Why Syria's upcoming peace talks could hinge on the nuclear deal with Iran

Iran could be a key player in January talks to end Syria's bloody civil war

Syrian rebel fighter
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Hussein Malla))

On Monday, the United Nations announced that Syria's warring factions — the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels trying to overthrow him — would sit down for peace talks for the first time on Jan. 22, 2014. The U.S. and Russia will also attend the meeting. Getting the Syrian rivals to agree to sit down is a big breakthrough, and the diplomats sounded cautiously optimistic.

"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The talks will be the "best opportunity" to end the bloodshed, concurred U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Referring to the landmark Iran nuclear agreement signed a day earlier, Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky added, "I would simply say that it was a good weekend for diplomacy."

The Syria announcement did feed the sense of diplomatic momentum generated from the Iran accord, says Reuters' Stephanie Nebehay. But "Syrians and diplomats have few illusions about how hard it will be to end a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people since 2011, driven over a third of the population from their homes, and divided the country among rival and often religiously driven factions with an array of competing foreign sponsors."

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Assad's government agreed to the talks, but doesn't support any solution that would force Assad from office. The government-in-exile Syrian National Coalition welcomed its invitation to the talks, but Assad's departure is its primary precondition. The National Coalition isn't recognized by many of the rebel groups, however, and Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Western-backed Free Syria Army, said his group will not attend. The Islamist militias fighting Assad reject international mediation out of hand.

Despite the fundamental disagreement over the outcome of the talks and lack of a unified opposition to negotiate with, some analysts and diplomats argue if Iran and the U.S. can make a deal, anything's possible. "In addition to the multiple positive aspects of this [Iran] agreement," says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "I hope it will have a useful impact on the currently underway efforts to solve the Syrian problem."

Here's the problem with the speculation that the U.S-Iran "thaw in relations could lead to progress on other matters of dispute, like the civil war in Syria," says Dan Murphy at The Christian Science Monitor. With the Iran deal, "there was a middle ground available that allowed everybody to get something that they wanted." U.S. and Iranian interests align. But "when it comes to Syria, the interests of the U.S. and Iran could not be more divergent."

In short, Iran would still see the defeat of Assad as a disaster that could have destabilizing consequences for its only other close Arab friend, Iraq. Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., meanwhile, would view Assad's survival as a disaster. That doesn't present much ground for compromise.... Just as there isn't much common ground between Iran and the U.S. on Syria — there isn't much common ground to be found between the rebels and the regime. At least not yet. Nations and groups will carry on pursuing their interests. [Christian Science Monitor]

The Syrian conflict has turned into a proxy war not so much between Assad-ally Russia and the U.S., but between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is deeply involved in Assad's war against the rebel forces, and Saudi Arabia provides many of the rebels' weapons. It's hard to imagine a deal without Iran and the Saudis involved. That's where the Iran talks come into play.

The U.S. and its Western allies have opposed the inclusion of Iran in the Syria talks because Iran declines to endorse a communiqué that called for a new Syrian government approved by "mutual consent" between the government and rebel opposition. After the Iran deal was signed, though, an unidentified senior European Union official told Reuters that he "cannot imagine Washington continuing to object to an Iranian presence."

Tony Badran at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies agrees. "Everything now is geared towards showcasing that Iran can play a serious role," he tells The Huffington Post. Badran goes on to argue that the increasing, sometime secret dialogue between the U.S. and Iran means that the Obama administration is hoping to involve Tehran in regional diplomacy. In Syria, he adds, "Iran is a stakeholder."

Iran says that, if invited, it will attend the Geneva talks without any preconditions. And if it does, "Tehran's participation in the peace talks would likely strengthen any agreement reached in Geneva," say Reuters' Yara Bayoumy and Jon Hemming.

That could help resolve Syria's bloody civil war, but it probably wouldn't be good news for the rebels, says David Andelman at USA Today. Some researchers wonder if President Obama was hesitant to bomb Syria in August and September in part because of the secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington. "The Iranian nuclear accord may serve the useful purpose from the Syrian government perspective of making the West reluctant, at least for the next six months, to challenge the Assad regime in any meaningful manner."

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