The conflict in Syria started two and a half years ago. It has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced more than 2.3 million people. The United Nations has described it as the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times; it is.
As the situation worsens, the international community is looking on helplessly, uncertain of how to proceed. In the west, there is little real appetite for military intervention, not least because the conflict is messy and sectarian, and because Al-Qaeda linked groups are among the rebels. After the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, western governments are reluctant to get involved in another protracted Middle Eastern war.
America and the UN, then, have been focusing their energy on a diplomatic solution. A second round of peace talks at Geneva is due to take place in January but has been beset by problems. Firstly, there is the question of getting both sides in the conflict to the table. Representatives of Bashar Al-Assad say they will not attend talks simply to sign their own death warrant by ceding power; rebel groups demand Assad’s resignation as a minimum. There is also the question of which rebel groups can and should attend.
Second is the no less controversial issue of which international powers are to attend. The Geneva II talks have been organised in a joint push by the UN, the US and Russia. While America more or less supports the rebels and Russia supports the regime, this does not cover all bases. Many commentators say that the talks will be meaningless if Iran, one of the closest allies of the Syrian regime, is not present. In October, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN peace envoy to Syria, urged the heads of the organisation to invite Iran to the peace talks, saying, “We believe that the participation of Iran in the Geneva conference is natural and necessary as well as fruitful.”
In the past, the idea of working together for Syria was made untenable due to poor diplomatic relations between Iran and the US (along with other western powers) based on a stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite a recent softening in relations between the US and Iran, including the signing of a historic deal on the nuclear programme, it does not look as if the Shia country will be asked to attend Geneva II.
The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has spoken out repeatedly against Iran being present at the Geneva talks. He has said that the US opposes Iran’s inclusion at the conference because of its direct military support to the Syrian state and its intervention in the conflict through Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia funded largely by Iran. Washington’s official line is that it would welcome Iran to the talks if it signed up to a 2012 statement calling for a transitional authority to rule Syria. Iran has said that it would take part if invited but has rejected any preconditions.
Apart from anything else, this tells us that despite the recent thaw in relations there is a long way to go before Iran and the US can really work together. It also highlights the regional tussle going on over Syria. Saudi Arabia, ally of the US and supporter of the rebels, has taken an increasingly hard line on Iran and Syria in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times expressing his dismay at the deal with Iran and the failure to intervene militarily in Syria. “We believe that many of the west’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” he wrote. “This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by.”
It is unusual for the Saudis to criticise their western allies so publically and bluntly. It is also notable that the prince draws together the concerns of Iran and Syria; the two are interlinked. Not only is the conflict in Syria, where the Shia regime is pitted against mostly Sunni rebels, causing tension across the region, but Saudi Arabia and Iran are also engaged in a regional cold war, vying for influence along sectarian lines. Syria, under Assad’s Alawite minority Shia regime, is one of very few Arab nations that backs Iran. Saudi Arabia would like to see it under Sunni leadership.
While a desire to placate Saudi Arabia may not be the only reason for Washington’s continued hard line over Iran taking part in the Geneva II talks, it is almost certainly a consideration. However, it is difficult to see how a meaningful resolution can be achieved without the concurrence of the Assad regime, and the best way to ensure that is to get his allies on side. As a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations said earlier this year, diplomatic negotiations involve “unpalatable compromises – in particular, accepting that Assad’s fate must be a question for the transition process, not a precondition or assumed outcome, and that Iran must play a role in the diplomatic process.”