Diplomatic efforts pushed to fore in Syrian conflict

Russia urges world powers to join forces with Syrian government to fight Islamic State

Pressure for diplomatic resolution of the Syrian conflict appears to be growing as supporters of the government of Bashar al-Assad met in Tehran and Syrian opposition backers conferred in Doha.

Iran's foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif met his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem in Tehran on Wednesday following discussions between the two men and Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's regional envoy.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said there seemed to be “a change in the strategy of regional players in the Syrian crisis” from believing “war is the only solution” to focusing on diplomacy.

In an article carried by four Arabic newspapers, Mr Zarif proposed a regional dialogue committee to deal with the multiple regional crises. Russia has urged the US, Saudi Arabia and other players to join forces with the Syrian government in a "wide anti-terrorism front" to fight Islamic State (IS) and radical jihadi groups.


Concluding consultations in Doha, Qatar, on Monday, US secretary of state John Kerry, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir acknowledged "the need for a political solution to the conflict" while insisting on opposition participation.

Political solution

The readiness of the anti-Damascus camp to discuss a political solution has come after major reverses. The mainly expatriate political opposition Syrian National Coalition, backed by


, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West, has lost credibility due to the withdrawal of the Local Co-ordination Committees, the sole component with some domestic support.

The divided coalition, which has never been a serious contender for power in Syria, consists of groups with patrons that adopt conflicting agendas preventing the coalition from having a coherent policy. The US effort to train and deploy "moderate" fighters against IS has collapsed.

So far only 54 have been recruited, trained, equipped and sent across the Turkish border into northern Syria, instead of the promised 1,200.

The commander of the group, dubbed "Division 30", and 12 fighters have been captured by al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which killed at least one. Although the US believed Nusra would make common cause against IS with Division 30, Nusra has denounced the US faction and vowed to prevent it from establishing itself in Syria.

In spite of Nusra's challenge, Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said Ankara and the US are making a joint effort to train and equip "moderate" fighters to battle IS "on the ground".

Foreign fighters

However, Turkey, which has an 800km border with Syria, has not only supported “Free Syrian Army” rebels since 2011 but has facilitated the flow of foreign fighters and arms to IS and other radical factions, and conducted trade with IS forces.

Following IS bombings on a Turkish border town and other outrages, Turkey abruptly agreed to join the US-led coalition mounting air strikes against IS.

While Turkey has carried out a few raids against IS targets in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has dispatched scores of planes on bombing runs against Turkish Kurdish positions in southeastern Turkey and the mountains of the Kurdish region in Iraq. Ankara also rounded up Kurdish sympathisers rather than IS recruiters who send Turkish men to the Syrian and Iraqi fronts.

In exchange for Turkish agreement to allow US fighter-bombers to fly missions from the Incirlik Nato airbase in southern Turkey, Ankara has secured US support for a 100km IS-exclusion zone along the central Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey's real target is not IS.

Ankara is determined to prevent Syrian Kurds, the most successful anti-IS force in Syria, from securing this area and asserting control of the eastern sector of the border. For the Turks, the issue is not IS but the Syrian and Turkish Kurds, whom Ankara seeks to suppress.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times