Should Iran be Included in Syria Conflict Diplomacy?

As former top State Department intelligence specialist Wayne White points out for Lobe Log, in the absence of a tenable ceasefire agreement, the quagmire that is the Syrian civil war will likely intensify, thereby only worsening post-Assad scenarios.

“The bottom line is that a sort of Catch-22 situation is continuing on the diplomatic front,” wrote White last week. “[T]he side that believes it has the upper hand and will eventually prevail militarily (currently the opposition) is unlikely to accept a truce because a ceasefire would interfere with its ability to sustain intense military pressure on the other side.”

Anyone hoping for even a temporary cessation to the deadly violence would have been shattered by Bashar al-Assad’s rare speech in Damascus on Sunday, where he thanked his base for showing “the whole world that Syria is impervious to collapse and the Syrian people impervious to humiliation.” The defiant president refused to step down while claiming he was ready to talk with the opposition. But as White noted, Assad did so while urging his supporters to continue fighting against the “bunch of criminals” who oppose him.

This political gridlock makes creative diplomacy appear all the more important in bringing an end to the ongoing carnage that’s ravaging the country. Asked if the Iranians should be included in diplomatic efforts, former top CIA analyst Paul Pillar told Lobe Log that “Any multilateral diplomatic initiative has a better chance of success if all the parties with leverage to exert are included.”

Pillar is well aware of the fact that this may be easier said than done. UN and Arab League mediator Lahkdar Brahimi remains in between a rock and a hard place — expected to please everyone while not being able to please anyone. The brutal force that the government deployed to crush what were initially peaceful protests seems to have pushed both sides beyond the point of no return. Presently, the opposition’s recent disgust with Brahimi’s choice of Russia as the venue for his recent truce initiative has been overshadowed by the regime’s accusations of Brahimi’s “bias toward sides known for conspiring against Syria and the Syrian people.”

It was in this atmosphere of hopelessness that news surfaced Wednesday of over 2,130 Syrian prisoners being released by the regime in exchange for 48 Iranians abducted during what they claimed to be a religious pilgrimage in August. (The opposition had said that the Iranians were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which Tehran adamantly denied.) The massive exchange again raises the question of whether Iran has a role to play in bringing an end to the Syrian crisis.

This question may be more difficult to answer now than it was when the fighting first broke out over a year ago. On the one hand, the prisoner swap supports the argument that Iran holds considerable influence over Assad’s government and could help shift events toward a “peace process”. Throughout last year, Iran tried to inject itself into diplomatic processes taking place over Syria by, for example, supporting a failed United Nations-Arab League peace plan and making is own proposal in December.

On Syria, Iran is pursuing a dual track policy of support for the Syrian Government as it faces internal instability, while pressing Damascus to take measures to reduce tensions, open the grounds for negotiations with the opposition and find a path towards national unity and conciliation,” said Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (2003 to 2005) and now a visiting scholar at Princeton University.

“Iran can play a major constructive role on the Syrian crisis,” he said.

That Iran reportedly included Syria in its five-point proposal presented during nuclear talks in Moscow last June could be an indication that it would be willing to bargain away its support for the regime — if it was provided with enough incentive. (Recall how the government of Mohammad Khatami reportedly offered to end Iran’s material support to Palestinian groups opposing Israel in a March 2003 proposal for “broad dialogue” with the US that was rejected by the Bush administration.)

On the other hand, this prisoner swap, which amounts to about 44 Syrians for every 1 Iranian, displays the extent to which Iran is tied to Assad’s repression. If the war in Syria is really about the major powers that are backing each side (Russia, Iran and China for the regime, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western countries for the opposition), and since the fall of Assad would indeed be a “major blow” to the Iranians, can Tehran really be expected to help its foes?

For now, talks with Iran over its nuclear program are expected to resume shortly, even if they’re already off to a bad start. But as the fighting in Syria produces ongoing suffering while the Israeli-led campaign against Iran’s nuclear program continues to involve the potential of a costly military conflict, considering all options on the Syrian diplomatic table be more important now than ever.

“If the Iranians are excluded from a joint effort to do something helpful, they are only more likely to do something unhelpful, said Pillar, who advocates a more flexible US negotiating posture with Iran.

“Engagement with Iran over Syria also can reap secondary benefits in other areas, such as the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, by expanding channels of communication and bargaining space,” he said.

Photo: Feb. 23, 2012. A Free Syrian Army member prepares to fight with a tank whose crew defected from government forces in al-Qsair. Freedom House photo/Creative Commons/Flickr.  

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.