Syria Crisis Tests Newfound Détente Between Washington and Tehran

Obama personally assured Riyadh and other powers their interests would not be undermined in Syrian peace talks if Iran was at the negotiating table.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015 with US State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva. Zarif said on January 14 that his meeting with US counterpart was vital for progress on talks on Tehran's contested nuclear drive. Under an interim deal agreed in November 2013, Iran's stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20 percent enriched uranium to five percent, in exchange for limited sanctions relief.   AFP PHOTO / POOL / RICK WILKING        (Photo credit should read RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015 with US State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva. Zarif said on January 14 that his meeting with US counterpart was vital for progress on talks on Tehran's contested nuclear drive. Under an interim deal agreed in November 2013, Iran's stock of fissile material has been diluted from 20 percent enriched uranium to five percent, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. AFP PHOTO / POOL / RICK WILKING (Photo credit should read RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s civil war has presented the Obama administration with its first major test of whether a landmark nuclear deal it concluded in July with Iran can open the door for diplomatic progress in ending the crisis — and, more broadly, dealing with a rise in extremism across the Middle East.

But its success will hinge in part on finding a way to manage a festering feud between the region’s Sunni powerhouse in Riyadh and its Shiite rivals in Tehran, which are fueling a bitter proxy war in Syria.

The effort to soothe relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other key players are finalizing preparations for a new round of diplomatic talks in London as early as Nov. 12, diplomatic officials have told Foreign Policy.

The diplomats engaged in talks remained sharply divided over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But there are other sticking points, including the question of how key negotiators will determine which rebel groups are considered legitimate members of the Syrian opposition — and which are designated as terrorists.

In a sign of the importance the White House attaches to a political settlement in Syria, President Barack Obama intervened personally last month to assure regional powers, principally Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, that their positions would not be undermined if Iran participated in the negotiations, according to diplomats based at the United Nations.

Obama’s call to the Saudi king came four days after Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed Riyadh and Turkey, during a closed-door Oct. 23 meeting in Vienna, to participate in talks on Syria’s future even if there were no explicit assurances that Assad would be required to step down.

The diplomatic vitriol that characterizes Saudi and Iranian relations boiled to the surface during the first round of talks, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, exchanging recriminations over the other’s commitment to peace. A top Iranian official has since warned that Tehran would consider pulling out of the talks if the Saudis didn’t play what he characterized as a more constructive role, Reuters reported.

The State Department has said the decision to invite Iran to the talks was reached by consensus. But diplomats involved in the process say the United States largely championed the effort to secure Iran’s attendance. And it required some heavy lifting by the American president to ensure everyone showed up.

“My understanding is that President Obama was involved personally in getting all 17 countries to the table, including the Saudis and the Iranians,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The problem for the Saudis is, of course, that they are against the Iranian position that Assad must stay. The Saudis insist he must go.”

Saudi misgivings about the diplomatic talks go beyond their concerns about Syria, said F. Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He said they reflect a deeper fear about an American policy shift that could lead to greater cooperation with Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran, on a range of fronts.

“I think the fear is overblown. But you can understand why they are hesitant,” Gause said. “The minute after we sign this deal with Iran, we are pushing the Saudis to sit with Iran. I thought it would be a mistake to push the Saudis to come to talks [with] the Iranians, especially when the Saudis think the Iranians are on top.”

Some observers remain deeply skeptical about the prospects for delivering peace in Syria, where the United States and Russia have each stepped up military activities.

The fate of the Syrian people will be determined on the ground, according to Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Last month, Russia launched a full-fledged military campaign to sway the balance of power in Assad’s favor. The United States and its allies, meanwhile, continue near-daily airstrikes and have been plowing more money and arms into the region, including U.S.-made Tow missiles that have been used to take out Assad regime tanks.

The United States also recently announced the deployment of about 50 U.S. special operations forces in Syria, tasked with combating the Islamic State instead of taking on Assad or his Russian and Iranian backers.

“I think this is all going to be smoke and mirrors,” Landis said of the U.S.-led diplomatic strategy. “The real action happens on the ground.”

Everyone is waiting, he added, to see whether the Syrian army has “enough oomph” to capitalize on Russian air support to regain and hold vital lost territory in Aleppo and elsewhere.

“Russia has sufficient leverage to broker a cease-fire in the conflict,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who expressed skepticism over Moscow’s commitment to diplomacy. He said Russia prefers to “shun diplomacy, as they are much more likely to try to seek success on the battlefield than through diplomatic channels.”

The need for a political settlement, meanwhile, has taken on greater urgency in Washington and Moscow following Russia’s military intervention in Syria on Assad’s behalf.

The United States is pursuing a dual strategy of combining “military action and diplomacy to achieve a political transition in which Syrians have a government that respects the rights of its people and Syria retains its unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular characters,” said Anne Patterson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Wednesday.

In her testimony, Patterson outlined four major goals: defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, easing the plight of the Syrian people, stabilizing Mideast and European allies against the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and promoting a U.N.-sponsored political transition that she said will ultimately lead to Assad’s departure.

To restart the U.N.-backed political process, Kerry and Lavrov organized the Oct. 23 meeting in Vienna with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to urge them to participate in a second round of talks with Iran.

Lavrov sought to assure the Turks and Saudis that Russia is dead serious about the political process, despite widespread suspicions that it intervened in Syria to prop up Assad’s government, not to fight terrorists.

The effort to set up a second round of talks initially proved controversial, as diplomats from the U.N. and several nations that were excluded appealed to Kerry that they be allowed to participate.

When Kerry initially assembled his invitation list for the big power talks in Vienna, for example, U.N. peace envoy Staffan de Mistura didn’t make the cut, according to diplomats familiar with the closed-door negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity. At the time, Kerry assured the United Nations that his decision to exclude de Mistura was not a snub and that the U.N. would play a strong role in any political transition in Syria.

But the U.N. pushed back, and Kerry relented after a bit of cajoling from the world body’s headquarters in New York. In the end, de Mistura was given a seat at the main table with Kerry and Lavrov and was invited to a joint press conference with the two main brokers. More importantly, the Vienna communiqué — the accord hammered out during seven hours of negotiations and endorsed by the U.N., the European Union, and 17 governments — assigned a high-profile role for the United Nations in drafting a constitution and monitoring elections in Syria.

An Obama administration official denied Kerry tried to keep the U.N. out of the talks. “At no point did we try to exclude de Mistura or the U.N.,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “Indeed, they were given some major tasking in the communiqué.”

In New York, officials said the heavy lifting of ongoing diplomacy in Syria will be managed by Washington and Moscow. The U.N. role will become more important later, when it’s time to implement those policies, the officials said. Kerry is expected to meet with de Mistura in Washington this weekend to plot out a follow-up meeting with negotiators.

“I think on our side we are reasonably optimistic about this process, though not overly optimistic,” said one U.N. Security Council diplomat, noting that Iran and Russia continue to insist that Assad not be pushed from power.

Another Security Council diplomat said there is “some ground for cautious optimism” and that Moscow will embrace a diplomatic outcome since the Russian military campaign will eventually have to come to an end.

“At some point de Mistura will be absolutely central to resolving the Syrian crisis,” said another Security Council diplomat. But for the time being, it will be the key powers making the big decisions.

Foreign Policy senior reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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