No breakthrough in Syria possible without Iran

Article Summary
Russian foreign minister dismisses rumors of a deal on Assad ahead of Syria talks; Hezbollah takes casualties in Hama; Turkey’s headache over US support for Syrian Kurds; days of rage in Gaza.

Kerry says Iran "not at the table"

Russia’s military intervention in support of the Syrian government has kick-started a new round of diplomacy toward a political transition in Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu announced in Vienna on Oct. 23 that there will be a more expansive meeting on Syria, perhaps as soon as Oct. 30.

Kerry acknowledged that although the United States and its allies still disagree on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a political transition, there is enough common ground, including a shared interest in a “unified Syria” and defeating the Islamic State, to initiate a new round of high-level talks.

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The Geneva II conference on Syria in January 2014 faltered, in good part, on divisions between Russia and the United States and its allies over Assad’s role in a transition. The absence of Iran, which was invited and then disinvited to attend Geneva II, also contributed to the conference’s eventual failure.

Lavrov dismissed rumors that Russia has agreed on a plan for Assad’s departure after a certain period of time. “This is not true,” he told reporters Oct. 23. 

The very first Week in Review in November 2012 reported that “President Assad is the leader of the Alawites, until the armed Alawites decide otherwise. Simply put, until the Syrian Alawites themselves make a change, they will back Assad. Any initiative that therefore leaves out these same Alawites of Syria, and overlooks the sectarian, local and regional dimensions of the Syrian conflict, is a recipe for diplomatic failure and more deaths among all Syrians.”

Lavrov also said that Iran, as well as Egypt, must be part of the diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini agreed, saying, “I hope that Iran can be part of this common effort in Syria.”

Kerry, however, said, “Iran is not at the table, and there will come a time perhaps where we will talk to Iran, but we’re not at that moment at this point in time,” although he later added, “We want to be inclusive and err on the side of inclusivity rather than exclusivity” with regard to participation. 

Kerry’s hesitance on Iran is puzzling, unless this is part of some necessary diplomatic choreography to be worked out over the next week. The US secretary of state led negotiations between the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States plus Germany) and Iran on the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28 that the JCPOA is a “development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come,” implying that a UN multilateral effort might be applied to regional crises.

Syria cannot afford another diplomatic flop, so inclusivity would seem to be the best approach when deciding who is “at the table.” Ruling out Iran, whose generals and advisers are directing and coordinating ground operations with the Syrian military, would seem a recipe for a failure.

Hama sees "heaviest fighting"

Mohammed al-Khatieb reports from the front lines in Hama, including witness to the role of Hezbollah forces working with Syrian military units.

“The northern countryside of Hama is witnessing the heaviest fighting as the regime forces try to break the opposition forces’ defensive lines with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles under Russian air cover. Al-Monitor toured the towns of Hama’s northern countryside Oct. 10. We noticed the presence of large numbers of opposition fighters, mainly affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), such as the Knights of Justice Brigade, 13th Division, the 101st Division and the Central Division, in addition to Ahrar al-Sham and other factions, along with massive reinforcements, which foretells the critical importance of this crucial battle. FSA fighters use individual weapons and a car equipped with heavy machine guns as well as numerous TOW anti-tank missiles and a small number of tanks; while on the opposite side, the regime, assisted by Russian helicopters, comb the roads to allow its forces to launch their offensive under a heavy cover by Russian warplanes and rocket launchers. Hezbollah is also present in this battle along with the regime forces, and perhaps the killing of its prominent leaders — Hussein Hassan Haj on Oct. 10 and Mehdi Hassan Obeid on Oct. 12 — proves the extent of Hezbollah's role in this battle. News sites close to Hezbollah confirmed that both were killed during the battles against the opposition in Idlib and Hama.”

Carter avoids reference to Syrian Kurds

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said Oct. 23 that the United States will ramp up its operations against terrorists in Syria, including support for “Syrian Arab Coalition fighters” and “moderate Syrian forces.” 

While Carter discussed US coordination with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, he managed to avoid referring to “Syrian Kurds,” let alone the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is considered by the United States as among the most effective and reliable armed groups in Syria. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by contrast, considers the PYD a “terrorist group” like the Islamic State.

This column reported last week that the divide between the United States and Turkey over Syria policy because of differences over Syrian Kurds is greater than ever, and this week, despite Carter’s artful dodge, it seemed to get even worse.

"All they want is to seize northern Syria entirely," Erdogan said Oct. 24. "We will under no circumstances allow northern Syria to become a victim of their scheming. Because this constitutes a threat for us, it is not possible for us as Turkey to say 'yes' to this threat."

Semih Idiz reports that Syria’s “PYD headache” is going from bad to worse. “Turkey’s failed Syria policy has forged a double-edged problem for Ankara — with the United States on one edge and Russia on the other — that it is finding hard to overcome,” Idiz writes.

Fehim Tastekin reports, “Turkey has been removed from reality in Syria for a long time. From the beginning, Turkey’s analysis of Syria lacked knowledge of the field. … Turkey, not to contradict its own narrative, does not want to admit the Syrian army’s attacks on IS positions. Ankara believes that the Kurds cannot pursue their own agenda and can only serve as somebody else’s tools. Also, by thinking that the autonomy moves at Rojava were exclusively by the Kurds, Ankara ignored local dynamics. … For Ankara, the PYD and its armed branch, the People's Protection Units (YPG) — which has become the partner of the United States — were nothing more than Kurdish shabiha (local militias) working for Assad.”

Gaza’s days of rage

Asmaa al-Ghoul reports from the Gaza Strip on the uprising among Gaza youths against Israel, which started Oct. 9 in response to the uprisings in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“The youths are experiencing overgrown crises in Gaza. The blockade has intensified, and it has been months since the Rafah border crossing was closed. Moreover, the reconciliation and reconstruction process has been delayed, and unemployment has reached 43.9%, the highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,” Ghoul writes.

Ghoul describes the scene after Friday prayer: “Other people started to rally following Friday prayer on Oct. 16, which was declared 'a day of rage' by Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Jihad. The road quickly filled with hundreds of youths, where people in their 30s and 40s were rare, except for journalists. While they were advancing, some were holding slingshots, and others Molotov cocktails. Many carried marbles, while the majority had onions used to mitigate the effects of tear gas.”

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Found in: turkey’s syrian policy, syrian conflict, russia-syria relations, pyd, intifada, is, hezbollah in syria, gaza strip
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