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 Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.
“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said a U.S. 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 Shiite-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 lockstep, 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 airstrikes, countries and groups in the region see the conflict as pivotal. From minority Alawites, 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 U.S. struck a deal 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.
The opinions expressed here are of the author, a columnist for Reuters.