By Edward Drachman
More than 40 countries have been participating in Geneva 2, the international conference on the war in Syria. One important country, however, is conspicuous by its absence: Iran. It’s not that Iran did not want to attend or wasn’t invited. On the contrary, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon extended an invitation to Tehran, but when pressured by Washington and leaders of the Syrian opposition, he had to rescind it. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, Iran had to be kept away until it publicly endorsed the June 2012 Geneva 1 communique, the official basis of the conference.
Iran’s exclusion from the talks on Syria does not bode well for their fruitful outcome. The main issues at the negotiations, including continuation of Assad’s rule, accountability for alleged war crimes and intervention of outside forces, seem intractable, but their resolution is even less likely without Iran’s participation.
For starters, Iran is the region’s strongest supporter of Assad, supplying him with arms, money, advisers and fighters from its Revolutionary Guard, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Iran supports Assad because he and many of his supporters are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam; about 10-15 percent of Syrians are Alawites, with an estimated 60 percent Sunni Muslims.
Iran also sees Syria as a key to extending its influence in the Levant and throughout the Arab world. This has alarmed Sunni majority Arab countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which have been fortifying opposition forces in Syria, including jihadists..
Iran’s absence could have other negative consequences. Sergei V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, argued that Iran should have come to the conference without being required to publicly endorse its mandate as interpreted by Washington. The United States needs cooperation from Russia, Assad’s major diplomatic supporter, to ensure the successful completion of the chemical weapons removal agreement, to counter the threat of jihadists, to work with Iran in exerting its influence with Assad to enhance chances for resolution of the Syrian war, and, perhaps most importantly, to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
In addition, hardliners in Iran may point to the U.S.-orchestrated snub of their country to scuttle the nuclear negotiations. Hawks in the U.S. Senate may also decide to link Iran’s support of Assad and terrorism to a nuclear deal.
As a major player in Syria, Iran must fully participate in any meaningful attempt to bring an end to the war in that blood-soaked country. It would also be tragic if Iran’s exclusion from the Syrian peace talks endangered the outcome of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Edward Drachman is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY-Geneseo.