One-Two Punch

Why Obama needs both Tehran and Moscow to make a deal in Syria.


The world is watching to see if Hasan Rouhani is serious about ending Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. So far, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Not only has the new Iranian president repeatedly said he intends to resolve the stalemate, but his upbeat phone conversation with President Barack Obama last month marked the first direct contact between a U.S. and Iranian president since 1979. Now, there are hints that Iran is preparing a proposal for next week’s meeting of the P5+1, the group of world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

All of this is good news — and ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons is the right priority for the emerging dialogue between Tehran and Washington. But Obama should also capitalize on a potential opening with Iran to pursue another urgent objective: a diplomatic end to Syria’s civil war.

Obama has already embarked on the path of diplomacy in Syria, teaming up with Russia to rid Bashar al-Assad’s regime of its chemical weapons. Inspectors have arrived in Syria and have begun the laborious process of destroying Assad’s chemical arsenal. Obama should now try to pull Iran into the mix, seeking to turn a narrow deal focused on destroying Assad’s chemical weapons into a broader effort to stop the bloodletting in Syria.

The only way to end Syria’s civil war is a political settlement. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, the conflict is poised to burn for years — and continue to spread to Syria’s neighbors. Moreover, Syria’s opposition is fragmented, and its most effective armed forces are also the most militant, meaning that a rebel victory would likely produce a failed state or one under the control of Islamist militants. To avoid that outcome, Obama needs the help of Syria’s two lifelines: Moscow and Tehran. Convincing them to bring Assad to heel offers the best — if not the only — hope for a political end to the bloodshed.

The broad outlines of a diplomatic settlement are clear. At the end of the process, Assad and his inner circle would go, but Syria’s governing ministries would remain largely intact; a functioning state will be essential to the viability of a post-Assad Syria. The political dominance of Damascus and its ruling Alawite clan would give way to a more decentralized brand of governance. An inclusive political arrangement similar to the one in Lebanon, where power is allocated along sectarian lines, is the most realistic option.

With Moscow and Washington working together on the chemical weapons front, it is time to revive previous attempts by both governments to bring the Assad regime and the opposition to the negotiating table in Geneva. Moscow appears ready to lean on the Syrian strongman, as evidenced by Assad’s readiness to abandon his chemical arsenal. Indeed, the Kremlin has of late signaled a measure of indifference about who governs Syria, suggesting it may be getting ready for life after Assad. And with the Syrian opposition deflated by Washington’s decision against military strikes, at least some rebels may be ready to make a deal.

The missing piece is Iran. Washington has so far resisted Tehran’s inclusion in negotiations to end Syria’s civil war. Earlier this week, the State Department did signal that it may be more inclined to draw Iran into the diplomatic effort as long as Tehran is prepared to publicly back calls for a transitional Syrian government. This announcement represents a step in the right direction — but Washington now needs to close the deal.

As long as Tehran continues to provide military and financial assistance to the Syrian regime and its regional allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Assad will likely have the wherewithal to hold on to power. Reaching out to Tehran and convincing Rouhani to invest in a future relationship with a new Syria is thus essential to negotiating an endgame.

Washington should be under no illusions about how difficult it will be to secure Iran’s cooperation on the Syrian front. The Iranian regime is itself deeply divided, and hard-line elements — in particular, the Revolutionary Guards — are operating inside Syria in support of the Assad regime. This powerful faction of the Iranian regime will not easily abandon its Syrian client.

Moreover, Assad and Hezbollah are two of Tehran’s main proxies in the region, enabling Iran to wield widespread influence in the Shiite arc running from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s growing influence has deeply concerned U.S. partners in the region, including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — one of the main reasons that Washington will have a tough time convincing them that reaching out to Tehran is a necessary step toward ending the conflict.

Nonetheless, Rouhani appears determined to pursue a more moderate course on foreign policy. Tehran has signaled a new readiness to engage Washington on regional issues as well as on its nuclear program. Iran is no doubt determined to maintain its influence in Syria. But if Tehran can be persuaded that dumping Assad will best protect its decades of investment in Syria while advancing the prospects for rapprochement with Washington, it may well throw its weight behind a negotiated end to the war.

Tehran has good reasons to head in this direction. Whatever the outcome of Syria’s civil war, it is hard to imagine that Assad will be able to stay in power over the long run. As a result, Tehran has a vested interest in laying the groundwork for a constructive relationship with whatever government comes next. So, too, would Rouhani earn a significant measure of goodwill in Washington if he helped broker a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.

The current trajectory of Syria’s conflict is leading to state collapse and growing anarchy — a situation that ultimately compromises the interests of all countries in the region, including Iran. Syria will never return to its prewar status quo, and the choice ahead is clear: either an escalating conflict that threatens the wider region or an attempt at a diplomatic process that seeks a cease-fire and a lasting political settlement.

An opportunity to bring Iran to the negotiating table may be close at hand. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently announced plans to convene a Syrian peace conference in Geneva in mid-November, and the United Nation’s special envoy for the Syrian conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, has backed Iran’s participation.

Adding Syria to the agenda for negotiations between Tehran and Washington does risk bogging down their dialogue over nuclear issues, but it could also tip the balance in favor of a deal. Cooperation between Iran and the United States on Syria would help build the mutual confidence needed for a breakthrough on the nuclear front.

Syria’s humanitarian crisis is only mounting — as is the risk that the civil war will engulf neighboring states. Now that the diplomatic door is ajar with both Moscow and Tehran, Obama has every reason to try to walk through it.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

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