BEIRUT, Lebanon – With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad re-elected for another seven-year term while fighting continues to rage throughout Syria, there is a serious behind-the-scene effort under way between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia to find a resolution.
Lebanese and Syrian sources tell WND, however, it won’t be easy, given the animosity between Shiites and Sunnis in a civil war that has been raging since March 2011, resulting in the killing of more than 160,000 people.
Complicating the equation has been the rise of Saudi-sponsored Sunni Muslim militant fighters, many of which are from countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and even from Europe and the United States.
In addition, Western powers, particularly the United States, Turkey and a number of the Gulf Arab countries, continue to finance and provide weapons to the foreign fighters.
It all has led to the spawning of new, more dangerous Muslim militant groups such the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which is considered more brutal than Pakistan-based al-Qaida, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri who assumed leadership after the May 2012 killing by U.S. SEALs of al-Qaida’s founder, Osama bin Laden.
Iran, which has backed Assad, a Shiite Alawite in a predominantly Sunni country, now sees Syria firmly as part of its Shiite Crescent and wants to come to a resolution of the ongoing conflict with the Saudis.
The Shiite Crescent is comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Observers say the Syrian civil war has been a proxy conflict between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, with the United States siding with Saudi Arabia and the Syrian rebels, which include militant Muslim fighters, while Russia backs Iran.
Sources say Iran’s goal is to find an accommodation similar to what Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crafted with the Saudis for Lebanon following that country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The hope is that, with Assad’s reelection to a third seven-year term assured, the West also will accept Tehran’s plan, since the U.S.-sponsored Geneva talks collapsed.
Tehran is pushing a plan that calls for a cease-fire and creation of a cabinet of “national unity.”
The cabinet would be comprised of the various political groups in Syria but exclude the opposition in exile, which didn’t want to have anything to do with negotiating with representatives of Assad during the now-defunct multi-lateral Geneva talks.
Under the Iranian proposal being pushed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Syrian constitution would be modified to reduce Assad’s powers.
In addition, Syrian state institutions, particularly the army, would remain.
In the proposed cabinet, the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria would be represented while preserving the rights of minorities, especially Assad’s Shiite Alawite minority, as well as the Kurds and Christians.
The Rouhani proposal is said to have Assad involved in so-called confidence-building measures while admitting the government committed atrocities against his own people.
Assad and other top Alawite officials in his government also would be granted legal immunity from prosecution for alleged atrocities and crimes against humanity.
For his part, Assad just announced that he is granting general amnesty for prisoners following his re-election. It also may be a signal of concessions on his part to boost the Rouhani proposal.
Justice Minister Najem al-Ahmad said the presidential decree was issued in the “context of social tolerance and national unity.”
“Iran’s diplomacy over Syria is reminiscent of the role that the Syrian regime played in Lebanon after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990,” said Ibrahim Hamid to the Financial Times.
“The Islamic republic wants to seduce Saudi Arabia and the west with a grand deal on Syria,” he said.
The proposal, similar to the deal reached with the Saudis in 1990 for Lebanon, would be based on a power-sharing formula between the Shiite Alawite minority and Sunni majority.
Under the Lebanese formula, the president is Christian, the prime minister is Sunni and the speaker of the parliament is Shiite-Amal.
For the past two weeks, Lebanon has been without a president as all political factions jockey for concessions to arrive as a consensus candidate to replace Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, whose term ended May 25.
WND sources say that a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia will clear the way for a Christian who is acceptable to all political sides in Lebanon.
The sources suggest that Gen. Michel Aoun could become the next Lebanese president, since he would have the backing of Hezbollah, the largest political group in the Lebanese parliament. A Sunni would become prime minister, and WND sources suggest it could be Saad Hariri, who previously served as prime minister and heads the Future Bloc of Sunnis in Lebanon.
Aoun also would have the blessing of Syria’s Assad, cementing Iran’s grand design for solidifying the Shiite Crescent.
Under the proposal, Assad would remain president, reinforced by last week’s re-election, but with diminished power.
The prime minister would be a strong Sunni representing the majority drawn, as Hamid said, from the Syrian opposition. As in Lebanon, the Syrian prime minister would hold executive powers which have been the strict domain of the Syrian president since 1970.
The speaker of the Syrian parliament would be a Kurd, the other large minority in Syria, along with the lesser minorities of Christians and Druze in other positions, presumably in the cabinet.
While Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition don’t want Assad to remain in power, it will be important to Iran that he does, since he is highly favored by the Syrian military.
Sources say that Iran’s bargaining position over the proposal could be greatly enhanced if the upcoming Geneva talks with the West over Iran’s nuclear program reach a resolution.
Until now, the Saudis have been very apprehensive about Iran’s intentions with its nuclear program, concerned that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons which the Saudis said they would similarly acquire if Iran produces them.
A successful, verifiable nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries – the U.S., France, Britain, Russia and China plus Germany, all United Nations Security Council members – not only would make the resolution of the Syrian crisis possible, it also could allay Saudi Arabia’s apprehensions about Iran’s nuclear intentions. In addition, it could allow Iran to realize its Shiite Crescent in the Middle East and its extension of influence with the other Gulf countries, which also is a worry to Riyadh.
The Saudis have felt embattled by Iran’s outreach, especially into the Gulf countries. And now, Tehran is reaching out to Sunni Turkey with Rouhani’s two-day visit to Ankara to solidify major trade and energy agreements.
The move suggests Tehran is playing off Turkey against Saudi Arabia, since it sees Turkey as a more moderate Sunni influence for the region that could replace the more rigid Wahhabi Saudi influence that has spawned militant fighters throughout the region.