Diplomacy with Iran Key to Ending Syria War

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds his first press conference in the presidential press hall on Aug. 6, 2013 in Tehran, Iran

The seemingly imminent military strikes against Syria, in response to what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has described as “undeniable” evidence of chemical weapons use, are not likely to bring the Syria war to a close.

The hundreds killed in the presumed gas attack on a Damascus suburb are but the latest victims of a war in which more than 100,000 have been killed, nearly 2 million are refugees, 4 million are internally displaced and 6.8 million require urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

(MORE1 Million Children Have Left Syria, U.N. Says)

Syria is going from bad to worse. With some nimble statecraft and intensive diplomacy, however, there could be an opportunity in the present crisis to initiate a strategy to end the war.

Diplomacy with Syria requires the full engagement of Russia and especially Iran, the only two countries that have any influence with Damascus. Otherwise, the war is likely to continue with no end in sight.

Although the Syrian government has agreed to participate in what is known as the Geneva II conference for a political transition, planning has stalled because the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, which has suffered several military setbacks this year, considers itself at a disadvantage and has refused to attend.

The likely air strikes may either directly or indirectly be an attempt to help the rebels equalize the balance of forces in Syria prior to a negotiation, while also enforcing U.S. President Barack Obama’s red line on chemical weapons use.

(WATCHStriking Syria: What Obama Can and Can’t Do)

A military strike could be either a setback or a catalyst for Geneva II. Moscow has leveled its strong opposition to a possible U.N. Security Council resolution by the United Kingdom that would authorize the use of force. Iran’s leaders warned today of the consequences of a military attack on Syria.

Tehran’s position on chemical weapons and on Syria may, however, provide a window for engagement.

Iran suffered from chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war. Although Iran has blamed rebel forces for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted on Aug. 27 that “Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria.” On April 30, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that chemical weapons would be a “red line” for Iran, using Obama’s phrase.

(MOREThe Cost of Obama’s Syria Dithering)

In a June interview with Al-MonitorMohammad Khazaee, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, welcomed the initiative for Geneva II. Russia has so far pressed for Iran’s participation in the conference, but the United States has resisted, at least until now.

On Monday, U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss allegations of chemical weapons use and Iran’s role in seeking a political solution in Syria.

Some have argued for excluding Iran from Geneva II because Tehran and its ally, Hezbollah, are on the wrong side of the Syria conflict. But the sides are blurred. The radical jihadists and terrorists in Syria are the inheritors and allies of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. They impose Islamic rule in the areas they “liberate” and have given new life to terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Syria. Bombing Syria is likely to help their cause.

(MORE: Iranian Officials: Israel Will Be First Victim of a Syria Attack)

A diplomatic surge should include pressure on Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to do much more to stop the influx of terrorists to Syria, which is now the front line for global jihad, and among the gravest threats to U.S. interests and allies in the region.

But first, the U.S. needs to talk business with Iran. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends. There are precedents for similar understandings. Imagine how much worse the problems would be in Iraq and Afghanistan if Iran did not support the governments of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and President Hamid Karzai.

On the home front, Obama does not have a mandate for the use of force in Syria. A Reuters/IPSOS poll revealed that only 9% of Americans support military action and 60% oppose it. These numbers increase to 25% supporting, and a 46% opposing, if chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians. Obama, seeking to stay out of Middle East entanglements, would benefit from a diplomatic surge.

Military force is a means and not an end, and should be a piece of a broader strategy to end the Syria war. The use of NATO air power against Yugoslav forces in the Kosovo war, for example, included intensive, direct diplomacy, including by Russia, with President Slobodan Milosevic before and after the NATO campaign. Washington should be holding a few aces with Moscow and Tehran to assure that diplomacy in Syria gets a second wind and is not a casualty of the anticipated missile strikes. Otherwise, the U.S. will find itself on an even steeper slippery slope for deeper entanglements in the Middle East.

MORE: As Syria Attack Seems Imminent, Al-Qaeda and the U.S. Eye The Same Enemy

27 comments
lifeasreree
lifeasreree

@TIME red line or excuse2overtake. Hopefully Iran n Russia help resolve this b4 wwIII Public manipulation/strong words like chemical weapons

goodcom_r
goodcom_r

@arnocast @riadaaa un dialogue qu'ils pourraient considérer comme une invitation a participer a la WW3 plutôt non?

incomparableA
incomparableA

@TIME @TIMEIdeas it is time for world powers to join together and agree that there be an military alliance to "police" nations to stop evil

yasminlra
yasminlra

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Besides yes I've understand whats going on and is persecution are retoric but thé World can't afford to loose more lives.

stidrendon
stidrendon

@TIME why russia? It's so stupid to call other countries in this polemic

yasminlra
yasminlra

@TIME @TIMEIdeas But why Russia? this a conflicto that should be resolve in their own backyard. There are enoughs countries in their region

makiwa
makiwa

@PersianFarzad a genuine diplomacy by Israel WITH Palestine would herald a most welcome breakthrough for humanity too!

BillPearlman
BillPearlman

So if Obama begs the Iranians and Russians to get him out of the corner that his bog mouth put him in. And if he asks really nice and maybe kisses their ass. They'll do what?

ismailuzellll
ismailuzellll

@robertwrighter So, who wants to intervene inSyria? one really, really wants Assad to go. So, in all probability, he will stay.

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

Well, it is rather clear that assad's main ally in iran and not russia, and assads downfall would cause widespread terrorism,thereore, u need to negotiate with both assad and Iran. This is ceratinly a very well written article

lifeasreree
lifeasreree

@TIME maybe we care: people are dying. As long as no ground troop. Strike main hubs n leave.We never enter the country. We good