After Iran, U.S. presses for solution to Syrian civil war – Michael Crowley/POLITICO
Three months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi for an unexpected meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A central topic: the civil war in Syria.
Even amid high tensions over Ukraine, the meeting was a key part of recent engagement between the U.S. and Moscow on the vexing question of how to end Syria’s brutal civil war, which has left nearly 250,000 dead, fueled the rise of the Islamic State, and helped to radicalize would-be terrorists around the world.
“The strategic landscape on Syria has shifted in a fairly significant way,” a senior administration official said in an interview.
But skeptics both inside the administration and out warn that efforts to work Moscow and Tehran, arguably two of America’s top rivals, are far-fetched and could easily backfire.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are watching the developments with particular wariness, concerned about any diplomacy that could strengthen Iran’s standing in the region
While insisting they’re clear-eyed about the risks, Obama officials argue it’s worth testing diplomacy to see whether it can defuse a conflict that has become a global magnet for jihadists and destabilized the Middle East. They say that several recent events, including the Iran nuclear deal, have opened a door for new approaches.
A key factor is the weakening position of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, who is losing territory and military strength to a variety of opposition groups. Worried that Assad might soon topple to Islamic radicals, Russia, which sends Assad money and supplies, has recently signaled a new openness to easing its longtime ally from power.
Also crucial, the official stressed, is the direct military role Turkey has recently taken in Syria after years of watching from the sidelines. Although for now Ankara says it is only targeting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, it is deeply hostile to Assad and its open involvement may be an ominous sign for the Syrian dictator’s regime.
Meanwhile Assad’s backers in Iran, which has sent billions of dollars along with Hezbollah fighters to buck up his regime, are open to discussing the issue with the U.S. for the first time, now that the nuclear deal is complete; dialogue with Tehran on the subject “was basically impossible before we had the deal,” the official said.
Though the U.S. has not publicly disclosed any direct contacts with Iran on Syria, a flurry of international Syria diplomacy quickly followed the July 14 nuclear agreement. On a trip to Doha three weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry met simultaneously with his counterpart from Saudi Arabia, which backs Sunni opposition fighters in Syria, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. On Monday, Lavrov will meet with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who helped to hammer out the nuclear deal with Kerry. The two men reportedly plan to talk about Syria in coming weeks.
Diplomats are discussing a potential deal under which Assad and his inner circle would yield power without allowing Syria’s government to collapse. Iran and Russia have argued that Assad is leading a legitimate fight against radical militants, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
Obama views Assad as a brutal tyrant and has called for his exit from power. But he also fears that Assad’s sudden fall could produce the kind of anarchy seen in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Some Obama officials believe there is no way to resolve Syria’s civil war without the direct participation of Iran, which the U.S. has excluded from two rounds of fruitless peace talks in Geneva.
“It’s gotten caught up in both sectarian conflict and geopolitical jockeying, and in order for us to resolve it, there’s going to have to be agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria that this is not going to be won on the battlefield,” Obama said in a July 15 press conference.
But a competing school of thought holds that Washington and Tehran can never agree on what kind of government should follow Assad’s — at least not without concessions that will inflame fears among America’s Arab allies about a nascent U.S.-Iranian partnership.
“We’ve got an Arab world already deeply concerned that the agreement means we’re cozying up to Iran,” said Ryan Crocker, a retired diplomat who has served as U.S. ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait. “If we do anything to foster that impression it’s going to do a lot of damage. Particularly in Syria, where the Saudis are watching like hawks.”
“Recent developments might be opening a slight window for political talks,” Crocker added. “But I think we’ve got to be very firm on this.”
In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton White House national security council official, warned that continued U.S. diplomacy with Iran could alarm Arab allies.
To the contrary, Pollack advised Obama to pick a fight with Iran in Syria, by increasing support for moderate rebel forces there.
“If the United States is going to push back on Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal… Syria is unquestionably the place to do it,” Pollack said.
Also watching the nascent Syria diplomacy with concern is Israel. On Sunday, a top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, warned of alleged western plans to divide Syria, which he called “the golden ring of resistance against the Zionists.” Iran has long used Syria as a supply route to send weapons and other aid to its ally Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
On a visit to Lebanon last week, Zarif said his country’s priority in the region was “confronting” the “Zionist regime.”
Hostility towards the nuclear deal runs high in Israel, where officials not only fear an eventual Iranian bomb but also that Iran will grow more aggressive towards Israel, which it has long menaced through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
“For the current Israeli government, the U.S. government’s priority in the region must be to limit Iran’s influence,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Iranian expert on relations between the two countries. “Anything such as the US negotiating with Iran over Syria is viewed as legitimising Iran’s influence in the region, and is therefore frowned upon by Israel.”
So far the U.S. has not publicly admitted to direct conversations about Syria with Iran. Some experts said that Moscow, which has better ties to Tehran, is likely to serve as an intermediary, as suggested by the Zarif-Lavrov meeting. “If you’re talking to the Russians you’re also going to be hearing from the Iranians,” Crocker said.
But close engagement with Russia brings complications for Obama. Heavy fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow may be escalating support for separatist rebels. On Thursday, Kerry placed a stern call to Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, to express “grave concern” about what he called a “sharp rise” in separatist attacks, despite a tenuous cease-fire agreement that has been in place since late February.
Some administration hard-liners towards Russia had hoped that after the nuclear deal was reached, Obama could adopt a tougher posture towards Moscow in Ukraine because its support is no longer needed on that front. But Obama may choose to prioritize a Syria settlement over escalation in the Ukraine showdown.
Meanwhile, many observers — including a former top Pentagon official — are doubtful that a Syria settlement can be achieved in the near future regardless of Obama’s diplomatic choices.
In a recent policy brief for the Center for a New American Security, Richard Fontaine and Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense for Obama, argue that a “lack of serious U.S. engagement to date [in Syria] means that it would have little leverage in such a negotiation if it began tomorrow, and the parties Washington wishes to see prevail – moderate rebels – are in fact the weakest on the field.”
Flournoy and Fontaine argued that setting the conditions for a peace agreement will building a stronger moderate Syrian opposition force and “raising the costs for Iran” in Syria and elsewhere.
But with less than 18 months to go in his presidency, that won’t be easy for Obama to achieve. Last summer, Obama announced a $500 million program to train a moderate Syrian opposition force last summer. To date, the program has graduated just 60 fighters. Several of them were recently captured by the Nusra front.