Iran seeks dialogue on Syria

Officials and representatives from over 30 countries pose for a photo during a day-long international consultative meeting on Syria, Tehran, August, 2012.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – Iran this week plays host to an international gathering on Syria that will attract representatives from 40 countries, including Turkey, Russia, and China. The conference is aimed at bolstering Tehran’s image as a regional conflict manager and promoter of peace, and will likely improve Iran’s chance of being included the upcoming Geneva conference being organized by Russia and US, which hopes to attract representatives from the Syrian government as well as rebels who have been put on the defensive as a result of gains by the Syrian army.

Not every one is thrilled about the possibility of Iran’s participation in “Geneva II” conference. France in particular has taken the lead in opposition, its argument being that Iran is playing a destructive role in Syria by backing Damascus and is therefore a “force of instability” rather than stability, to paraphrase the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius.

The French view is in sharp contrast to Russian opinion that Iran is a major regional player and must be included. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday that the Geneva talks would be difficult to organize.

“We discussed how we can proceed in our efforts to make this conference happen. It’s not an easy task. It’s a very tall order,” the Russian foreign minister said.

Lavrov and Kerry discussed the possible dates and participants in the peace talks in the meeting, their sixth since the US secretary of state took office in February.

At last week’s “Friends of Syria” meeting in Jordan, which was attended by Kerry, the Arab states criticized both Iran and its “proxy” Lebanon’s Hezbollah for their direct participation in the fighting in Syria, which is going badly for the rebels, particularly in the crucial Homs province. I

Iran denied it sent any fighters to Syria, while Hezbollah has defended its decision to send hundreds of its fighters across the border to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrollah, who has taken some heat in Lebanon for his fateful decision, cited the gravity of the consequences of Assad regime’s fall for the “resistance”. Two rocket attacks at Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut last week may reflect the kind of blowback that could hurl Lebanon in the bosom of a nasty Shi’ite-Sunni conflict unless present international efforts to bring about a ceasefire in Syria are successful.

A prelude to Western intervention
Unfortunately, the chances are that the Geneva “peace summit” will fail to yield substantial results, save legitimizing a more interventionist Western approach toward Syria. This is defeating the very purpose of the conference before it is even convened and its sponsors should focus on ways to prevent such an unwanted outcome.

Thus, while Kerry has been pressuring the Assad regime to attend the conference and seek real peace with the rebels – or face the dire consequence of increased outside military help to the rebels in – US right-wing senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have taken the lead in criticizing the White House’s “weak” Syrian policy and calling for direct US military aid, including heavy weapons, to the rebels.

At a time when the US is exiting Afghanistan and preoccupied with domestic priorities, the US public has little stomach for another Middle East gambit that could cost blood and treasure. This explains why the recent polls in US indicate that majority of US citizens are opposed to a US military intervention in Syria.

In Europe, which is grappling with the economic difficulties, the European Union’s preparedness for a Libya-style intervention is close to non-existent, which is why this author’s prediction two years ago that Syria will not be a repeat of Libya’s scenario still holds (see Does Gaddafi’s fate await Assad?, Asia Times Online, August 25, 2011.)

With respect to Turkey, Ankara appears to have stepped back from an earlier hawkish stance vis-a-vis the Assad regime and now openly contemplates living with that regime for the foreseeable future, given the waves of refugees, spillover conflict, and the Turkish population’s unhappiness with the official Turkish policy. As a result, Ankara is moving closer to Tehran and Moscow on Syria, while still being influenced by the Saudis and Qataris, who continue to vest hopes on regime change in Syria after devoting billions of dollars to that cause.

There are small signs however that even the Saudis are beginning to feel the pinch of reality regarding Assad’s staying power, and policy disagreements have opened up with Qatar, whose disproportionate role in regional diplomacy causes much chagrin for the Egyptians, who did not even bother including Qatar in the “quartet” on Syria, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The quartet can conceivably meet on the sideline of Geneva conference and contribute to the peace efforts. That assumes that current opposition to Iran’s participation will fail and Tehran will be invited.

Iran welcomes the Geneva conference and would be willing to participate, depending on the “details”, Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview with the Washington-based Al-Monitor. Clearly, as an influential party, Iran is keen on playing an effective role at the conference rather than being a passive participant, and that would require a great deal of pre-conference diplomacy.

From Tehran’s vantage point, following the “six point” principles unveiled at last year’s Tehran’s conference on Syria, there ought to be a ceasefire, an end to foreign intervention and the flow of arms to Syria, and meaningful political dialogue. As for the fate of embattled Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s position is that this should be delegated to a national elections and his removal not given as a precondition for dialogue and ceasefire.

According to a Tehran University political science professor, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, “the feeling in Tehran these days is that their policy on Syria has been vindicated and they have emerged as winners in the conflict, but this may be a little bit premature and Tehran should be careful not to jump the gun and assume the war is over … the West can still cause a great deal of mischief in Syria.”

This is sound advice to Tehran policy-makers, who are also grappling with presidential elections in June and the proximity of a change of guard. No matter who the next Iranian president will be, it is a sure bet that Iran’s policy toward Syria will not change course.

By Asia Times


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