Syria: Why Iran has to be part of the solution

The real and ugly choice is between full scale military intervention and genuine diplomacy

Share

Western agonising over Syria, underlined by the divisions among European foreign ministers yesterday, mirror the painful realities over two years after the uprising began against Bashar Assad’s dictatorship.

After more than 70,000 deaths and a hideous humanitarian and refugee crisis, Assad is still there. The rebels are not sliding to defeat. But ruthless use of the  regime’s relatively formidable military  machine has helped to maintain its control over many parts of the country in the face of a determined but also divided rebellion.

This was the context for William Hague’s  arguments in favour of the Anglo-French  proposal to lift the European arms embargo, if not yet actually to arm the rebels. They have been reinforced by the conviction among British officials – partly based, they say, on  unpublicisable intelligence – that the regime has already used chemical weapons. And he has continued to insist that the threat of  supplying arms to his opponents is necessary to force Assad to negotiate in earnest.

But it is equally the context for the fear among some of his European counterparts that such supplies would, if actually delivered, simply  escalate into a new Syrian arms race, leading to more deaths, bloodshed and suffering. And the doubts about preventing weapons falling into the hands of extreme Islamist groups, including ones affliated to al-Qa’ida – doubts shared in Britain, incidentally, by a Labour Party in gradual retreat from its recent past doctrine of liberal interventionism – are real enough.

The search for some form of “limited” military intervention has long exercised Western diplomats. And there are equally  telling objections to the alternative of a no-fly zone, including the US military’s argument that only a relative small proportion of Assad’s  firepower has so far been delivered by air, and the worries about penetrating an air defence system far more sophisticated than Muammar Gaddafi’s. (The notion of attacking such  defences with Tomahawk missiles is said to have come up against – among much else – the allegedly sizeable presence of Russian military advisers vulnerable to such attacks).

Yet despite President Obama’s deep resistance to further military intervention, freely attested in Whitehall, the West might already be stumbling into an intervention of some kind, had the US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov not agreed three weeks ago on efforts to bring Syria to a peace conference in June. Last night’s Paris dinner between Kerry, Lavrov, and the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was an attempt to take this delicate process a stage further.

All those at yesterday’s Brussels meeting are agreed that such a conference – to which the Syrian regime has now assented “in principle” – is highly desirable. The division was over whether the Anglo-French call to lift the  embargo would assist or – as other European ministers argued yesterday – endanger such  a process. There is persuasive support for the latter view in a sober new European Council for Foreign Relations assessment that argues against “arming for peace” and for the west  instead to prioritise “de-escalation” of the war. Sober because it recognises that the “political approach” it favours is itself fraught with difficulties, will involve “unpalatable compromises” if it is to get anywhere, and “will clearly not have immediate results on the ground”.

But the report’s authors, Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy, argue that western players should break out of the “make believe” choice between “military intervention lite” and  “diplomacy lite”. And while they are not explicit about this, their arguments also militate against the attempt to combine both courses, which has appeared to inform French and British  government attitudes in recent weeks.

Instead, they contend, the real and “ugly” choice is between full scale military intervention and the “real diplomacy” for which the Russo-American proposal affords the first tentative opportunity. Since the first is rightly out of the question, post-Iraq, the choice of a  genuinely inclusive diplomatic initiative is the best, perhaps the only, alternative hope of “de-escalation”. Where the ECFR paper most sharply differs from conventional wisdom in western capitals is by arguing – and these are the “unpalatable compromises” – first that external players accept that the fate of Assad should be an issue for transition negotiations, rather than making his removal a precondition of them taking place; and secondly that Iran should be brought into the process.

Underlying western support for the rebels is not just fully justified horror at the brutality of Assad’s suppression of the revolt, but a strategic desire, as Tehran well knows, to detach Iran from Syria and – when it is seeking to confront it on nuclear weapons – to weaken its influence in the region. It’s hard to see just how that goal is to be pursued in the current military stalemate in Syria, or how progress can be made without Tehran or Moscow (which is pressing for the inclusion of Iran) having a real stake.

The ECFR paper argues that such a process should also include on the pro-rebel side Saudi Arabia and the Islamist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is proscribed by the US. Such an inclusive – and probably continuous – process starting next month should be pursued not for reasons of “moral clarity” or “political popularity,” but because it offers the best chance of at least beginning “to reduce the devastation, killing, and chance of regional contagion”. Iran has claimed to support the idea of a peace conference. There may now be little alterative to putting Tehran to the test.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

£35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

Investigo: Finance Analyst

£240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: Server / Infrastructure Engineer (Exchange, Windows, VMware)

£32000 - £38000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Serv...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virtualisation / Cloud Infrastructure Engineer (VMware, Cloud)

£38000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virt...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum