Report

After Iran Deal, U.S. Bids to Revive Peace Talks on Syria

Washington hopes the Iran nuclear accord — and the Assad regime’s battlefield defeats — could create a new opening for diplomacy.

Photo via STR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo via STR/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has launched a fresh attempt to revive peace talks designed to end the four-year Syrian civil war, hoping to capitalize on the aftermath of the Iran nuclear accord and the battlefield setbacks of the regime in Damascus.

U.S. officials cautioned that the effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry was at an early stage and — like previous diplomatic attempts — could end in failure due to the deep differences that still separate the main players and their patrons in the multisided conflict. And officials said Washington wasn’t offering a specific peace proposal and didn’t have a timeline for developing one.

As the primary backer and lifeline for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran could hold the key to any sort of peaceful settlement of the civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and sent millions of Syrians fleeing into other countries. But as long as the delicate nuclear talks were underway, U.S. diplomats had been reluctant to engage Tehran on Syria to avoid giving the Iranians possible leverage that could have strengthened their bargaining position in the negotiations.

After the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran was clinched on July 14, it opened a possible door — albeit a narrow one — to diplomacy on the Syrian conflict, Obama administration officials said.

“Getting beyond the nuclear deal is a first step to starting a dialogue” on Syria, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy.

Days after the nuclear accord was unveiled, Kerry suggested that Iran’s leadership appeared ready for discussions on “regional issues” and that it was worth exploring the opportunity.

“My judgment is that there are possibilities there, but I’m not going to promise them, I can’t tell you where they’ll go, and I’m not betting on them,” he said.

As part of the renewed American push, Kerry has been discreetly reaching out to his counterparts in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf to see if there are grounds to breathe life into a potential peace process. Turkey and the Gulf monarchies have backed various Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war and long focused on Assad’s ouster, though the nations are increasingly invested in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State.

“There are a lot of quiet conversations going on,” the U.S. official said. “You will see more movement on this.”

Apart from the nuclear deal, the Assad regime’s deteriorating position on the ground has also given its main patrons — Russia and Iran — new doubts about whether the Syrian ruler can hold onto power, officials said. That, in turn, is spurring Moscow and Beijing to work harder on a possible diplomatic solution.

With battlefield losses in recent months in northwest, central, and southern Syria, the Assad regime is “at its weakest point since 2012,” the official said.

Assad himself has publicly acknowledged that his army can no longer secure parts of the country. The government troops and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia have suffered serious casualties and lost key battles in Idlib, eastern Homs province, and in the south at Deraa, and the regime appears to be retrenching to western strongholds, including Damascus and the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast, which account for barely a fifth of the country.

Although the regime is not on the verge of collapse, “they’re tired, [and] they’re overstretched,” the official said.

President Barack Obama told the New York Times on July 14 that Russia appeared more open to discussions on Syria as it recognized “the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria.”

He added: “That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

The effort to start those conversations got a boost on Aug. 6 when the United States persuaded Russia to back a United Nations resolution setting up an independent panel to identify suspects behind ongoing chlorine chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Western officials and independent chemical weapons experts contend that the Assad government has been routinely dropping chlorine-filled bombs on towns under rebel control throughout Syria. But U.S. efforts to attribute the attacks to Damascus have run into opposition from Moscow, which has spent years protecting Assad at the United Nations and claims that Syrian insurgents are also using toxic agents.

The agreement represented a modest step forward as it signaled a degree of flexibility in Russia’s long-standing support for the Syrian regime, diplomats said.

“It reveals an evolution of the position of Russia, which up until now has been protecting the Syrian regime from any finger-pointing or blame,” a Security Council diplomat said.

In another sign of a possible shift, Russia announced an invitation to the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main opposition group, for talks in Moscow later this month.

The cooperation between Washington and Moscow on the U.N. resolution came amid a flurry of diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict.

Kerry discussed Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Doha on Aug. 3. And Kerry and Lavrov held another meeting two days later on the sidelines of a summit in Kuala Lumpur.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, meanwhile, flew to Tehran, where he met Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers on Aug. 5 and then headed to Oman the next day.

Oman, which maintains friendly ties with both Shiite-ruled Iran and Sunni Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, emerged as a pivotal interlocutor for the United States in the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers. And the small kingdom still has diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, unlike other Gulf States.

Although the combination of military defeats for the regime and the nuclear deal with Iran has cleared the way for a new diplomatic effort, the prospects for success remained uncertain and fraught with risks, officials said.

“There’s a more concerted effort to get a political solution there through diplomacy,” said another administration official familiar with the talks.

But he added: “There’s no hyper optimism here. There’s a more keen focus on it.”

Previous peace talks sponsored by the United Nations and Russia have collapsed over the past four years. Opposition rebels, and their supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have demanded Assad’s removal and a dismantling of his security services, while Russia and Iran have previously ruled out forcing Assad to relinquish power.

The United States has long said that Assad must step down. But since January, Washington has hinted that it would be willing to accept an arrangement in which the Syrian ruler would stay on temporarily until the end of a political transition.

For their part, Iran and Russia are keenly aware that Assad’s regime is increasingly hemmed in by an array of rebel groups, though they are not ready to abandon him, U.S. intelligence officials said.

However, “it is logical that they will begin to consider post-Assad options,” an intelligence official told FP.

Iran, which has funneled billions in aid to Damascus as well as weapons and military advisors, sees Syria as a crucial strategic buffer that must never be allowed to fall under the rule of a Sunni-led government.

Having thrown its full weight behind the Damascus regime, there is no indication yet that Tehran is ready to dramatically alter its position over Syria, analysts and former U.S. officials said.

“I don’t see any sign, based on what the Iranians are saying both publicly and privately, that they are looking to negotiate a serious change,” said Robert Ford, who was the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Syria before relations collapsed.

Iran recently announced it would present a peace plan for Syria this month to the United Nations, but Tehran has said the outline is a revised version of a previous proposal — which did not call for Assad’s ouster.

The conclusion of the nuclear accord with Iran removed a possible impediment to peace talks on Syria, but it also will ease sanctions on Tehran that could enable it to bolster its support for the Assad regime — and undermine any negotiations, Ford said.

”They will almost certainly use a portion of those [funds] to help Assad and his allies,” said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Even as it pushes for a new round of diplomacy, the United States has only limited leverage in a conflict that it has tried to keep at arm’s length. Unlike Turkey, which has extensive ties to a number of opposition rebel groups, Washington has trained and armed only a small number of fighters who have had no major impact on the war.

A senior rebel commander last week bluntly dismissed the Pentagon’s new training program, which has placed less than 60 fighters into the field despite plans for a 15,000-strong force.

“The project is very slow,” Capt. Ammar al-Wawi told the BBC. “If it takes this long to train 60, it will take decades to get everyone ready.”

The Obama administration has faced criticism from its allies in the region for choosing not to intervene in the civil war. And critics argue inaction allowed a chaotic vacuum to develop, creating fertile ground for militants from the Islamic State to seize ground inside Syria and later overrun much of neighboring Iraq.

Even if American diplomats find some sliver of common ground with their Iranian counterparts on the Syrian conflict, they will face deep suspicions from Sunni Arab countries already anxious about the implications of Washington’s nuclear accord with their rivals in Tehran.

Any diplomatic progress with Iran over Syria would confirm fears in the Gulf that Washington is plotting to tilt its strategic approach in the Middle East towards Iran, said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior State Department official.

Before any potential diplomatic breakthrough, he added, the Obama administration will have to do more to reassure its Arab allies that there is no tectonic shift under way in its foreign policy.

“First you have to demonstrate to all sides that this isn’t a pivot to Persia,” Goldenberg said. “And then you can have a negotiation.”

Colum Lynch and Seán Naylor contributed to this report.

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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