I attended the Emirates Policy Center’s second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate on Nov. 1. The event brought together policymakers, former officials, academics, and analysts from the Middle East and elsewhere. The content covered a range of geographies and themes, but the debates that centered on the Syrian conflict and the roles of Iran, Russia, the United States, and the Arab Gulf states stood out.

The conference took place two days after negotiations in Vienna, Austria, between various world powers to address the conflict in Syria, amid a good deal of talk — in the media and by diplomats — of “groundbreaking” progress. I was, therefore, eager to gauge the degree to which the Strategic Debate participants and audience agreed on Syria or the broader Arab-Iranian and US-Russian tensions fueling the war. 

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. 

The Arab argument that Iran was to blame for the Syrian and Yemeni wars is not particularly sophisticated, but it was certainly popular with the audience. One Iranian scholar tried to emphasize the importance of recognizing Iranian interests as a prerequisite to peace and reconciliation. However, he did not make detailed arguments in defense of Iranian foreign policy, nor did he explain what those interests in the messy Syrian war are. Instead, he offered a rather vague promise of peace and reconciliation, on the condition that Iranian interests are respected. In any case, judging by their ensuing comments, it is safe to say that neither he nor the two Western speakers sympathetic to the Iranian position swayed the Arab panelists about Iran’s intentions in the region. They continued to see Iranian-Arab competition in Syria as a zero-sum game. The fact that the details of the Syrian war itself were never mentioned is highly discouraging, seeing as the conflict in Syria is a civil war at least as much as it is a proxy war, and cannot be solved if it is not recognized as such by the main external belligerents.

The most interesting moment occurred during an exchange between a pro-opposition Syrian academic and an expert on (and from) Russia, relating to Russia’s military intervention in defense of the Assad regime. Most of the conversation centered on the usual criticism of Russia’s support for the dictator. In turn, the defender of the Russian position would insist that it is fighting terrorists in Syria. This is the standard Russian line and can be ignored, but at one point, the Russia analyst (who clearly had pro-Russian sympathies) responded to heavy criticism with the following: “What has the United States accomplished in Syria anyway? It has been bombing ISIS for months with no results. Has it helped its allies? America’s friends in Syria have been asking for weapons for years. Has it given them anything? Unlike the United States, Russia knows who its friends are, and it knows how to help them.”

On this point, at least, the Arab, Russian, Iranian, and more than a few American participants probably agree.

Faysal Itani is a Resident Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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