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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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