Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

January 22, 2014

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

The lack of an Iranian presence in Switzerland today dooms the talks’ prospects. Whether Tehran’s actions are depraved or not, its comprehensive efforts to supply troops, munitions and funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.

“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said an American analyst, who closely follows Syria and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have to feel comfortable with the outcome — if there is going to be a solution.”

As fighting enters its third year, the dynamics in Syria increasingly resemble those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan each backed various factions in Afghanistan for its own gain. The result? Thirty years of proxy war that killed an estimated 1 million Afghans and created one of the world’s most impoverished, fragmented and radicalized societies.

U.S. and other Western officials express legitimate frustration with the fractious nature of Syria’s opposition. But in Syria today, a version of Afghanistan-style war-by-foreign proxy is dividing the opposition and prolonging the conflict.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, like the United States and the Soviet Union before them, are locked in an existential struggle — their own Cold War, over influence in the region — which is inflaming Shi’ite-Sunni tensions. An opportunistic Russia, meanwhile, is using Syria’s dissolution to extend its influence in the region as well.

Though the Obama administration talks as if it is a central player in Syria it is, largely, on the sidelines. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to back different, often opposing, rebel groups, with no coordinated strategy. As Iran and Assad act in lock-step, Washington and its regional allies squabble.

“This has proved to be a huge distraction,” a recent International Crisis Group report concluded, “At critical points, it has effectively ground coalition activity to a halt.”

The Syrian conflict — like Afghanistan 30 years ago — is spinning out of control, as each outside power pursues its own agenda. Sectarian and jihadist forces unleashed today will be difficult to rein in for years, if not decades. This week’s peace conference will seem laughably quaint.

We have seen this before. In 1982, Afghan, Pakistani, U.S. and Soviet negotiators gathered in Switzerland to try to end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Six years later, they signed the Geneva Accords, which resulted in the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from Afghanistan the next year.

But the forces that the United States and its allies had released — radicalism, sectarianism, tribalism and lawlessness — devoured Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thirty years later, those centrifugal forces still haunt that fractured nation.

This week’s negotiations are laudable. U.S. officials hope they will lead to temporary cease-fires, aid deliveries and prisoner exchanges. They also assert that the talks might lead some members of Assad’s inner circle to defect. The conference’s first day, though, produced only vitriolic exchanges between the Syrian government and opposition.

There is a sharp disconnect between perceptions of the conflict inside the United States and within the region. Though the White House and the U.S. public are understandably hesitant about arming Syria’s rebels or carrying out air strikes, countries and groups in the region see the conflict as pivotal. From minority Allawites, who fear a takeover of Syria by Sunni jihadists, to the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the parties in the region see the struggle as a direct threat to their existence.

Syrian officials are growing confident that they are winning. They cite recent infighting among rebel groups as evidence that the opposition is imploding. Despite Washington’s calls for Assad’s ouster, it remains clear that the Obama White House will not use military force.

Since the United States struck an accord with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons in September, the regime’s brutality has expanded exponentially, according to human rights groups. The Assad government has increased its use of starvation siege tactics. It is demolishing more civilian neighborhoods with makeshift “barrel bombs.” And a new trove of chilling photographs, if verified, documents the torture and killing of as many as 11,000 detainees.

On the other side of the conflict, Saudi officials are so angered by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to arm the rebels that they have “gone rogue,” according to the American analyst who asked not to be named. Convinced that Washington will not confront Iran in Syria, Saudi officials are stepping up their efforts to arm Sunni jihadists.

“They feel like they played nice and they lost strategically for it,” said the analyst. “The problem with that is that the Saudis don’t have a very good track record at controlling the entities that they create.”

The analyst was, of course, referring to Afghanistan, where the United States and Saudi Arabia armed and trained anti-Soviet jihadists — including a young Saudi fighter named Osama bin Laden. The unintended consequences continue to be felt today.

Unless Iran is negotiated with or confronted militarily in Syria, the Geneva talks of 2014 are likely to be as insignificant as those of 1988. Yes, the Assad government is engaging in unspeakable brutality. Hard-line jihadists in the opposition are also carrying out horrific acts. But foreign powers are exacerbating this conflict by pursuing their own rivalries in the region.

All that has changed is that the hundreds dying each week are Syrians, not Afghans.


PHOTO (TOP): Free Syrian Army fighters take positions behind a damaged car as they fire their weapons during an offensive against forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo’s Salaheddine neighbourhood, October 9, 2013. REUTERS/Malek Alshemal

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Smoke rises as Afghans pass the money market after a rocket attack in Kabul, January 3, 1994. REUTERS/W. Reeve

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Shi’ite fighters, fighting along forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, take up position on the frontline near the Sayyede Zinab area in Damascus, November 22, 2013. REUTERS/ Alaa Al-Marjani



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Mr Rhode,

The solution to this crisis is simple but everybody is avoiding it including journalists. All that needs to be done is stopping the flow of weapons and radical Jihadists into Syria.

regardless the Syrian government is slowly but surely winning this US, Israel, Saudi imposed war. Today the international airport in Aleppo was open to civilian flights after the Syrian army cleared the area from Jihadists in November and restored the airport.

If the West and their Arab allies stop aiding Jihadists, the war would end in 2 weeks and Syria will be rebuilt within 2 years just like southern Lebanon was rebuilt after 2006 war.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

All of this seems partly wrong. Syria has a common border with Israel and the name of this country is not even mentionned in this worldwide tour. The same for the Turkey.
Concerning Israel its support to Hassad makes no doubt in spite of the alliances between Syria and Hamas group one hand, and Iran other hand. Two years ago the world was going to a so high point of threats between Tel Aviv and Teheran that everybody was saying that nuclear war was ready. And now with Assad putting his country on the knies beware is alliance with Teheran the sum of Syria and Iran is more welcomming to Israel than the divisions of Al Quaeda? There are things in the spying of the NSA that are not understandable fron the single point of view of an observer.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

Now, according to a couple of articles I read this morning, the US government is ready to arm the rebels. Really? Arm the rebel groups, many of whom are al Qaida, a group branded as terrorists by the same government that now wants to arm them!

Frankly, I think the US government has lost its mind in foreign affairs. First we back one side, then the other side – we arm, train and equip troops for other countries and then those troops turn against the US.

Why can’t we just stay out of the civil wars, the insurgencies, the mess in the Middle East and other areas? Or does our government need to keep the Pentagon and the MIC involved continually with arms sales and wars?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

I have a solution for you Mr. Rhodes. Have the US, Isreal and Saudi Arabia stop supporting terrorism in Syria, and the war will end.

We should be helping Assad to kill every Salafist man and woman in Syria!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

It is pretty obvious that the author has a point. Equally obviously there is no one that we, as Americans really like.. So the question I have is whether the best realistic outcome we can hope for is to watch this civil war between the Arabs unfold without taking sides.

Our history shows that we invariably regret choosing the side we did. And the locals always eventually resent an outsider coming in and taking sides.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

The US has another, much more difficult reality to accept: that they are not the “great and all important brokers” of agreements any longer, and they have to take a seat at the round table as equal partners, and if an issue does not concern them directly they might not even have a place at the table.
The continuous interference from the “more important” nations, “global brokers/policemen” and their “experts”, the ongoing secretive, back-door diplomacy, is seriously harmful and preventing any true, meaningful negotiations to take place.
Whatever Washington thinks about Iran or other parties in this conflict, and more importantly what self-concerns, self-interest they have in should not enter the arena, and should be ignored completely.
In a global, interdependent system there are no more important or less important cog-wheels, any issue, conflict should be negotiated and agreed upon by those who are directly or indirectly involved, through properly organized and independently moderated round table discussions without “outside” interference.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive

According to one article this morning, Israel says there are thousands of rebel fighters close to Israel’s border. Many of those have links to or are al Qaida members. If the US decides to arm and support these terrorist groups, it will have a problem with Israel, one of the US allies.

Turkey is also at risk from the terrorist group members. The US is between a rock and a hard place in this mess – arm terrorists on the one side or support Assad and his vicious government.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive