Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

The Syria Talks Are Doomed Without Iran

Why Washington must make harder choices and include Iran to save Syria. By David Rohde

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

The lack of an Iranian presence in Switzerland this week dooms the talks’ prospects. Whether Tehran’s actions are depraved or not, its comprehensive efforts to supply troops, munitions, and funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.

“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said an American analyst, who closely follows Syria and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have to feel comfortable with the outcome—if there is going to be a solution.”

(Read more Defense One coverage on Iran here)

As fighting enters its third year, the dynamics in Syria increasingly resemble those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan each backed various factions in Afghanistan for its own gain. The result? Thirty years of proxy war that killed an estimated 1 million Afghans and created one of the world’s most impoverished, fragmented, and radicalized societies.

U.S. and other Western officials express legitimate frustration with the fractious nature of Syria’s opposition. But in Syria today, a version of Afghanistan-style war-by-foreign proxy is dividing the opposition and prolonging the conflict.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, like the United States and the Soviet Union before them, are locked in an existential struggle—their own Cold War, over influence in the region—which is inflaming Shia-Sunni tensions. An opportunistic Russia, meanwhile, is using Syria’s dissolution to extend its influence in the region as well.

Though the Obama administration talks as if it is a central player in Syria, it is, largely, on the sidelines. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar continue to back different, often opposing, rebel groups, with no coordinated strategy. As Iran and Assad act in lock-step, Washington and its regional allies squabble.

“This has proved to be a huge distraction,” a recent International Crisis Group report concluded, “At critical points, it has effectively ground coalition activity to a halt.”

The Syrian conflict—like Afghanistan 30 years ago—is spinning out of control, as each outside power pursues its own agenda. Sectarian and jihadi forces unleashed today will be difficult to rein in for years, if not decades. This week’s peace conference will seem laughably quaint.

(Read more Defense One coverage on Syria here)

We have seen this before. In 1982, Afghan, Pakistani, U.S., and Soviet negotiators gathered in Switzerland to try to end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Six years later, they signed the Geneva Accords, which resulted in the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from Afghanistan the next year.

But the forces that the United States and its allies had released—radicalism, sectarianism, tribalism, and lawlessness—devoured Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thirty years later, those centrifugal forces still haunt that fractured nation.

This week’s negotiations are laudable. U.S. officials hope they will lead to temporary ceasefires, aid deliveries, and prisoner exchanges. They also assert that the talks might lead some members of Assad’s inner circle to defect. The conference’s first day, though, produced only vitriolic exchanges between the Syrian government and opposition.

There is a sharp disconnect between perceptions of the conflict inside the United States and within the region. Though the White House and the U.S. public are understandably hesitant about arming Syria’s rebels or carrying out air strikes, countries and groups in the region see the conflict as pivotal. From minority Alawites, who fear a takeover of Syria by Sunni jihadists, to the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the parties in the region see the struggle as a direct threat to their existence.

Syrian officials are growing confident that they are winning. They cite recent infighting among rebel groups as evidence that the opposition is imploding. Despite Washington’s calls for Assad’s ouster, it remains clear that the Obama White House will not use military force.

Since the United States struck an accord with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons in September, the regime’s brutality has expanded exponentially, according to human rights groups. The Assad government has increased its use of starvation siege tactics. It is demolishing more civilian neighborhoods with makeshift “barrel bombs.” And a new trove of chilling photographs, if verified, documents the torture and killing of as many as 11,000 detainees.

On the other side of the conflict, Saudi officials are so angered by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to arm the rebels that they have “gone rogue,” according to the American analyst who asked not to be named. Convinced that Washington will not confront Iran in Syria, Saudi officials are stepping up their efforts to arm Sunni jihadists.

“They feel like they played nice and they lost strategically for it,” said the analyst. “The problem with that is that the Saudis don’t have a very good track record at controlling the entities that they create.”

The analyst was, of course, referring to Afghanistan, where the United States and Saudi Arabia armed and trained anti-Soviet jihadists—including a young Saudi fighter named Osama bin Laden. The unintended consequences continue to be felt today.

Unless Iran is negotiated with or confronted militarily in Syria, the Geneva talks of 2014 are likely to be as insignificant as those of 1988. Yes, the Assad government is engaging in unspeakable brutality. Hard-line jihadists in the opposition are also carrying out horrific acts. But foreign powers are exacerbating this conflict by pursuing their own rivalries in the region.

All that has changed is that the hundreds dying each week are Syrians, not Afghans.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.