Iran is due to attend talks about the Syrian war in Vienna, Austria for the first time this week, reflecting a growing realization on the part of Arab and Western states that the main ally of the Damascus regime can no longer be excluded from the peace process.
Opponents of the Syrian government, including most other Arab leaders and the United States, previously kept Iran from the table, saying its support for Bashar Assad’s dictatorship was only aggravating a civil war that is now in its fifth year.
Iran has sent expeditionary Revolutionary Guards units to Syria to help Assad. Its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, also fights on the side of the Syrian army. Iranian and Hezbollah troops are currently taking part in an effort to retake Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.
The Arabs, on the other hand, have backed the largely Sunni opposition against Assad in an attempt to hasten his demise — which they would consider a victory in their struggle for regional hegemony with Shia Iran.
The Guardian‘s Ian Black argues that Iran’s attendance in Vienna will especially annoy Saudi Arabia. The kingdom fears — and exaggerates — Iran’s growing influence in the region, he writes.
The fact that King Salman has apparently given way reflects American determination, Saudi weakness and international desperation about Syria.
Since the United States and other world powers struck an agreement with Iran this summer that is meant to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, the Sunni powers in the Middle East have worried that their longtime patron will soon abandon them.
Their concerns are overblown. The United States resumed military aid to Egypt earlier this year, despite the army overthrowing a democratically-elected government there. Restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain were also lifted, despite the Sunni monarchy’s crackdown on a Shia-led uprising. And Western nations have remained silent as Saudi Arabia indiscriminately bombs cities in Yemen where it claims to be fighting an Iranian-backed insurgency.
But the Arabs’ concerns are not altogether without merit either. American president Barack Obama is clearly trying to extract his country from the Middle East’s wars. If Iran does not build a nuclear weapon and becomes altogether less of a threat to stability in the region — particularly to the crucial oil supplies that traverse the Persian Gulf — the United States won’t have to rely so much on emirs, kings and sultans who hardly share its liberal values.
The civil war in Syria is also less of a priority for America than it is for its allies. Despite Obama’s insistence that Assad “must go,” his administration has shied away from actively intervening on the side of the opposition and recently signaled that the Syrian leader’s resignation is no longer a precondition to peace.
“I think there is the potential for an arrangement to be agreed wherein this transition begins, perhaps with Assad still in power, but it doesn’t end with him in power,” Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, said on Tuesday.
At the same time, America appears to be stepping up its military efforts against the most fanatical of Assad’s opponents: the self-declared Islamic State. The Reuters news agency cites unnamed officials saying Obama’s administration is considering deploying special forces to Syria and attack helicopters to Iraq to keep the radical Islamist group that controls territory in both countries at bay.
The news comes after American troops joined Kurdish forces in an operation to free hostages in northern Iraq last week. One soldier was killed in the otherwise successful rescue effort.