Syrian crisis: Vienna-2 has brought UN, Iran and hope on board

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Oct. 30, 2015.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Oct. 30, 2015.

Several months after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program was concluded, the Austrian capital has once again become the center of global diplomacy. This time 19 global and regional powers have come together in an attempt to find a solution to the Syrian conflict, the ramifications of which are reverberating across the Middle East and beyond.

The cautious assessment of the outcome of the Vienna-2 meeting might be justified and yet the sheer scope of participants and the value of the decisions reached – including compromises reached between irreconcilable rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia – elevate the event to the status of a diplomatic breakthrough.

The assembly of peacemakers – with the addition of Iran – agreed to concentrate on setting up a sustainable nationwide ceasefire in Syria, persuade conflicting parties to work out a new constitution and hold elections to be supervised by the United Nations. These elections should include all Syrian nationals including members of the diaspora and refugees in other countries who should have secure guarantees to cast votes and decide the fate and future of their embattled homeland.

Moreover, the Vienna-2 negotiators consented to hold a separate meeting later to draw up a comprehensive list of terrorist groups that are operating in Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN's envoy to Syria, reflected the mood on the ground by saying it was “unimaginable” even a few weeks ago that all parties with such diverging interests would have agreed to talks. What’s more, no one could have envisaged that the United Nations would be placed back at the wheel with a powerful mandate from all the actors. In this context, it is a symbolic achievement that two archenemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are sitting at the same table and talking of bringing peace to Syria where they have been at odds over the survival of Assad’s regime.

Was it a sudden change of mood? Probably not. More likely it was the end result of Russia’s painstaking and consistent diplomatic efforts to convince and persuade other counterparts that without Iran, a major protagonist of the big game going in and around Syria, nothing would be achieved and in fact could turn out for the worse.

Iranian academic Lana Ravandi-Fadei, a senior scientific collaborator at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Middle East Studies, talked to RBTH on this sensitive subject.

“Iran is very important for the negotiation process. Bashar al-Assad and the opposition are unable to come to any substantial agreement. It is the external actors like Iran, Russia, United States and Saudi Arabia that must provide the foundation for any agreement. Iran and Saudi Arabia play a powerful role in the internal situation in Syria. Saudi Arabia not only sponsors different opposition groups in Syria but also employs special units in direct combat there.

On the other hand, Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime economically, financially and militarily. The latter is shown by the involvement of the Lebanese Hezbollah combat units in Syria, which have become a crucial player in the civil war and provide great support for the government. It is worth mentioning that Syria has been the only country with which Iran has signed an agreement on mutual defense in the case of external aggression. So it is virtually impossible to resolve the Syrian wart without Iran.”

- To what extent do you think that Russia and Iran can act as tandem players at these negotiations?

“During the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, many wondered what was the logic of Russia in being part of the P5+1 negotiation team. Would Iran fall into the embrace of the United States? Would Iran flood the global markets with its oil and hurt the Russian economy? What was there in the deal for Russia? Now with cooperation between Iran and Russian in Syria we see that the two countries had developed more plans for working together than many had realized.”

So, could the emergence of three Iranian high-ranking diplomats at Vienna-2 gathering be interpreted as a breakthrough and a feather in the cap of Sergei Lavrov?

Alexei Arbatov, a Russian academic and political scientist, provided his insight into the matter for RBTH.

“I think it’s a victory. Moscow and Tehran will almost certainly act in tandem. Our interests coincide. These interests are focused on assisting the government of Bashar al-Assad and helping him regain control over a large part of Syria. Not all of it but the territory primarily populated by Alawites.”

- What is the middle game for this multi-layered conflict in Syria? The expert community is thoroughly split on the forecasts of the provisional political settlement. Where are you in this dispute?

“I side with the realists. First, the negotiations will go on for a long time. The major powers involved in talks do not control all the factions warring on the ground in Syria and definitely do not control the Islamic State. Second, the most that I can expect from negotiations is to achieve a ceasefire, primarily between Assad’s government troops and the Free Syrian Army, which is representing the so-called “moderate” opposition. A ceasefire would be essential as without it there is no point in talking about a political reconciliation to pave the way for a composite government embracing representatives of all ethnic and religious groups.”

Yet, it is still a long haul. The most divisive issue remains the figure of Bashar al-Assad with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry firmly stating that in no way can this person “unite and govern Syria,” while adding that “Syrians deserve a different choice.” One can find echoes here of the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who reiterated Moscow’s stance stating, that “the Syrian people should decide Assad's fate” adding that he “did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to stay.”

For many observers it was a clear sign that Moscow and Washington have inched towards a more compatible position on Syria. The relative consensus of Vienna-2 negotiators gives ground for a modest hope of pacifying the ravaged region. Moreover, Vienna-2 is a testimony to the comeback of diplomacy as the ultimate means of settling disputes and conflicts.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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