Syrian Peace Talks Are Still a Sideshow for Iran
After several days spent moving between the bickering parties at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva, the already delayed Syria peace talks were suspended until February 25. UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura could not fulfill the Syrian High Negotiating Committee (HNC)’s demand that President Bashar al Assad’s forces—supported by Moscow and Tehran—cease bombarding civilians and medical facilities, release detainees, and allow humanitarian access to besieged areas (all part of UN Security Council Resolution 2254). Though Iran may support the Geneva process in public, its leaders are likely more than happy with these latest hiccups.
Why is Tehran is so confident? Before Moscow’s save last September, the Assad looked to be in a tenuous position. The Syrian army was steadily losing territory, most critically in the costal province of Latakia, the Alawi heartland of the regime. Yet now, the military front is looking up. Moscow’s airstrikes, combined with a “surge” of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisors and Shia militias from as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowed President Assad to go on the offensive, even as he paid lip service to the Vienna road map produced in November.
There were concerns in Tehran, though, that the campaign was incurring too high a cost. The IRGC officers, after being deployed closer to the frontlines, were being killed at a rapid rate. In late November, IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who leads Iran’s efforts in Syria and Iraq, was supposedly wounded and had returned to Tehran. Then, some reports in December implied that as the Iranian leadership got cold feet, the number of IRGC officers deployed during the October surge had dropped from a high of nearly two thousand, to perhaps seven or eight hundred.
This was hardly evidence of Iranian capitulation, however. Credible pictures emerged in late January of a healthy and active Soleimani. Iran’s military commitment in Syria appears to be firm, with IRGC officers continuing to die at high rate. Rather than retrenchment, Iran’s deployment was more likely a recalibration aimed at two important goals: obscuring intentions and movements as the regime forces prepared to make their major push for Aleppo, and presenting a friendlier diplomatic face before the Geneva talks.
As the HNC and the other Syrian opposition groups reluctantly gathered in Geneva, Tehran pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The Syrian army—with Iranian and Russian assistance—launched the most substantial offensive north of Aleppo since September, slicing opposition-held areas of Aleppo off from their Turkish supply lines. The opposition representatives watched helplessly this past week as their negotiating partner further re-wrote the reality on the ground while failing to fulfill any of their pre-conditions for the talks (beyond a brief Red Crescent delivery of aid to an opposition-held area near Damascus).
Given the current trajectory of the negotiations and the ground truth in Syria, Tehran is more confident that any kind of settlement will likely resolve in its favor. International sentiment is increasingly drifting towards the idea that backing the Damascus government is the most realistic hope to fight ISIS. Any kind of soft partition will likely create a viable mini-state that Iran (along with Russia) could dominate. Tehran can continue supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, with the aim of deterring Israel by opening a new front along the Golan Heights.
Should Assad be allowed to stand for another term, it is likely he would retain his position. If the United States and its international partners can insist on Assad’s departure, Iran still has a Plan B. The IRGC has largely succeeded in creating a Syrian military and internal security ‘deep state’ that will be heavily influenced by, or even answerable to, Tehran.
If the prognosis looked grim in Syria six months ago, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (with his new best friend President Vladimir Putin) is now in a position to drive the settlement. Tehran and Moscow will continue to prosecute peace on their terms on the battlefield while largely ignoring the transition plan they signed in Vienna. While Secretary Kerry may hope Geneva is the center stage, he should recognize it is a sideshow for Tehran.
J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project.