Is there Common Ground over Syria?

The Emirates Policy Center’s second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate that took place on November 1 brought policymakers, former officials, academics, and analysts from the Middle East and elsewhere together to discuss the most pressing strategic issues facing the region. The Syria conflict naturally took center stage as regional and international forces vie for influence and control, backing their respective champions in the civil war. Rafik Hariri Center Fellow and Levant expert Faysal Itani attended the debate. Taking place two days after the first Vienna talks between world powers and despite it being hailed as a groundbreaking success, Itani noticed a considerable gap between public messaging and the diplomatic reality:

As it turned out, there was no agreement over anything of substance on these issues. There were, however, some clear, recurring themes and a few revealing moments. Most obviously, Arab participants and audience members complained extensively about US policy in the region, and a sense that the United States was a poor champion of its allies. This complaint was not framed in terms of the US-Iran nuclear deal, which has apparently been accepted as a fait accompli, but in terms of Yemen and Syria. The participants from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia blamed the conflicts in these two countries completely on Iranian interference (I do not recall hearing anything about Bashar al-Assad himself or his actions, or the Al Houthi in Yemen, for that matter). No Arab participant made sectarian accusations or brought up the Sunni-Shia issue, nor for that matter did any defenders of the Iranian regional position. The conflict was expressed in purely geopolitical terms, which does not necessarily make it more amenable to a solution.

Perhaps the most notable moment in the debate occurred during an argument between one pro-opposition Syrian academic and a Russian expert. Setting aside the usual disagreements over whether Russia battles terrorists or all anti-Assad regime forces, the Russian expert noted how US intervention has accomplished quite little after months of US leadership in its anti-Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) coalition in comparison to the decisive action that Russia has chosen to pursue.

View the entire readout by Faysal Itani on the New Atlanticist blog.

Related Experts: Faysal Itani