Diplomatic wisdom holds that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. This mantra has been intoned by such diverse figures as Moshe Dayan, Desmond Tutu, and James Baker. When they said it, it seemed almost self-evident, even trite. But it is nonetheless often repudiated in U.S. domestic debates, where a willingness to negotiate is seen as a sign of weakness or an inappropriate reward for bad behavior.
Negotiating with the United States is not a reward. Anyone who has ever spent long hours shut in a windowless conference room with Secretary of State John Kerry understands this basic truth at the core of his being.
The question of whether to seek Iran’s involvement in the proposed Geneva talks on Syria illustrates how this concept of reward can lead us astray. The reason to involve Iran is not because Iran is a constructive actor on Syria. According to a recent report by The New York Times, Iran has been a key supporter of the Assad regime’s violent oppression and is a party to the conflict. It is not because U.S. officials believe that agreement with Iran on Syria could herald the dawn of a new era of U.S.-Iranian friendship. After more than ten years of dealing with the Iranian regime on the nuclear file, there are few illusions and even less trust left in the U.S. government when it comes to the Iran. The regime in Iran is, quite simply, our enemy.
The reason to involve the Iranians is because talking to that enemy is the only conceivable route to achieving a political settlement in Syria. We know (or should know) from long, hard experience that civil wars like the one in Syria don’t end as long as powerful external supporters oppose a settlement. Iran has the capacity to spoil any deal reached at Geneva. This brutal fact leads to the simple conclusion that we need to reach agreement with Iran if we want a political solution in Syria.
Of course, many people in the United States don’t believe that a political settlement in Syria is possible. They may be right. History tells us that externally-brokered negotiations rarely succeed in ending civil wars, particularly ones as brutal as that in Syria. But, even in that case, it matters why the negotiations fail. The U.S. strategy at Geneva must be to ensure that any failure of the negotiations demonstrates to the world, and particularly to the other UN Security Council members, that the Assad regime and its supporters are the obstacles to peace and the threat to regional stability so that the international community can bring maximum pressure to bear on Assad after the talks fail. If the U.S. excludes Iran from the negotiations, this will provide a ready and arguably even valid excuse for blaming the United States for the failure of the talks.
There are others on the American political spectrum— probably fewer— who don’t see a political solution in Syria as desirable. They would prefer to enhance U.S. credibility with our Arab “friends” through an all-out push for military victory over the Assad regime, in many cases specifically because they see the Syrian conflict as part of the larger struggle between the U.S. and Iran. In this zero-sum logic, the fall of the Assad regime is a loss for Iran and thus a win for U.S. interests, regardless of any collateral damage done to the Syrian people or to regional stability. In that case, there is precious little reason to have Iran at the Geneva talks, or even to hold the Geneva talks at all.
But let us be clear about what these people are advocating. They are seeking to wage a proxy war in Syria against Iran and Hizballah. That war will take years to wage. It will involve the destruction of the Syrian state and the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands more Syrians, millions more Syrian refugees, and a very real threat of even more destabilizing spillover into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel. To win that war will probably require direct U.S. intervention of one sort or another and even then success is not guaranteed. The Obama administration has decided that deep involvement in another Middle Eastern war of this sort will harm U.S. interests and erode U.S. power and that it would be better for all involved to reach a political settlement in Syria as soon as possible. It is that view that has led the administration to favor a political solution and promote the Geneva talks. But I must concede that if you disagree with the administration and see such a war as desirable, it makes little sense to try to work with Iran to make peace in Syria.