Iran to join talks as US rethinks policy on Syria
Washington accepts Assad ally must to be part of solution in war-torn country
US secretary of state John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov during talks in Vienna on October 23rd on the Syrian civil war. Iran has accepted an invitation to join talks. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/New York Times
The participation of the Iranian foreign minister in Friday’s talks on resolving the Syrian crisis with colleagues from the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia marks a 180-degree shift in policy in Washington, Riyadh and Ankara.
Iran is the chief regional partner of the Syrian government of president Bashar al-Assad, while Russia is its key international ally. The fact Iran’s chief diplomat, Mohamed Javad Zarif, will attend demonstrates that Tehran is prepared to throw its weight behind what could be the first serious effort to end the war in Syria and Iraq.
Although ministers from Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq have also been invited, in an effort to make Iran’s participation less dramatic, Zarif’s decision to take part shows just how important this shift has been.
The presence of four newcomers changes the line-up. When there were only four ministers involved, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey constituted a solid anti-Assad bloc against the pro-Assad Russia, which can now count on the backing of Iran and Iraq, while Lebanon and Egypt have a foot in each camp.
This round of discussions follows an unproductive gathering last Friday involving the US, Saudi, Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, who are meeting again on Thursday. These four seem to have understood that there can be no serious progress against Islamic State (IS), which occupies about 30 per cent of the territory of Syria and Iraq, unless a consensus is achieved.
Friday’s talks are seen as a way to secure progress on the political front while the US, Russia and Iran step up military action against IS. All participants agree that Assad must remain in office until a transitional “unity” government – comprising figures from the current government and the opposition – is in place; all but Saudi Arabia argue he may have to stay on until the end of the transition period.
Russia and Iran say Syrians, not outsiders, must choose their next president and if Assad is their choice in a free election, so be it.
Washington has been forced to alter its stance because the US-led bombing campaign begun 14 months ago has contained IS in Iraq but not in Syria. US recruitment of 5,000 Syrian “moderate” fighters has been a $50 million (€45 million) disaster and the US drive to upgrade the Iraqi army has stalled.
US defence secretary Ashton Carter now seeks to focus on attacking IS in Raqqa, its Syrian capital, and Ramadi in Iraq, and mounting US special forces raids on IS positions.
This also amounts to a shift in policy. Washington has carried out most of its air strikes in Iraq without targeting Islamic State’s main base in Syria. Including Iran in the “core group” of deciders could mean the US is prepared to rely on Iranian-backed Shia militias rather than the degraded Iraqi army in the promised offensive against Ramadi.
Finally, deploying US commandos in operations reverses the Obama administration’s policy of no boots-on-the-ground.
The US has been compelled to change by Russia’s air campaign in Syria which has bolstered the war-weary Iraqi army, the growing commitment of Iranian military assets against IS in Syria and Iraq, and the unmanageable tsunami of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees sweeping across Europe.
Policymakers in the west have come to see the only way to halt the flow is to end the Syrian war and Iraq’s conflict with Islamic State. This requires concerted US, Russian and Iranian efforts to fight IS and pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop sponsoring IS, al-Qaeda and affiliated factions.