Rethinking Diplomacy: Why Iran Should Have a Seat at the Table on Syria

By Roosevelt Institute |

As the Geneva II talks on Syria begin, Iran’s absence at the negotiating table reveals the problems in attempting to reach an agreement if the actors involved in this crisis aren’t invited to help end it.

The situation in Syria has grown increasingly desperate, though the decrease in news coverage might lead you to believe otherwise. Over the past few months, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) an al-Qaeda linked group of violent extremists, has gained control of much of the north and the borders between Turkey and Syria. ISIS has begun kidnapping journalists and holding them hostage for ransom. Dozens are still in captivity, leaving reporters to scrounge for news along Syria’s borders or risk imprisonment, torture, or worse.

The news is grim: the Syrian crisis has now raged on for nearly three years. It has killed over 130,000 people, created an estimated 2.4 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs), and made over half of the Syrian population dependent on aid. Many IDPs in rebel-controlled areas are unable to receive aid. Schools are closed, leaving a generation without its education. ISIS has recently imposed sweeping restrictions on individuals, killing children for heresy, banning music, and forbidding images of people. Prospects are bleak.

As I wrote about three months ago, the international community is still hoping for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. On Wednesday, January 22, the international community will gather together at the Geneva II talks to discuss achieving peace in Syria. The talks are the brainchild of the United States and Russia, as an attempt to map out a transition plan to end the Syrian crisis. They are also invitation-only.

The talks are the follow-up to the Geneva I talks, held on June 30, 2012, at which participants agreed on the Geneva Communique and an Action Plan which calls for a “Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people;” requests multi-party elections free of sectarian, ethnic, or religious discrimination; and mandates the creation of a neutral transitioning body that can “include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” All parties present at Geneva I agreed to and signed on to this plan.

However, the negotiation attendees threaten to undermine the previous talks. One of the main actors at the talks is the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella organization of dozens of rebel groups that oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The SNC is in disarray. Since many representatives in the SNC are now forced to live in exile in Europe, some Syrians have claimed that the group is out of touch and does not accurately represent their viewpoint. Even persuading the SNC to attend was complicated; many of its member groups have refused to take part in the negotiations.

If the Syrian people do not view the SNC as a valid actor, there is no guarantee that the people will accept or agree to implement any treaties that are agreed upon at the conference.  The United States needs to begin negotiations and discussions with groups who are actually, actively involved in the Syrian conflict and are viewed by the Syrian people as legitimate representatives.

Surprisingly, the country that has been pushing for inclusivity has been Russia. During the lead-up to the Geneva II talks, Russia began to stress that the absence of Iran from the negotiating table was a failure. And it is. Iran is a country critically involved in the Syrian crisis: a firm backer of the Assad regime and an active agent in sending aid and troops to the conflict. Negotiating without Iran at the table is ignoring one of the largest players  in the conflict. It’s also a regional snub, as Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, is invited to participate in the negotiations.

On Sunday, January 19, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Iran and 9 other states to participate in the Geneva II talks. Iran followed by announcing on Monday, January 20, that it would not accept “any preconditions” for attending the talks, such as accepting the Action Plan crafted at the Geneva I talks. The Secretary-General withdrew the invitation on the same day.

Alienating such a critical regional power will not benefit the Syrian people and may harm recent U.S. moves towards peace. The Syrian conflict was created precisely because large regional powers meddled in Syria; it needs to have these same powers’ support to fully be resolved. Snubbing Iran may also serve to undermine the critically important nuclear agreement that is just now going into effect in the international community.

Diplomacy is not gathering like-minded individuals at a table to reaffirm their beliefs; it is gathering states from various regions and with differing opinions and working together to find a solution. Until the international community can gather all – or at least more – of the actors who are involved in Syria, any agreement, road map, or action plan that is reached at Geneva II will be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the Syrians and will lack the consent of several major actors who will continue to pursue their own strategies.

The Syrian people deserve better. 

Jacqueline Van de Velde is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Senior Fellow for Defense and Diplomacy and a senior at the University of Georgia.

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