be problematic even in the absence of economic factors and American elections.

The likelihood of military involvement in Syria creates similar dilemmas for Washington. It is hard to find anyone who is optimistic about the Annan plan. The fact that the cease-fire did hold for a few days was a surprise but all the signs indicate that violence will resume with all its intensity very soon. It is also impossible to expect the Assad regime to allow peaceful demonstration and a transition for multi party elections. After killing so many people, why should the regime commit suicide?  The likely outcome in Syria will be more of the same.  Regime change is unlikely to occur without a sectarian civil war. Creating safe havens for the resistance or buffer zones all involve international military interventions. We have repeatedly mentioned that Turkey has no willingness to get involved unilaterally in Syria in a military intervention.

Does America want to have boots on the ground during this civil war? The answer is a clear “No.” Helping the anti-Assad resistance by arming them is another form of military involvement. This is the direction we are heading in Syria.  In many ways, the West will be part of the proxy war in Syria that will take place between Iran and Saudi Arabia. By supporting the resistance against Assad, the West will be essentially confronting Iran.  All these dynamics will not change the fact that a new Syria can only emerge after a massive confrontation of civil war proportions.

To conclude, faced with such gloomy alternatives in both Iran and Syria, America has opted with the two consecutive conferences in İstanbul to play for time. Much of this is dictated by America’s unwillingness to act before presidential elections. Yet, even without the American electoral calendar the options in Syria and Iran range from bad to worse.

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