Right now 30 countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about the future of Syria. It’s dubbed Geneva II, as it seeks to find a way to implement the path towards an end to the Syrian civil war and transfer of power outlined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012. The impetus for this meeting came from increased Russian and American cooperation about Syria after the historic agreement to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, one of the major victories of Obama’s foreign policy.
100,000 have been killed in fighting that has lasted almost three years. 9.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, a country of just under 23 million. The Syrian government and main opposition parties are taking part in the talks, though the rebels doing the fighting so far refuse.
The war is unique. First, it appears deadlocked, neither side has a true upper hand. The government has some nominal advantages, but the rebels are strong enough to resist. Second, the opposition forces are themselves splintered, with extremists alongside secular forces and no obvious alternative to Assad. It’s not clear what a democratic election could yield, many fear that the winner might be friendly to al qaeda. In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon invited Iran to join the talks. It was hoped that the Iranians might help bring some realism to the Syrian governments stubborn refusal to hand over power.
In the politics of the Mideast, one of the most important and troubling alliances has been that of Iran and Syria. On paper they look like they should be rivals. Syria is majority Sunni Muslim led by a former Baath party (now renamed the National Progressive Front). The Baath party is a secular Arab socialist party, originally was aligned with the Soviets in the Cold War. Saddam Hussein’s ruling party in Iraq was a Baath party. Meanwhile Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government is completely opposed to Baath party ideology. So why are the two so closely allied?
Although 74% of Syria’s 23 million people are Sunni Muslim, they do have a sizable Shi’ite minority. This includes the Assad family, which is Alawite Shi’ite. That’s a different Shi’ite sect than the leaders of Iran, but it’s a connection. Still, up until 1979 Syria’s biggest ally was Egypt – indeed, the two countries merged from 1958 to 1961. But once Egypt made amends with Israel, and Iraq’s regional ambitions grew, Syria forged an alliance with post-Revolutionary Iran. The Syrians feared Saddam’s regional ambitions and were loathe to make peace with Israel, which still held a part of Syria, the Golan Heights.
During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 Syria sided with Iran, earning the ire of the Saudis who supported Saddam Hussein. The Syrians and Saudis found themselves on the same side after Iraq invaded Kuwait; both participated in President Bush’s coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Meanwhile, Syria’s proximity to Lebanon made it possible for Iran to build up Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, pressuring Israel and contributing to Lebanon’s disintegration.
Bashir Assad took over leadership in Syria when his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 and the Syrian-Iranian alliance deepened. When it was done the US was the net loser, while Iran and Iraq became moderate allies – something which drew Syria even closer to Iran. Going into 2011 the Assad regime looked stable and effective. Then came the Arab Spring.
Mubarak resigned in Egypt, NATO assisted the rebels in Libya, but in Syria the uprising led to a drawn out and bloody civil war, full of complexities. Early on, with Russia and Iran both siding with Syria, international pressure was limited. After the landmark agreement between the Russians and Americans, the tide seemed to be swinging against Assad.
Inviting Iran to the talks was a masterstroke. The Iranians, who recently agreed on a plan to limit and allow oversight to their nuclear energy program, could be further drawn into the diplomacy of the region. In realist terms, they could be brought to become a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one, learning that there is more to gain by working with the international community than being a pariah.
In so doing, it was hoped that Iran could help the Syrian government find a way to give up power gracefully. Iran would be there as Syria’s ally, and could aid the negotiations. Alas, it is not to be. The US criticized the Secretary General, arguing that Iran should not be there unless it agrees in advance that Syria’s government must step down. That, of course, could not be Iran’s position going into the talks; it’s certainly not the Syrian government’s position!
The reality is that there is so much anti-Iranian bile within the US government and Congress that any sop to Iran would lead to a backlash that could harm the nuclear energy agreement, or induce votes for more sanctions against Iran. As it is, the removal of sanctions in exchange for that agreement is yielding billions of dollars of new Iranian trade with the West. Still, Iranophobia runs deep in the US and Israel. Moon had no choice but adhere to the wishes of the US; the Secretary General is not as powerful as permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In so doing, the job of creating a peaceful transfer of power in Syria has become more difficult. It would not have been easy if Iran were there, but Iranian participation created new options. Moreover, Iran’s public is increasingly opposed to their hard line rulers, and increased trade will bring Iran closer to the West. Right now there is a chance for a game changer in western relations with Iran, one that could save lives in Syria. It appears, sadly, that too many in the US are far too comfortable with the image of Iran as a permanent enemy. And the Syrian civil war drags on, with the extremists growing stronger as the fighting continues.