Saudi-Iranian Tensions Threaten to Sink Syria Peace Talks Before They Even Begin

While power-brokers still can’t agree on who should be invited, regional tensions and Assad's strengthening position leave few expectations that the talks can end the five-year conflict.

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Residents carry banners reading "No negotiations before: the cessation of the shelling, the lifting of the siege and the release of the prisoners" as they march, Aleppo, Syria, January 24, 2016.
Residents carry banners reading "No negotiations before: the cessation of the shelling, the lifting of the siege and the release of the prisoners" as they march, Aleppo, Syria, January 24, 2016.Credit: Reuters

Monday was supposed to mark the start of multi-party talks in Geneva to bring an end to the conflict in Syria. But the parties did not gather in Switzerland on Monday morning, poised to hammer out a framework for peace, and it still unclear if the negotiations will even start.  

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Riyadh on Saturday that he was confident that “with good initiative in the next day or so, those talks can get going,” there are more than a few parties in the region who are further from compromise than ever before. And unfortunately for the Syrians, who have lost at least a quarter of a million people since the war began nearly five years ago, few of the cards are in their hands. Syria has become to this decade what Afghanistan was to the 1980s – a broken place in which the major regional players as well as global powers meddle in the misery of war.

The tensions between the various spheres of influence in the Middle East, which express themselves militarily in Syria, came to a head earlier this month when the Saudis decided to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others. The execution of al-Nimr, a prominent critic of the Saudi government who was accused of “inciting sectarian strife,” has only turned up the flame on sectarian sentiment. Following the assassination, there were anti-Saudi protests in Iran – but also in Saudi Arabia's Shiite-majority Qatif region, uncomfortably close to the kingdom’s oil fields. Within days, Saudi Arabia had recalled its ambassador from Iran and cut ties; several Sunni regimes followed suit or downgraded their relations to trade ties only.

Aside from all of the other negative implications of rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, Middle East analysts point to Syria as the main victim of a Sunni-Shia rivalry that hasn’t been quite so explicit in decades. Although Kerry and Staffan De Mistura, the U.N. mediator for Syria, have been promising since Nimr’s assassination that they would not allow the Saudi-Iranian tension to get in the way of a huge global priority like Syrian peace, its impact is inescapable.

For starters, the various power-brokers still can’t agree on who should be allowed a seat at the table. The question of which “nonterrorist opposition groups” will be invited to join the talks still remains a sore spot, although Kerry hinted on Saturday that after his meetings with the Saudis, that they had “set up a clarity for how to proceed forward in the initial steps of the negotiations.” Will the Kurdish YPG be allowed a seat at the table? How about Islamist opponents of Bashar Assad, some of whom may be ideological brothers of ISIS and the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliate? It’s understandable for the key players to try to control the invitation list to the party. But the obsession over who will sit with whom and who is too much of a terrorist to be worthy of an invitation is reminiscent of the 1991 Madrid Peace talks, in which Israel refused to allow PLO representatives to participate in the process – a process that inevitably lead nowhere.

What’s more, the appetite for compromise has been weakened. Just this weekend, the Syrian government regained territory it had lost to the rebels, taking back the cities of Rabbia and the village of Rawda, backed by Russian airstrikes. The world may see the starving babies of Madaya and read reports of adults surviving on grass soup, but from where Assad sits, he’s on a winning streak. In comments published on Sunday, Hilal al-Hilal, a senior official in Assad’s ruling Baath party, said the Syrian government would not be making new concessions in the peace talks.

“We are not going to give today what we did not give over the past five years," al-Hilal said late Saturday as he was visiting troops in areas they recently captured from insurgents outside Damascus, according to an Associated Press report. “This year will be the year of victory for Syria because of the heroic acts and sacrifices by its army and people.”

Kerry has revealed in recent days that the talks, assuming they do get underway sometime this week, will be proximity talks, not a face-to-face meeting of participants. Though this technique has enabled master negotiators to help solve some conflicts, in other places, it’s just a sign of how hopelessly far apart the parties are. What’s perhaps most complicated in Syria is that it’s unclear whether we’re looking at a chance of conflict resolution, or more likely, conflict management. This is a process that was initially meant to focus on bringing an end to the fighting, but many of the key players now seems to be aiming for a reduction in fighting, limiting its scope in order to get aid to people.

It’s difficult to imagine rebel and opposition groups agreeing to a plan that leaves Assad in power. And Assad sees no reason to go – not when Russia and Iran continue to tell him to stay put, and work to keep a united opposition from forming, both in the field and at the putative peace table.

“The underlying positions really haven’t changed,” says Steven Heydemann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and a professor of Middle East Studies at Smith College. “The gaps that exist between Iran and the Saudi position are as wide as ever. What has changed is the willingness to compromise on core positions that would make a transition more likely. These talks are going to get underway with two main parties who don’t want to be seen as giving in to the other side, even on the most minor issues.”

In addition, he notes, there is no shared definition of who should be at the table – and who and what a terrorist is.  Underscoring the problem, Mohammed Alloush, of Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) was named chief negotiator for the opposition. That’s a group the Syrians and the Russians consider a terrorist organization.

“The opposition doesn’t want anyone to tell them who should represent them,” Heydemann adds, “and Assad says, ‘we’re not going to sit down with terrorists.’”

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