The United States Department of State this week accepted a Russian proposal to invite Iran to join multinational talks on the fate of Syria. The decision was not a surprise after American Secretary of State John F. Kerry dropped hints this week that a “political process” was more important to the Obama administration than maintaining its red lines on Syrian President Bashar Assad. It nevertheless marks a significant shift from the United States’ longstanding position that Iran should not be included because it is a rogue state supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, who are providing key support to Assad’s army. The shift also undermines the interests of American allies such as Saudi Arabia, also unsurprising as sacrificing the interests of American allies has also been a hallmark of American diplomacy under the Obama administration.
There is nevertheless some debate about the meaning of the shift. Joshua Keating, writing at Slate, characterizes the move as the “U.S., basically willing to try anything at this point, agrees to invite Iran to Syria talks.” On this reading, the move is one of desperation by an American administration whose foreign policy efforts on Syria and the Middle East in general are badly floundering. He argues that Iran has “the potential” to put pressure on Assad, but admits that “it’s hard to imagine a settlement that would satisfy both Washington and Tehran, never mind Moscow, but it’s not as if sidelining Iran from the process has really accomplished much either.”
On the other hand, Russian propaganda is broadcasting an interview with Paul Heroux, which it describes as a “Middle East expert and US State Representative.” Heroux is a member of the legislature of Massachusetts, holds multiple Ivy League degrees, and he has recently also been interviewed by the Tehran Times. His position is that the United States should recognize Iran as an “essential partner” in this enterprise. Iran is also a “partner” as well as a “supporter” of Assad, though, so it is likely in his reading that America will have to abandon its stated goal of getting rid of Assad:
I think with Iran being a long-standing partner and supporter of Syria – and Syria also supports Iran – I think what we are going to see is Russia, Syria, Iran probably push back on the US in the need to replace Assad and the Assad-led regime. Because the US has said that “ISIS is a threat but Assad may be the bigger threat.”
And I don’t believe that the US is going to be able to do much about ISIS without Assad. Some things could be done but Assad’s partnership may be critical for that. Now that’s not to give Assad a pass; that’s not something that the US wants to do. The US may be realizing that it does really need to partner with Iran and therefore Assad to defeat ISIS, which it considers a critical threat.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama envoy on Israel-Palestine, is of the opinion that the United States is hopelessly mired between Iran and America’s own Sunni allies.
“Now the Russians and Iranians are defining the rules,” said Dennis Ross, who was Obama’s envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
He said Iran seeks a four-step process starting with a cease-fire and a unity government in Syria, but this week’s meetings are unlikely to result in a breakthrough because fighting will continue.
“Nobody (in the opposition) is buying into a transition where Assad remains in power,” Ross said. “We (the United States) don’t have the means to get them to change, and the Saudis and Qataris and others supporting the opposition groups are saying we’re here for the long haul.”
In fact, it is unlikely that the United States will find it difficult to move forward. The Obama administration, led by Secretary Kerry, seems to view negotiations with Iran as an end in themselves. The idea of bringing Iran into continuing contact with Western-led negotiators has proven to be more enticing to Obama and his negotiating teams than the specifics of what they might get out of such negotiations. This is why the United States gave away very nearly all of its ‘red-lines’ in negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program in order to keep the talks going long enough to achieve any sort of agreement. As the analysis linked above demonstrates, time and again Kerry or the President himself would declare that no agreement would be acceptable if it did not achieve such-and-such, and time and again those lines were allowed to slip away.
Kerry’s own statement that Assad creates an “impossible” situation but that “sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves” through negotiation strongly suggest that Assad will remain at the head of Syria following the negotiating process. It seems to be the case President Obama cares less about the actual outcome of the war than that Iran and the United States cooperate in bringing about that outcome — whatever it is. This administration seeks a future in which Iran and the United States are partners, even allies, as President Obama has said.
It may well prove that removing Assad is less important to this administration than securing a future in which Iran views America as a partner with whom it can negotiate and cooperate. If so, our traditional allies should prepare themselves to see the rug pulled out from under them.