WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 which 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 ceasefire 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 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.
But the ceasefire strategy mapped out last week in Munich goes further than just aspirational talk about “transition governments,” new constitutions and eventual elections that may or may not mean the end of Assad.
It specifically points to “military officials” in the new task force discussing matters of great military importance: where countries can and cannot strike in Syria, which groups they can and cannot target, and how they can identify and respond to transgressions. Disagreements risk not only ending the ceasefire, but potentially bringing countries closer to conflict themselves.
Russia has long sought closer military coordination on Syria, and in Munich its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, immediately hailed the new dimension to the talks as a key development.
And the Pentagon disclosed for the first time Thursday that it asked Russia to avoid striking parts of northern Syria where U.S. special operations forces are working. Russia has honored the request, it said.
But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. wasn’t ready for a broader military coordination with Russia, given its military activity in Syria.
“Russia’s military activities have not been focused on ISIL but rather concentrated on propping up the Assad regime,” Earnest told reporters. “That has resulted in more widespread bloodshed and suffering, and only serves to undermine the stated political goals of the Russian government.”
He predicted “painstaking slow and difficult and complicated diplomacy” in Geneva.
“Even as this process moves forward slowly, lives are being lost, and lives are being scarred, because you see innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. You see more and more people forced to flee their homes to avoid violence,” Earnest lamented. “And unfortunately Russia’s actions are only perpetuating that situation.”