The Struggle For Syrian Peace

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The second round of Syria peace talks (“Geneva II”) kicks off this week. Colum Lynch and John Hudson explain how the talks were almost scuttled when the UN tried to invite Iran:

Ban [Ki Moon] said that he had granted Iran the invitation after Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had assured him that his government supported the key goals of the conference, including its call for a transitional government. “Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers,” he said. “Therefore, as convenor and host of the conference, I have decided to issue an invitation to Iran to participate.” A misunderstanding between Ban and Zarif appears to be the source of the problem. Shortly after Iran received its invitation to Geneva, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it would attend the talks without preconditions — a statement that infuriated the Syrian opposition. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, is now telling reporters that Zarif and Ban did in fact agree on preconditions.

The invitation was quickly withdrawn and the talks are back on track. To be honest, I don’t see why Iran cannot play a role here. They are Assad’s critical ally and have leverage over him no one else has. Assad is not going anywhere any time soon – even as the horrifying atrocities mount in a brutal war that could play out for years without resolution either way. And one of the points of the opening toward Iran is precisely that it can play a part in dealing with this kind of regional problem (even though it has played such a major role in fomenting the war and foiling the opposition forces). At some point, we have to get real and ask ourselves if we care enough about the war’s toll to try new avenues of diplomacy. Paul Pillar thinks the Iranians are being treated with unfair suspicion:

The episode has exhibited the general tendency, which appears on other issues as well, to worst-case what Iran might be up to.

Why would the Iranians be more likely to get in the way of negotiating the Syrian regime out of existence than the Syrian regime itself would be? A useful bit of background to remember is that the odd-couple alliance between Iran and Syria began as a response to both being rivals of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which is no longer a factor. Yes, there are some other commonalities, such as economic ties and the relationships of each with Lebanese Hezbollah, but if Assad were on shaky enough ground to make an Assad-less transitional government a reality, his regime would be as much of a liability as an asset to Tehran.

It is hardly surprising that Iran would balk at the sort of conditions being imposed on it to participate in Geneva II. The Iranians are being called on to declare full allegiance to the outcome of an earlier conference from which they were pointedly excluded. Who else would be willing to do that? And if Iran’s assistance to one side in the Syrian civil war is some kind of disqualifier, it is hard to explain why similar conditions are not applied to those who have stoked the war by supplying lethal assistance to the other side.

Meanwhile, Steven Heydemann advises against expanding the scope of the talks beyond negotiating an end to the conflict:

To shift the focus of Geneva talks away from core political issues would be a significant mistake. It would continue a process of re-legitimating the Assad regime, further delay accountability to its tens of thousands of victims, and render even less likely the prospects for a political transition in the future. To broaden the agenda will be a vindication of the Assad regime’s strategy of diverting attention from Geneva I. It would send a clear signal that the Geneva I framework — already on life support — will be all but dead and buried. If the U.S. and other international actors wish to prepare for failure in Montreux, their best bet is not to change the subject, but to figure out how to change conditions on the ground and create the conditions for the next round of negotiations to succeed.

Morton Abramowitz takes a closer look at the humanitarian problem:

International aid goes to the needy in Assad controlled areas where the population is greater and apparently lesser amounts to the non-Assad controlled areas where the need is probably greater but more difficult to deliver. Assad forces and some rebel groups often prevent aid deliveries. The US is leaning now on Russia and through others on Iran to find ways of persuading mostly the Assad regime to allow more goods into encircled areas. There is the belief that the Sochi games and efforts to embarrass the Russians may help prod Moscow to persuade Assad to allow more goods into beleaguered areas. Assad has recently offered Moscow to allow goods into some encircled areas including Aleppo but only if there is a ceasefire. The rebels have looked with justifiable suspicion at the government’s behavior on this score. Even if Geneva produces increased internal deliveries, it is doubtful they will be permanent or proportionate to the need.

(Photo: from the Syrian opposition groups, detailing evidence of torture of those in Assad’s custody in the civil war. Via CNN. See the full slideshow here.)