Iran’s Attendance at Syria talks in Vienna marks its Emergence as Regional Power

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

On Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia will both attend an international summit on Syria and speak diplomatically about its future for the first time. It won’t be easy, since Iran has 1500 troops on the ground supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia is providing money and TOW anti-tank missiles to the Army of Conquest, the al-Qaeda-led coalition of rebel Sunni fighters against which Iran is fighting.

On the other hand, no diplomatic solution is going to be achieved any time soon without the acquiescence of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, so they may as well begin talking.

Iran’s acceptance at the conference, alongside the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and possibly Lebanon, marks an enormous turning point in the diplomatic system of the modern Middle East.

As recently as 2005, the United States under the Bush administration absolutely refused to talk to the Iranians, and was determined to overthrow the Iranian government. That the Neocons were mostly 98-pound weaklings did not prevent them from talking big, and they used to say “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran.”

Even three years ago, when Iran first entered the Syrian theater with advisers, it was under severe sanctions by the Obama administration and the US was going around twisting the arms of China and South Korea not to buy Iranian petroleum.

Iran at that time was not welcome in polite society, nor was it clear that it would be indispensable to a Syrian settlement.

The 2013 election of pragmatist president Hassan Rouhani and the direct negotiations between Iran and the UN Security Council plus Germany over Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program gradually changed the country’s position from pariah. The successful conclusion of those negotiations in summer of 2015 and the preparations on the part of Europe and the rest of the world to lift sanctions on Iran brought the country into the international system again.

At the same time, Iran’s increasingly close alliance with the Russian Federation in Syria gave it new backing in its quest to shore up the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. It may or may not be possible for the rebels to topple al-Assad, but given the Russo-Iranian intervention this fall, that task just got much harder and much lengthier.

The refugee crisis in Europe, driven in part by the Syrian civil war, put pressure on the US and Saudi Arabia and Turkey to wrap this conflict up. It now seemed less likely that simply organizing the Army of Conquest, making quiet peace with the centrality to it of al-Qaeda, and arming the fundamentalist vigilantes would result in a clear victory over Damascus any time soon.

The likelihood is that the war cannot be resolved by negotiations as yet. In the political science literature, it has been found that once an insurgency begins it typically goes on for 15 to 20 years. Lebanon’s civil war, part of which I lived through, lasted 15 years. We’re in Year 12 of the Sunni Iraqi insurgency. Factions typically go on fighting until they think there is nothing to be gained from more fighting, and until they are exhausted and have used up most of their resources. We are far from that stage in Syria.

Both Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition are unhappy about Iran’s admission to the talks, given its commitment to the status quo.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir insists that al-Assad must go, whether via negotiations or militarily.

Iran’s opening gambit is to insist that al-Assad remain in power in some capacity. Russia is said not to be nearly so committed to the individual, Bashar al-Assad, but rather to be open to switching him out for someone else.

The Tehran Times, however, reports, “Iranian diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said “Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever.”

If it can be agreed that al-Assad himself (who made himself a war criminal by barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods) must be eased out in favor of someone who does not have so much blood on his hands, maybe the negotiations really can be fruitful.

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CCTV: “Iran accepts invitation to join talks in Vienna”

21 Responses

  1. Lebanon’s civil war did not end because it got to a ripe age of 15. It ended because Syria occupied and enforce peace for decades.
    If Assad is a criminal for bombing, so are the people who haphazardly are arming malcontents in urban setting, creating terrorist and human shields at the same time. The war against Assad is personal, economic, military and propaganda. Saudi foreign minister cannot wait to wake up and see Assad has gone because Assad could win elections even now witch they lack over there in KSA. I believe the Saudi
    Do not mind the war at all, it entrenches sectarianism and mummifies the nice little kingdom they got.

  2. A very positive summary of what I, for one, consider a very positive development in world affairs.

    Nothing may come of it quickly, but at least they are talking, and I absolutely favor whatever political/diplomatic sausage-making is necessary to getting to goal of avoiding massacres of civilian populations being the primary result of any non-negotiated, one side victorious ending of the Syrian Civil Wars.

    Or should we call it the Syrian descent into the Anarchy of A Thousand Militias? One things the powers could do to help the way forward, would be to offer a $10 billion fund to buy up guns at high prices in the region, how many frustrated tired soldiers might go back to a more civilian life with the promise of some cash n hand?

    And is it too soon or too cheeky to give credit for the willingness of the Powers to congregate in the face of cross-continental crisis, to a more assertive public involvement, thanks to a global penetration of some sort of “internet culture?”

  3. I thought Assad offered to leave a few years ago (in exchange for someone else from the Baath) and this was refused by the various powers at the time. No?

    • I don’t remember that. BUt in 2011 Russia was willling to support a UNSC resolution calling for end to violence and inclusive political negotiations. Sounded good to me! But not to Hillary’s State Department which insisted that Assad must go as a condition of talks. Now Kerry’s State Department says his ddeparture can we worked out as part of process – at a cost of 250,000 lives lost in four years.

  4. Since Assad and his armed enemies will not be conference participants, how could any decisions made there be implemented and enforced?

    To get Assad to stops his violence, at least for a truce, his armed enemies would have to cease also. At least Assad has Russia and Iran to represent his immediate interests, but who is going to stand up for the other side? I can’t imagine the US allying itself with al Qaeda led forces. Seems to be another one-way dead end street.

    • US has already -for the most part, beautified Al-Qaeda doing business as the Nusra front.

  5. Certainly barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods is reprehensible.

    But isn’t there an element of hypocrisy given the Allied bombing of World War 2? The intention in mass bombing attacks was to slaughter as many civilians as possible. First conventional bombing to break open houses, break water mains and hinder firefighters followed by incendiaries to burn to death or suffocate whole neighbourhoods. Then nuclear weapons dropped on cities – with death tolls of over a 100 000 in single attacks.

    Does the passage of time mean these are to regarded now as legitimate war time actions? The West seems to have decided actions far less intentional and deadly than their own bombing are war crimes while their own aging veterans are still heroes.

    • Bombing of civilian targets in WWII was begun by the Germans. In fact, you could trace it to Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. In Asia Japan also deliberately targeted civilians in many of their military operations (see Rape of Nanking, e.g.) Initial strategic bombing by the Allied was not aimed at civilians. It was under General “Bomber” Harris that it became the operating principle for British bombers, which operated at night. US bombers in Europe always aimed at military targets as far as I have read. General LeMay followed the British approach of area bombing in bombing Japan. Civilian bombing was a war crime, especially the bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and perhaps Nagasaki. I don’t see why this makes the Assad crime any more acceptable.

  6. Not to excuse Assad for the barrel bombs, but do actions such as the MSF hospital bombing make Commander-in-Chief Obama a war criminal?

    It seems that ‘command responsibility’ under the Geneva Conventions could (or could not) be interpreted to create culpability.

    • Intent has a lot to do with it. Bombing has been notoriously inaccurate. War is messy and oftentimes military forces will kill their own troops by mistake. Regarding this specific issue, it matters whether or not the US knew that they were bombing a hospital and how high up the decision was made.

  7. Further on war crimes: Obama sold the US public on ‘hope and change’, and thereby inherited nominal responsibility for his country’s deep state and its ‘wet’ operatives; the accidental death of an older brother made ophthalmologist Assad the successor to his father’s murderous apparatus.

    Both cases may be interpreted as acquiescence rather than direction and control.

    The victors will write the histories and initiate the prosecutions.

    • Hardly comparable. While Obama is culpable for things like drone strikes on civilians, failing to prosecute war criminals and some other things, he has banned the use of torture and greatly reduced the use of the military while negotiating a settlement with Iran. Assad deliberately gunned down peaceful protesters and used poison gas and barrel bombs on his own civilians. Assad’s crimes have now exceeded those of his father. These false moral equivalencies are specious and show a real lack of thinking and analysis.

  8. That the Neocons were mostly 98-pound weaklings …

    And what does that say about the White House if its decision-makers submitted to the bullying of these “98-lb weaklings”?

    If it can be agreed that al-Assad himself (who made himself a war criminal by barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods) must be eased out in favor of someone who does not have so much blood on his hands, maybe the negotiations really can be fruitful.

    Perhaps, Dubya and Cheney can invite al-Assad to their ranches and compare notes. Or maybe, Saudi Arabia can offer him Idi Amin’s old digs now that he is no longer around.

  9. Why the repeated refrain of war criminal because of barrel bombs?

    The US and its allies use massive ordnance also without precision and also in civilian areas (where the armed terrorists are located!).

    The barrel bomb meme seems to be a dishonest distraction.

    • Barrel bombs are being dropped on civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately and are, indeed, incapable of discrimination. Indiscriminate fire in an area where a prudent person would recognize the high probability of non-combatant casualties is a war crime, and this is one of the chief charges against the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza. The alternatives do include smart weaponry, but in their absence international law requires the Syrian government to avoid using barrel bombs on kindergartens. People who defend this tactic are endorsing war crimes.

      • Perhaps the posters here need to read more military history and study international law. Some seem incapable of discerning between deliberately targeting civilians and accidentally killing them.

        • Gary, no one can defend Assad s use of barrel bombs but the issue/question is what would a Western power would have done if it did not have precision bombing and its existence like Assad’s and minorities like Christians was threatened?
          I am not justifying barrel bombs but right from the beginning casualties among regime s soldiers were high and Moslem brotherhood had an axe to grind.

  10. Assad use of chemical weapons made a lot of Iranians question their support. I look at the delegation it’s sending and see hope for a breakthrough. Everyone coming has to give up something in order to manage the conflict.

  11. Here I thought the main point of the article was Iran’s emergence as a regional power, but reading these posts shows that’s not important to other readers. When Obama said Iran would be a regional power, conservatives had a cow. He was just recognizing reality. It’s not a question of if they will become one, just a matter of when. If their leadership has decided to change course and embrace that role while downgrading other pernicious aspects of their foreign policy, this is a positive development in my view. With power comes responsibility and I think as Iran becomes more active on the world stage it will take its responsibilities more seriously.

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