Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Gulf and Russian officials to talk about moving forward with a political transition in Syria, the State Department said Monday. Talks could take place as early as Friday and are likely to include Iran. The Islamic Republic's presence in diplomatic talks underscores the willingness of the Obama administration to keep President Bashar Assad in power for the foreseeable future, analysts say, a departure from nearly four years of U.S. policy in Syria.
So far the U.S. has held public meetings only with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but there are rumors that meetings with Iran are likely to follow, a turn of events that's angered fighters inside Syria who are being armed by the U.S. but bombed by Russia. Last week, rebels in Aleppo told International Business Times in a series of interviews that Russia was deliberately targeting them, especially in the countryside, and the Islamic State group was gaining ground as a result. The introduction of Iran into the diplomatic mix would only further escalate those tensions and could also anger U.S. allies in the Gulf.
"No one disagrees that the U.S. has to talk to Russia and Iran," Daniel Serwer, an expert on peace-building in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, said. "But the question is under what conditions. If Iran is involved as a stakeholder in the Syrian talks, Saudi Arabia will see that as a defeat for them in the Middle East."
Other experts say there's no way to push for a political transition that removes Assad from power in the long-term without including Russia and Iran at the table.
"The U.S. has to include Iran in the talks. There is no way to move forward without that," Joseph Bahout, an expert on Syria from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, said. "[Talking with] Russia is sufficient, but not enough."
For the duration of Syria's four-and-a-half-year civil war, the U.S. has maintained the position that there is no future for Syria as long as Assad remains president, previously denouncing Iran and Russia for supporting Hezbollah fighters in Syria that are propping up Assad. Even after striking a historic diplomatic nuclear deal with Iran this summer, the U.S. remained skeptical of engaging Iranian officials on the topic of a political transition in Syria.
But following the Russian military intervention in Syria last month, the rhetoric within parts of the U.S. administration changed. Officials in the State Department and the White House no longer denounced Assad as a dictator or tyrant. Instead, both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama said the U.S. is willing to work with Assad’s allies, including Iran and Russia, to find a way to end the conflict.
“If you are going to have a political solution in Syria … you are going to have to have a conversation with Iran about this,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing Monday. “Nobody has said that there's no role for Assad in terms of the transition process. It’s just that a meaningful transition can’t leave him in power."
In a hearing Tuesday morning at the Armed Services Committee, members questioned Secretary of Defense Ash Carter about the U.S. strategy to remove Assad from power. Although Carter said the U.S. still wanted Assad out in the long-run, he did not give any indication the U.S. was ready to pressure Russia or Iran on the issue. Carter also said the main military focus for the U.S. in Syria was defeating ISIS, not Assad.
U.S. officials are changing tack given the shifting balance of power following Russian airstrikes and regime ground advances."The balances of forces are now in Assad's advantage," Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, announced in a Arms Services Committee hearing Tuesday morning.
Serwer does not see a political future for the country, at least in the near-term, without Assad in power. “There is no one else in Syria that would work on behalf of Russian and Iranian interest other than Assad. There is no clear sign that they are ready to give up on him.”