Fred H. Lawson writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Secretary of State John F. Kerry took a major step toward engaging the United States in the quest to find a solution to the devastating civil war in Syria during his visit to Moscow on May 6-7. Kerry persuaded Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov to join Washington in organizing an international conference to lay the foundation for a transitional government, whose members would include a broad range of Syrian political actors. More important, the secretary signaled that the Obama administration would not insist that Syrian President Bashshar al-Asad step down before the talks began, and agreed with his hosts that the Syrian armed forces would remain intact as part of an overall settlement.
US Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford then traveled to Turkey to begin the tricky task of convincing the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to sit down with representatives chosen by the regime in Damascus. Lavrov meanwhile reassured Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allim that the conference would not be totally one-sided. The official Syrian Arab News Agency responded favorably to the initiative, announcing on May 8 that Moscow had undertaken “an obligation to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposiiton to the negotiating table.” SANA went to report that Lavrov had pledged to work “in partnership with other interested states, which should demonstrate their commitment to help the Syrian people to find a political solution to the crisis as soon as possible.”
Just as promising as Damascus’s reaction was that of Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi wrote in the Beirut newspaper al-Akhbar on May 8 that the only way out of the sectarian warfare tearing Syria apart would be a combination of “comprehensive dialogue” and popular elections to select the president and government, free from outside interference. That same day, al-Akhbar reported that Salehi had assured Syria’s President Bashshar al-Asad that the Islamic Republic gave its “full and unlimited support, politically, militarily and economically, to the Syrian leadership and people, against the [Islamist radicals], terrorists, Israel, the US and all who dare attack this country.”
Taken together, Tehran’s mixed signals demonstrate the importance of including a wider range of voices and interests in the proposed conference than Washington might find comfortable. The National Coalition, whose various components often clash with one another over basic principles and tactics, will of course be invited, even though a number of key figures expressed reservations about the initiative and one spokesperson demanded that the coalition’s militias receive “serious armaments” in advance of the meeting. Officials in Damascus, who had been kept apprised of the Kerry-Lavrov discussions by a newly installed hotline to Moscow, indicated a willingness to participate, but have insisted that any proposal that comes out of the meeting be ratified by a vote of the Syrian citizenry. Leaders of the Local Co-ordinating Committees and influential civil rights activists based inside Syria, who have largely kept their distance from the externally-based National Coalition, should expect to receive invitations as well. And Kurdish parties that have tried desperately to remain neutral in the struggle will no doubt be waiting anxiously for the phone to ring.
Involving the Islamic Republic of Iran in the discussions is a crucial additional measure. Following the destruction of Shi’i memorial sites in various parts of Syria by Islamist radicals over the past few weeks, Tehran may be willing to twist President al-Asad’s arm to make significant concessions. Furthermore, Iran’s active involvement in the peace and reconciliation process can reassure the president and his closest allies that they will not be fed to the lions as soon as the civil war comes to an end. Academic writings on transitions from authoritarian rule to liberal democracy in Latin America show clearly that military rulers cling to power to the last breath unless they receive some kind of guarantee that they will not be prosecuted or killed as soon as they relinquish command. With Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing rival factions of the opposition, and Turkey furious that the Syrian authorities met the initial popular demonstrations with brute force, Iran may be the only state capable of providing this assurance.
Events on the ground make the prospects for a negotiated settlement brighter than they have been for many long, deadly months. Government troops have pushed opposition fighters out of strategically situated suburbs of Damascus, and regained control over pivotal supply routes along the north-south highway linking Damascus and Aleppo and around al-Qusair on the Lebanese border. Kurdish fighters in the northeast have mobilized to confront the Free Syrian Army and Islamist radicals alike. The militia of the radical Kurdish National Democratic Union continues to hover around al-Qamishli, but has not yet attacked the troops that garrison the city. It is quite possible that the al-Asad regime now finds itself in a strong enough position to undertake serious negotiations with its adversaries, without worrying that it will be overwhelmed while the talks proceed.
Any agreement that results from the international conference is going to be held hostage to militants operating outside the supervision of either the National Coalition or the authorities in Damascus. It is highly unlikely that the Assistance Front for the People of Syria (the so-called al-Nusrah Front) will agree to whatever peace plan emerges, and pro-regime diehards will probably be equally unwilling to lay down their arms. The most difficult part of the whole process will be stopping the primary contenders from resuming the conflict after the inevitable suicide bombing, massacre or rocket launch occurs. Without putting boots on the ground, the United States will exert little influence during the implementation stage. This makes it all the more imperative to engage Iran in the forthcoming dialogue, fully and directly.
Fred H. Lawson is author, most recently, of Global Security Watch Syria (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2013).