A dispute over whether to include Iran in proposed negotiations to end the fighting in Syria is complicating the effort by the U.S. and allies to present a unified front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emerged without an agreed position on Iran from May 22 talks in Jordan with representatives from 10 nations including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, the U.K., France and Germany, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The issue is further complicated by a number of other disputes that pose additional hurdles to merely convening peace talks, including the enmity between Syria’s Sunni- and Shiite-led neighbors, the U.S.-Russian rivalry, Syria’s own ethnic and sectarian cleavages and U.S.-Iranian hostility.
“To give Iran a formal role in then negotiations is not likely to be productive,” Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen other efforts -- including around issues relating to Afghanistan -- to engage Iran, and none of them have proved successful.”
Kerry earlier this month told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that some of Syria’s neighbors are “categorically opposed” to including Iran, according to the Russian state news service RIA-Novosti. The participation of Iran “is not desirable” because of Iran’s “hostile attitude vis-a-vis the Syrian people,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Amman, according to a French foreign ministry statement yesterday.
U.S. agreement to include Iran would be seen in the region as “American backsliding,” according to Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where he specializes in security issues.
Iran is helping keep Assad in power, providing weapons and fighters to bolster regime forces. Some Iranian forces have joined the fight, as well as militiamen from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, according to Kerry. The U.S. and Israel consider the Lebanese militant group a terrorist organization.
“The Islamic Republic is the primary external enabler of Assad’s murderous policies,” Doran, who handled Mideast affairs on the White House National Security Council staff during President George W. Bush’s administration, wrote yesterday on the research group’s website.
Meanwhile, the loose coalition of Syrian opposition groups hasn’t agreed to participate in negotiations. Opposition leaders began meeting yesterday in Istanbul to decide whether to attend any talks if Assad hasn’t already relinquished power.
The head of the rebel military command, General Salim Idris, wrote Kerry last week asking for weapons in order to put more pressure on the Syrian regime going into negotiations. The U.S., while not sending arms, has been providing humanitarian aid and non-lethal military supplies, such as medical kits and packaged meals.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow today that Assad’s government has agreed to attend a peace conference, and said main opposition groups are trying to sabotage the effort by continuing to insist that the Syrian leader step down.
“This isn’t very encouraging, but nevertheless in Moscow we haven’t lost hope of realizing this U.S.-Russian initiative,” Lukashevich said in televised comments.
Kerry and State Department officials have been unwilling to offer a public administration position on including Iran in any negotiations. The U.S. considers Iran’s involvement pernicious, an American official said before the Jordan meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions.
The Sunni-led Arab nations backing the Syrian rebels, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, feel threatened by Shiite Iran and are hostile to the Assad regime, whose upper ranks come from Assad’s minority Alawite sect derived from Shiite Islam.
The collapse of Assad’s regime would curb Iran’s regional power, particularly its crescent of influence west through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It also would be a blow to Hezbollah, which relies on weapons supplied by Iran and shipped through Syria.
Iran shouldn’t be included in the talks, said Dennis Ross, a former Iran adviser to Obama who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
“The Iranians will oppose any solution that does not leave them with Syria as an ongoing weapons conduit to Lebanon and Hezbollah,” he said in an e-mail.
Iran has said it wants to be included in any talks, and Iranian news media have highlighted Russian and Chinese support for that.
Russia, a longtime ally of the Assad regime and an arms supplier, wants Iran at the table. Lavrov said he pressed Russia’s position in talks with Kerry in early May, saying Iran is a key regional power.
“I said this to John Kerry,” Lavrov said in a May 19 interview with RIA-Novosti. “He kind of agreed with this, but said that a number of states in the region were categorically opposed to this.”
“China thinks the Syrian issue cannot be solved without certain important countries in the region, and especially not without the participation and support of the countries that have an important influence on the current Syrian situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said May 22, according to Iranian state-run Press TV.
“China is receptive to the participation of Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he added at his press briefing in Beijing.
Following this week’s meeting in Jordan, officials from the 11-nation group of nations leading support for the Syrian opposition plan to consult further among themselves and with the United Nations, according to the U.S. official who briefed reporters.
Any new talks would build on a 2012 outline that calls for reaching an agreement on a political transition in Syria. The plan stalled almost immediately, in part over opposition demands that Assad quit as the first step in any transition. Assad balked at that again last week.
The 2012 Geneva talks, convened by then-UN peace envoy Kofi Annan, included the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the U.S., Russia, China, France and the U.K. -- and Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and the European Union.
Iran was barred by U.S. opposition, and Russia countered by blocking Saudi Arabia. Key regional nations, specifically Iran and Saudi Arabia, should be included this time, Lavrov said May 16.
“If we are going to do serious work, it’s necessary to ensure the participation of all the key influential external players and give up ideological and geopolitical predilections,” Lavrov told reporters, according to Russia’s Itar-Tass news service.
Kerry said Iran and its Hezbollah allies are adding to the bloodshed in Syria.
“There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence, and we condemn that and suggest that those who are encouraging it and support it should retreat from that position and obviously become part of the constructive solution rather than part of the problem,” he said at a May 22 news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
Ross said he hopes a peace conference will convene, though it is hard to see how a political process can take hold as Assad and his allies press for military advantage.
“There may be no alternative to a political process, and it should be tested, but no process will succeed in which Assad remains in power -— and he isn’t planning to leave and does not think he has to do so,” said Ross.