WASHINGTON – The pursuit of peace in Syria may require the United States and Iran to break new ground in their increasingly comfortable diplomatic relationship, propelled by last year’s nuclear accord and their more recent prisoner swap. Another taboo could be shattered soon: military discussions.
Iran may be just one of 17 countries invited to the first gathering Friday of a task force the U.S. and Russia are leading to forge a temporary truce in Syria’s civil war. But for the Obama administration, Iran is like no other country at the table.
Washington considers Tehran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. And American officials have long insisted they will not cooperate militarily with an Iranian government that has deployed troops to help keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and that continues to fund and arm U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Administration officials insist Iran’s presence at the talks does not mean the two countries are “cooperating or coordinating” on military matters.
Yet the cease-fire discussion in Geneva is intrinsically military. And it could put the U.S. delegation in Geneva in the uncomfortable position of poring over battlefield maps with members of Iran’s military or its Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The officials present will discuss which areas of Syria will be covered by the truce. They will debate which rebel groups should be spared from attack. They will seek agreement on what actions would constitute violations. And they will discuss appropriate responses.
On all these matters, Iran can have a say. Because the International Syria Support Group and its task force operate on the basis of consensus, Iran, like any other participant, will have an effective veto over the arrangements.
And that suggests the U.S. and Iran will have to find an accommodation.
“Implementing a cessation of hostilities requires the participation and compliance of those engaged in hostilities, and that includes Iran,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. He added, “This does not mean we are cooperating or coordinating with Iran.”
Kirby said the U.S. continues to see Iran as a destabilizing force in Syria through its support of Assad and Hezbollah. But he said the U.S. has believed since late last year that, for peace to be possible, “all stakeholders must be involved, including those with influence on the armed opposition groups or forces fighting in support of the Assad regime.”
Syria’s conflict started with violent government repression of largely peaceful protests five years ago, but within months it became a full-blown rebellion against Assad and a proxy battle between his Shiite-backed government and Sunni-supported rebels.
The war has killed more than 250,000 people, created Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, allowed the Islamic State group to carve out territory across Syria and neighboring Iraq, and led Russia and a U.S.-led coalition into separate bombing campaigns in the skies.
Washington’s hope is that peace between Syria’s government and “moderate” rebels would allow the world to focus single-mindedly on defeating the Islamic State.
Western and Arab officials have cited plans for chasing the group out of its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, and the key Iraqi city of Mosul before the end of the year. Continued fighting between Syria’s military and the Western-backed opposition could complicate those objectives.
Iran, as Kirby said, first joined the Syrian diplomacy in November as the United States and its Arab and European allies looked for a new strategy to end the bloodshed. The Iranians have deployed Revolutionary Guard forces and directed Hezbollah fighters to help Assad on the battlefield, and the idea of including them was to make the effort as broad as possible.