While all international players agree that the situation remains unacceptable, there still seems to be no consensus on how to proceed. Meeting after meeting takes place, each one producing more statements, recommendations or roadmaps. The US, as many others, continues to point the finger at Assad’s unwavering ally, Russia. Until now efforts by Washington to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to change policy have failed. There has never been much trust between US President Barak Obama and Putin, which has resulted in something of a dialogue of the deaf. The Russians are also at their most stubborn and defensive when they are being attacked. Thereby recent statements by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accusing Moscow of supplying Assad with attack helicopters, were not welcomed. While there has been some speculation over having the UN Security Council vote on a resolution invoking Chapter 7, requesting a mandate for the threat of force that could force the hand of the Assad regime to respect and fulfill its commit under the Annan Plan, it still seems remote. The Russians remain totally opposed to the merest hint of the use of force.
Russia remains bitter over the Libyan experience. Moscow is convinced that it was tricked into supporting a resolution to protect civilians, only to see it used as a cover for air strikes to get rid of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. This mistrust will not help Obama persuade Moscow to back another US effort through the UN. Russia’s intransigent position has not only been about defending its interests in Syria but also about what Moscow considers to be a point of principle. However, in recent days there seems to have been a slight change, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying he is not against Assad stepping down, stating, “If the Syrians agree between each other, we will be happy to support such a solution.” Moreover, there was the joint plea by Obama and Putin at the G-20 Summit earlier this week, calling for an end to the violence. But while the two put down in a written statement their support for “moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system, implemented by the Syrians themselves,” they produced no clear stops on how this would be done.
While the Annan Plan has not been scrapped, Kofi Annan admitted at the recent UN General Assembly it is not working. For it to stand a hope in hell, pressure needs to be put on both sides by their supporters (and proxies), driving home the message that the violence needs to end and real dialogue begin. This brings us to Annan’s suggestion that Iran be brought into the process, via the creation of a new contact group that would include influential regional powers.
Annan is right that Tehran should be brought into the dialogue. Let us start thinking outside our usual parameters by engaging Tehran rather than isolating and excluding it, which is counterproductive. It is no use just having a dialogue with friends; it is important to include all key regional players that have influence in Syria -- even if they are enemies of Washington. Until now, Iran has been part of the problem in the Syrian conflict. Tehran has supplied the Assad regime with weapons and both leaderships share an anti-West, anti-Israel position, with each one bearing international sanctions and attempts to isolate them. Moreover, there are strong ties between the Assad family and the Islamic revolution, which goes back to more than 30 years.
However, while Iran is concerned over the possible formation of a pro-Saudi Sunni government, if Assad were to fall, they are also concerned -- possibly even to a greater degree -- over a massive Shiite-Sunni conflict breaking out in the region. Iran has also cited Syria as an issue it would like to negotiate in talks about its disputed nuclear program. With this in mind, nobody should simply presume Tehran will continue to back Assad, no matter what.
Washington has balked at the idea of Iranian involvement, along with some European states, including France. Moscow accepts it but only in the form of an international conference aimed at reaching an agreement on how best to implement the Annan Plan. We are running out of time and every option needs to be explored. The more time we spend discussing who should be allowed to take part in such discussions the more brutal the situation in Syria becomes.