The Syria Talks Are Doomed Without Iran

Excluding Bashar al-Assad's most important ally won't halt a widening proxy war.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, center, listens to a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, UN 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 this week 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 Shia-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 jihadi 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.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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