In the first installment of a new series of weekly briefings on the most important regional issues, MEI experts Randa Slim, Alex Vatanka, and Paul Salem analyze recent events including the ceasefire agreement in Syria, upcoming elections in Iran, and Saudi Arabia's suspension of military aid to Lebanon.

Will New Cease-fire Deal in Syria Succeed?

Randa Slim
Director, Initiative for Track II Dialogues

The successful implementation of the February 22 agreement for the cessation of hostilities will partially hinge on the United States and Russia agreeing on three practical matters:

  • delineating territories where ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other U.N. designated terrorist organizations operate. The Syrian regime and Russia will keep striking areas where rebel groups that are not on the U.N. terrorist list are present, as long as they can claim that ISIS and Nusra also operate there;

  • bringing the Syrian and Iranian regimes on board a common definition of "terrorist" groups. For Assad, all rebel groups are terrorists. For Iran, groups like Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are also terrorists;

  • what are the costs of violating the agreement? The statement simply says that the ISSG taskforce co-chaired by Russia and the United States will "refer persistent non-compliant behavior to the ISSG Ministers... to determine appropriate action." Given the U.N.’s lackluster track record on determining appropriate action and meting out appropriate punishment, violators will not be deterred by this arrangement.

Per the agreement, the Syrian regime, the Russian air force and their Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi allies will have five more days to finish their mopping around Aleppo. If they were serious about a cease-fire, they could have implemented one immediately.

Preview of this week’s Iranian Elections

Alex Vatanka
Senior Fellow

  • Reformists barred from running: the disqualification of reformist candidates slows their ambitions for monumental change in the Islamic Republic. Reformists have very few options if they want to remain committed to seek change within the established political order. If you’re a reformist and want gradual change, as opposed to outright revolution, your best bet is to find the nearest candidate that represents your views and who has been qualified to run by the Guardian Council. This is the baby-step approach to change, but seems to be preferred by most reformists who—as angry as they are—do not think they can force change on Khamanei/IRGC since they are ultimately the ones with guns and have the ability to crackdown on any opposition they deem too dangerous.

  • Hardliner parliament vs Rouhani’s reform plan: on the big picture front, the Majlis (parliament) does not matter a great deal. They can make life more difficult for Rouhani's economic agenda, but can't really stop him. The only man who can stop him is Khamenei. And these elections will not necessarily have a direct bearing on the personal relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei. As long as Rouhani can bring Khamenei along through persuasion—as he did with the nuclear deal—then he can proceed with incremental change.   

  • Conservative successor to Khamenei not guaranteed: the person who is most likely to succeed Khamenei will be a reflection of the relative political strength of the reformists versus hardliners at the exact moment a replacement is needed. That could be next year or in a decade's time. Much can happen in between. Khamenei will do his best to set the stage, but there are too many moving parts here to be able for him to confidently hand-pick his successor.

Saudi Arabia’s Suspension of Military Aid to Lebanon

Paul Salem
Vice President for Policy and Research

The Lebanese government, realizing this could have dramatic security and political implications, has already moved to try to walk back Saudi Arabia’s decision. They met today, belatedly, and roundly condemned the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, thanked Saudi Arabia and the GCC for all their support of Lebanon and its armed forces, and the prime minister announced that he would visit the kingdom and other GCC countries right away to try to resolve the issue.

There are fears in Lebanon as to whether the Saudi aid suspension is just a response to recent diplomatic missteps by Lebanon or signals a more profound change of policy.

It’s still possible that the suspension might be temporary; or that it is a prelude to a scaling down of the grant. The $4 billion pledge was made when oil prices were high; the Saudi government has been cutting back across many sectors.

If it proves permanent, this would be a big blow to the Lebanese security forces. The $3 billion grant to the army was the largest in the country’s history, and promised to systematically expand and solidify the army’s capacities. The $1 billion grant to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) was similarly significant.

The army has proven effective over the past two years in protecting most of the porous Syrian-Lebanese border against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra incursions. Its successes, as well as the ISF’s increasing effectiveness, have given the Lebanese state more credibility in the security sector, even while other governance issues remain log-jammed.

The suspension might also have serious political ramifications. Lebanon’s Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi has already resigned in protest over what he alleges is Hezbollah’s excessive dominance in the government, and if these tensions continue the survival of the government as a whole is in question. Lebanon has already been without a president for almost two years, and more resignations from the government would put the country’s political survival even more deeply at risk.

If the Lebanese-Saudi row is not settled, this could put Lebanon’s precarious stability in serious jeopardy and could add Lebanon to the growing list of countries in the region that have collapsed from the strains of the Syrian war and the tensions of regional proxy conflict.