By Christopher Phillips and Julien Barnes-Dacey for The European Council on Foreign Relations
The decision by Western governments to reject engagement with Iran as part of Kofi Annan’s proposed international contact group is a significant mistake that will prolong the violence in Syria. If the West’s priority is truly to end the suffering of the Syrian people, rather than to take advantage of the crisis to pursue broader strategic ambitions in the region, it must talk to Tehran which, alongside Russia, holds crucial leverage over the Assad regime.
It now looks too late to stop a bloody civil war in Syria. With levels of violence spiralling out of control, and the regime rejecting any serious negotiation, there is little hope of a meaningful political process. Recent weeks have highlighted both the growing strength of the opposition, but also the formidable military might still available to regime, portending to a long and painful conflict. However, despite some hawkish commentators’ readiness to dismiss his efforts, Annan’s contact group – a mechanism through which to try and establish international consensus – still offers the best hope of eventually containing the conflict.
The international dimension has become a key component of this 15 month-long crisis. Despite the fierce and legitimate struggle being fought by the Syrian people against a brutal regime, there is no denying that the conflict has been internationalised, and neither side can now sustain itself without the support of external backers. For Assad, political, military and economic support from Russia and Iran is essential, as it faces diplomatic isolation, diminished trade, depleting foreign currency reserves and a rising military bill. For the armed domestic opposition, financial and military inflows will become key to their ability to push back against Assad’s military machine. For the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, diplomatic support from the West, Turkey and the Arab League (namely the Gulf states) has become their only real asset.
The leverage possessed by external states is thus considerable, and establishing some form of international consensus may represent the only way of stopping the violence. Without pressure from Iran and Russia there is little prospect the regime can be pushed to the table, and thereafter from power, without a considerable period of conflict. With their ongoing support Assad may be able to survive for some time yet. It is absurd therefore for European and American governments to reject talks with Iran out of hand, notwithstanding its condemnable decision to continue propping up Assad.
The West’s rejection of a comprehensive international approach only guarantees more prolonged conflict by ensuring that Assad’s key allies are not incentivised to desert him. Tehran will continue to provide material support to sustain the regime as it will see no alternative way of safeguarding its interests, particularly if the conflict’s ultimate goal is seen to be a weakening of its own regional influence. Given that direct military action is off the table, the only options available to the West will be more sanctions and gradually increasing the supply of weapons to the rebels, something that will only exacerbate the civil war and the disintegration of the state.
As weak as the diplomatic path now appears, Annan’s contact group still offers the only possibility of establishing some middle ground to curtail the violence – and as such talks are, at a minimum, worth pursuing, particularly as they would not have to represent an exclusive track. With violence escalating and the Assad regime clearly wilting – in nationwide legitimacy and control, if not in its continued military capabilities -, Russia and Iran may eventually be inclined to accept a deal that sees Assad step down as part of a wider transition arrangement.
While the moral imperative of rejecting dialogue with Tehran can be understood, it is time for greater realism that prioritises an end to the conflict in Syria. Western (and Saudi) desires to force Iran out of any post-Assad Syria as part of their wider regional battle with Tehran is blinding them to the fact that engaging with the Islamic Republic, however unpalatable, might hold an important key to ending the killing and preventing Syria from becoming a failed state. Though the odds of success may be slim, it is this route – one that involves talking and negotiating with the key powers propping up the Assad regime – that offers the best hope of ending the bloodshed.