Syria: Will Washington Brace Tehran on the Humanitarian Costs?

Another session (the fifth) of intensive, informal discussions with senior, well-connected, and non-official Iranians produced no startling breakthroughs on the subject of Syria. Yet, there may be a way forward toward official discussions as Iranians try to strike a balance between their perceived Assad-centric national interests and the cost to Iran’s reputation incurred by their client’s horrific and wholly gratuitous terror tactics. For the Obama administration there may be an opportunity to brace Tehran directly on the horrendous humanitarian costs being exacted by an Iranian client on Syrian civilians and to enlist Tehran’s help in reining-in the Assad regime. 

The track two discussions involved small groups of Americans and Iranians: none of them serving officials, but all reasonably well-connected. Indeed, the Iranian side included people with ties to those directly responsible for Iran’s policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, which is to say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Qods Force. An awkward but salient point of Iranian power projection in the Arab world is that the officials responsible for the nuclear negotiations—President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif—have nothing to do with policies concerning Iran’s military intervention beyond its borders. Iran’s Supreme Leader has two distinct lines of policy execution, each reporting separately to him and to his national security advisors.

The American participants in the discussion (which covered other matters as well) raised the issue of Assad regime terror tactics, asking if Iran—meaning General Qasem Soleimani—believes such tactics are necessary to the prosecution of a military campaign aimed at securing its client’s survival. It should be noted that this exchange took place several days before Bashar al-Assad’s stunning denial that his forces were employing helicopter-borne barrel bombs against anyone, much less civilian neighborhoods. One wonders, perhaps with naive optimism, if this is Bashar al-Assad’s unique way of announcing an end to a particularly gruesome and ultimately useless terror tactic; if perhaps Iran or Russia persuaded him that barrel bombs, like chemical weapons, might actually shame the West into doing something; that the potential risk far outweighed any murderous benefit.

The Iranian responses entailed several elements, some contradictory: Assad is running Iran’s policy and not the other way around; the situation in Syria comes down to Assad or the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and the United States should join Iran, Russia, and the regime (regardless of its tactics); any US humanitarian military intervention would provoke Iranian retaliation—one Iranian participant ominously warned that Iran has used al-Qaeda operationally in the past; the unethical nature of US foreign policy makes Washington an unsuitable commentator on war crimes; Syria is not an Iranian proxy; Assad is totally dependent on Iran and Russia; Assad is trying to institute reforms under difficult circumstances; Iran can help on the subject of “inhumane weapons” in Syria, but this should be done in the context of a “regional arms control forum,” because “Iran by itself cannot influence the Syrian regime.”

The scattershot nature of the argumentation reflected the Iranians’ differing views on some matters. Ultimately, they united on one point: Iran needs “objective information”—meaning not from US sources—concerning alleged Assad regime war crimes. There was also Iranian consensus that there ought to be official bilateral (US-Iran) and multilateral (adding Turkey and Saudi Arabia) talks on Syria, focusing on humanitarian affairs; these talks might follow more intensive track two discussions. There was no Iranian retreat from the baseline position on Syria articulated at previous meetings: Iran needs the Assad regime for the operational link it affords Tehran to its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, a militia whose missile and rocket capabilities pose a strategic Iranian threat to Israel.

It is, of course, beyond belief that senior Iranian officials are both without influence and in the dark when it comes to Assad regime methodology. Nevertheless, one of the American participants passed to the (non-American) moderator for distribution to the Iranians the latest (August 2014) Syria-wide report of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria, whose paragraphs 98-104 detail regime depredations in shocking language. The COI’s objectivity is enhanced by its unsparing condemnation of others plumbing many of the same depths as the Assad regime—meaning ISIL, the Nusra Front, and other sectarian jihadists. The same American participant reached out to the leader of a highly respected international NGO, urging him to take the Iranian request at face-value and organize a flood of objective information for official Iranian consideration.

In a wrap-up session, one of the Iranians speaking for the team expressed Tehran’s fears of the anarchical consequences for Syria if the Assad regime were to collapse. His words were eerily similar to those of some US officials speaking on background: there seems to be a convergence of views between some Iranians and some Americans to the effect that even limited, life-saving military measures could imperil the regime and place Syria’s stability in jeopardy. One of the American participants noted that the United States officially distinguishes in Syria between the regime—meaning a ruling clan and its thuggish enforcers—and the administrative, occasionally service-providing ministries and agencies of the Syrian Arab Republic Government. Washington’s position is that the former should go and the latter remain in place. The Iranian side seemed interested in this distinction, one drawn in previous meetings, but apparently not registering until now.

In the end, it seems that Iran wants a friendly, subservient Syrian government in place. Ideally, it would want such a government ruled indefinitely by Assad (or, according to one Iranian participant, at least for the six year balance of his term), and that Assad’s rule be restored to the entire country. It will not get the latter and is unwilling to pay the price in Hezbollah lives to try. The former it may well achieve, because while an indifferent West consoles itself with the words “there is no military solution for Syria,” Iran has been willing to invest the requisite military means to achieve what it wants politically: an Assad regime joined at the hip to Hezbollah and surviving quite nicely in those parts of Syria adjoining Lebanon. That disciplined investment has produced for Iran a totally unexpected and joyfully welcomed dividend: Western—meaning US-led—compliance in full.

That compliance—even extending to modest military steps that could complicate regime criminality and save lives—has enabled the Assad regime to exact an unspeakable humanitarian toll, employing tactics materially unopposed by the West; tactics that have been foreign fighter-recruiting tools of incalculable value to ISIL.

Although saving lives would be better achieved (for example) by excluding regime aircraft from all areas where the anti-ISIL aerial coalition operates, there is literally nothing standing in the way of Washington seeking to engage and brace Tehran directly on the subject of Assad regime war crimes and crimes against humanity. Will it do so? Or it will it see this too as a potentially complicating factor in its single-minded quest for a nuclear deal? Thousands of Syrians awaiting murder have a vital interest in the answer.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the northwestern Homs district of Al Waer February 10, 2015. REUTERS