The Debate

Want to Fix Syria? Talk to Iran

There’s good reason to believe Iran would be interested in negotiating a future for Syria that didn’t include Assad.

Appearing on Face the Nation this weekend, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, "there's a growing consensus in the U.S. Senate that the United States should get involved" militarily in Syria, despite recognition of the significant risks and costs this could entail.

In explaining what U.S. interests need to be secured in the country, Sen. Graham said the U.S. would essentially be fighting two wars— the first to remove Assad from power and the second to prevent the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, from replacing him.

Thus far the proponents of military intervention have done a poor job of explaining how this course of action would secure these twin goals. For instance, the most popular option seems to be establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. However, the Assad regime still has formidable missile and ground forces and it’s unclear if grounding its aircraft would have a decisive military impact.

Furthermore, it’s even less clear how a no-fly zone would prevent Jabhat al-Nusra from taking power. This should be a chilling possibility for the U.S. given Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and the potential for the rebels, upon toppling the Assad regime with U.S. support, to begin cleansing Syria of Alawites and other non-Sunni minorities that supported the regime.

Fortunately, a non-military option exists that has a greater chance of achieving Sen. Graham’s twin goals at a lower cost and with less risk—negotiating with Iran.

According to James Mattis, the outgoing commander of CENTCOM, Iran had been providing the Assad regime with trainers, weapons, advisers, money and other supplies, and “Absent Iran's help, I don't believe Assad would have been in power the last six months.” If accurate, removing Iranian support for Assad would have far greater impact than a no-fly zone.

There’s good reason to believe Iran would be interested in negotiating a future for Syria that didn’t include Bashar al-Assad. To begin with, Iran’s ruling elite is sharply divided on whether it should continue supporting Assad, with many arguing that Iran should break with him and try to establish friendly relations with his successor. This opposition among the Iranian elite would only harden if the U.S. had conclusive evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, given Iran’s harrowing experience of being the victim of Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks during the 1980s. Furthermore, propping up the Assad regime is an enormous drain on Iran’s increasingly scarce resources, and has virtually eliminated the soft power Iran and Hezbollah once enjoyed in the Arab world.

Despite these arguments, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has refused to break with the Assad regime thus far. This is not because of any undying loyalty to Assad himself, but rather because the international community’s refusal to include Iran in talks over Syria’s future makes it almost certain that Iran would lose all influence in the countryif  it stopped this support. Judging (apparently correctly) that Assad’s fall was not as inevitable as many in the West assumed, Khamenei decided to continue supporting Assad in hopes his regime would prevail or that the international community would eventually be forced to include Iran in any negotiated settlement.

There are two reasons that the Obama administration has thus far refused to talk to Iran on Syria. First, it has always believed that Assad’s fall was imminent, and that this would be the preferable outcome given its repercussions for Iran. As it turns out, however, Assad has had more staying power than the U.S. believed. With Syria’s civil war destabilizing the rest of the region, the benefits of its continuation—namely, trying to eliminate Iranian influence— no longer outweigh the costs. This is especially true given the very real possibility that a rebel victory over Assad will bring to power a group that has openly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda central. Iran, to a far greater extent than America’s Arab allies, shares this concern with the U.S. and the West.

The Obama administration is also concerned that negotiating with Iran over issues like Syria could impede negotiations on what the U.S. is most concerned about, Iran’s nuclear program. This is misguided. Rather than impede progress on the nuclear front, giving Iran a role in deciding a key regional issue would make Iranian leaders like Khamenei less distrustful of America’s intentions regarding its nuclear program. If anything, negotiations over Syria would make reaching an accord on the nuclear standoff more, not less, likely.

Negotiating a settlement with Iran to the Syrian civil war would also have the best chances of securing an acceptable outcome for Syria. Such as agreement would begin with the premise that Assad and his family could not stay in power, as the opposition wouldn’t agree to this. Fortunately, Iran is best positioned to persuade or force Assad to step down given its substantial influence with him and other parts of the Syrian regime.

Next the deal would turn to working with all Syrians to form an inclusive government that gives a stake to all of the country’s religious groups. Iran would support this as it would still have influence with the Alawite community. Although a less than optimal outcome from the U.S. standpoint, this is the least bad option at this point because it has the best chance of stabilizing Syria, and wouldn’t force Washington to commit military forces.