Though the Friends of Syria, a group of 11 Middle Eastern and Western countries, met in London this week to chart out a way to end the bloodshed and violence of the civil war, other significant developments occurred to highlight this meeting and the next Geneva conference.
Besides the calls for Syrian opposition leaders to become united and join an international peace conference in Geneva - urged by foreign ministers from the United States, Britain, Turkey, France, and key Gulf states - a critical shift in policy has been manifested by including the staunchest ally of Assad’s government in the Geneva II conference, to be held before the end of the year. This ally is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iranian leaders are attempting to project a softening image, with their change in tone on the diplomatic scene, in exchange for an easing of sanctions and the continuation of their nuclear enrichment program. Some Western powers and leaders, including the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on Monday said that Iran could be included in a Geneva II conference to negotiate an end to Syria’s bloody civil war. Fabius pointed out that some preconditions would be set up for including Tehran in the discussion. The United States has also shown signs of possibly accepting the inclusion of the current Iranian government at Geneva II, hoping to reach a nuclear deal with Iran as a part of the “grand bargain.”
Several issues can shed light on the repercussions that would arise from including the Islamic Republic of Iran in the next negotiations between Syria and the oppositional groups.
Iranian leaders are attempting to project a softening image, with their change in tone on the diplomatic scene, in exchange for an easing of sanctions and the continuation of their nuclear enrichment programDr. Majid Rafizadeh
First of all, Tehran is absolutely and unreservedly against any transitional government in Damascus. Iran is not a signatory to the Geneva Communiqué, which was issued at the Geneva I conference last year in June 2012. The crucial factors in the Geneva Communiqué revolve around an establishment of a framework for diplomatic resolution of the Syrian crisis and the efforts to create a transitional government anchored on the basis of mutual consent of the Syrian oppositional groups and the transitional government in Syria.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and even the new moderate government of Hassan Rowhani have been very clear about their position on the crisis in Syria; Tehran views Bashar al-Assad’s government as the legitimate state representative of its people, and Tehran will do whatever it can (financially, advisory, intelligence-wise, and militarily) to ensure that Assad will stay in power. This is in complete contrast with the rules of the Geneva Communiqué.
More and more concrete evidence in the form of documents, videos, and official statements from Iranian authorities have come out to show the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Corps deep involvement in Syria, fighting against the rebels and training the Syrian government’s forces. In addition, Iran continues to buttress the government of Assad by extending millions of dollars of credit, attempting to keep the Syrian economy (and the government’s military expenditure) going.
Tehran’s narrative about Syria has been clear-cut and explicit, completely different from their stance on other countries that have undergone uprisings in the region. Iranian leaders point out that Syria (unlike Egypt, Libya, Tunisian, etc) was never faced with a popular uprising from the beginning, but rather the Assad government is faced with battling terrorists and Israeli-backed groups. The hundreds of thousands of people who were killed did not die for any democratic aspirations, according to the Iranian leaders.
Balance of Power
More fundamentally, by bringing Iran to the negotiating table at the Geneva II conference, Western powers are directly strengthening the position of the Syrian government and weakening the positions of the oppositional groups. If the Syrian government is accompanied by its closest and staunchest ally believing that Assad and his apparatuses should stay in power at any cost, then Assad and his government will see no credible incentive to change their position. Sitting next to the Iranian government of Rowhani, which continues to support Assad’s Alawite government militarily, financially, and through an advisory role, Assad will use this position as an upper hand at the meetings, and he will not see any reason to compromise to allow a transitional government in Syria.
Additionally, including Iran in the Geneva II conference will indirectly indicate the weak geopolitical position of not only the Syrian oppositional groups, but also the Western powers and the Friends of Syria. Iranian authorities will see this move as a geopolitical and strategic victory against the Western countries and other nations in the region.
In other words, by inviting Iranian leaders to the Geneva II conference, the West will publicly legitimize the Iranian government’s unshakable, steadfast, and staunch support for Assad, increasing Tehran’s credibility domestically, regionally, and internationally. This will keep all other nations in the Middle East at a complete disadvantage geopolitically and strategically.
Iranian leaders would see the move to include them in the Geneva II conference as implicit acceptance from the international community. Considering Iran’s continuation of its nuclear program, Iranian leaders could finally reach the so-called breakthrough capacity. Iranian leaders will interpret the invitation to the talks as the desperate and weakening role of Western and regional countries.
While, without doubt, Iran plays one the most crucial roles in the Syrian crisis by ensuring that the Assad government and his police apparatuses are kept in power through sending financial, monetary, advisory, moral, and military assistance to the government, any move to invite Iran to the next Geneva II talks will further weaken the oppositional groups, embolden Assad’s Alawite government, and hinder the prospects of reaching a resolution and establishing a transitional government, the key aim of the Geneva Communiqué.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.