Mitigating feedback loops in formulating a policy response to the Syrian conflict

By Jared Angle

The Middle East, specifically in the Syria-Iraq-Iran corridor, is a volatile region that presents considerable challenges to securing a balance between a lack of Islamist militants and a lack of autocratic regimes. The United States must focus its efforts on eliminating militant groups, and then must carefully manage its relations with regional powers such as Iran to encourage democratization and stability (through soft power rather than by force) while discouraging the development of new militant groups.

The contemporary security situation in the Middle East can be traced to a series of disruptions to the regional power dynamic, which created a power vacuum and allowed certain states to expand their regional influence in a way that was previously unfeasible. This dynamic was first disrupted during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although Saddam Hussein’s swift deposition was a victory for democratization and human rights, his autocratic Iraqi regime was an important regional power with the ability to keep non-state actors in check. Hussein’s removal signaled the implosion of a key stabilizing actor and introduced new variables into the regional dynamic.

The regional balance was disrupted once more through the Western response to the Arab Spring in Syria. By propping up anti-Assad forces, the US and Europe were upholding democratic ideals but were also destabilizing another balancing power and unwittingly supplying radical Islamist militants. In 2015 we are presented with a dysfunctional Iraq and a dismembered Syria. With Baghdad steering toward Shi’ite and Kurdish support against Sunni militants, it finds itself aligned more closely to Assad’s Alawite/Shi’ite coalition; with a common foe in the Islamic State, Shi’ite-majority Iran will be able to establish inroads with Iraq that resemble its existing ties to Syria, allowing it to assert its power in a way that it was unable to during the Hussein years.

The key aggravating factor driving this regional complexity is the fact that most states in the region have overlapping and conflicting relationships with their neighbors; for example, a nation may have strong relations with two other nations but negative relations with a third nation, while its two allies have negative relations with one another but each have positive relations with the first nation’s opponent. Therefore, the first nation finds itself an exceedingly awkward situation when it finds that its support for a regional partner triggers a feedback loop that creates new challenges with another nation. This dynamic tends to inflame regional security relations in situations where a nation such as the United States supports one nation, which in turn supports another nation or actor that the US opposes.

Depending on how it is executed, a third Middle Eastern intervention could shift the regional balance of power in a very negative way. If the US were to eliminate the Islamic State while leaving the Assad regime intact, the intervention would strengthen the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah relationship, shifting the power balance to benefit hostile states instead of hostile non-state actors. In essence, the United States would be doing Iran a favor by eliminating the Islamic State, a mutual enemy. A more comprehensive scenario, on the other hand, would involve eliminating both the Islamic State and the Assad regime. This would weaken Iran’s regional influence by removing a key partner, but Assad’s removal would constitute a repeat of the destabilizing factor introduced by Hussein’s removal. To a certain extent, these unintended outcomes are an inherent risk of interacting with complex systems such as the Middle Eastern regional framework.

In dealing with Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the US is torn between supporting autocrats or supporting anti-government rebels. While working with autocratic regimes poses a significant moral dilemma, it has been a frequent tactic to balance regional security, despite the fact that Iraq, Iran, and Syria are not the most reliable balancing actors, having all initiated hostile actions against other countries in the region. Propping up anti-regime rebels in many locations has been seen as a moral and idealistic choice, but risks mistakenly funding and arming terrorists and other militants. When considering both scenarios, the US finds itself weighing whether to manage potentially hostile states versus violent non-state actors.

The key takeaway in this situation is that the United States must act decisively to help establish a new power balance that will create a healthy environment for organic (rather than artificial or forced) democratization, while also discouraging inter-state conflict and Islamist militancy. In the most direct terms, this means working with Iran to establish a new regional power structure that allows strong and competent states, Iran included, to eliminate current Sunni militant groups and inhibit the formation of new ones, while also preventing an overt anti-Sunni backlash that would trigger human rights abuses against Sunni civilians and destabilize US partners in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In pursuing such a policy, the fact that a stronger Iran would trigger insecurity in Arab countries is a significant complicating factor.

A revised Middle East policy that allows Iran greater regional leeway would certainly damage US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, although it is unlikely that Israeli attitudes toward the US would become entirely negative. The US should strike a cautious regional balance, loosely partnering with Iran to stabilize the Iraqi government and removing direct existential threats (in the form of militants) to the Iraqi and Syrian states while closely managing Iran and reining in its regional power aspirations by establishing a political and economic framework that incentivizes Iran to adopt a moderate position in which it provides a stabilizing factor for the region but does not directly aggravate relations with Israel or Sunni nations.

While it would prove politically difficult or impossible domestically, there are specific policy areas where Iran shares American regional security goals. In Afghanistan, Tehran hopes to see both the Taliban and the opium trade suppressed. In the Gulf and the Levant, it has partnered with Kurdish and Iraqi Shi’ite fighters to curb terrorist groups. Just as Iran engages in nuclear negotiations that could see sanctions repealed if it halts its nuclear program, its cooperation on human rights reform and contribution to regional security efforts could go hand-in-hand with new trade deals and other preferential agreements that would improve the country’s economic outlook.

For more on the complexities of contemporary Middle Eastern geopolitics, click the following links to outside sources.

The Washington Post: 9 attempts to explain the crazy complexity of the Middle East

Slate: The Middle East Friendship Chart

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