On-again, off-again talks to end Syria’s war get a boost today when diplomats meet in Vienna. Iran, which is fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Syria, will be present for the first time, joining envoys from the U.S., Russia, and elsewhere. Untangling the interests will be key to resolving the conflict. Here’s a summary of what each side wants:
The Kremlin’s campaign – its biggest outside the former Soviet Union in decades – has raised the stakes. While Russian officials have declared the strikes are targeting terrorists, they’ve also said they want to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian warplanes have bolstered the Syrian army and strengthened Moscow’s hand; for example, the U.S. has dropped a refusal to let Iran, a fellow Assad backer, take part in talks. The Kremlin now wants a transition that may have Assad or his allies keep a dominant position, defying calls from Turkey and others for his ouster. Kremlin officials say ensuring Syria doesn’t fall into chaos like Iraq did is a key priority, given the risk of blow-back to Russia itself.
Obama is trying to turn Russia’s intervention into a roundabout way out of its dilemma over Syria: demanding Assad’s departure, while not wanting to take military action against him. The need for a diplomatic solution was underscored this week by the U.S. about-face on Iran’s participation in the Vienna talks. Increasingly, the U.S. has eased its stance on Assad, demanding his departure eventually rather than at the start of any “transition” toward new leadership. At the same time, the Pentagon is escalating its on-the-ground operations against Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Syria is compounding a refugee crisis that’s shaking the European Union to its core and posing serious question marks over the future of leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. European officials have said that splits between member states could eventually force the bloc to end or amend the Schengen treaty, which eliminated internal borders. So what the EU wants is for someone, anyone to stabilize the situation before it is forced to abandon one of its main founding principles.
For the Saudis, the conflict is about more than just Syria. The kingdom and its Sunni allies are engaged in a proxy confrontation with Shiite Iran from Yemen to Lebanon. So far, Saudi officials are sticking to their demand that Assad go. They’ve also said they will step up shipments of weapons for anti-Assad militants, answering calls from powerful Saudi clerics for a response to the Russian move. Waves of Saudi jihadists, most famously Osama Bin Laden, went to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces after 1979, as the Saudis and U.S. provided them with weapons and cash. The effort succeeded: the Soviet Union was forced to pull out. Yet it ultimately backfired on the Saudis as militants returned home and turned their sights on the ruling family.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad were once close allies and their families holidayed together. Not anymore. Ankara now wants nothing more than to see Assad go. “Every formula is being discussed on the departure of Assad,” Turkey’s interim Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Oct. 24. At the same time, Turkey opposes any sort of solution that might bestow more autonomy to Kurds in Syria, fearing it might embolden other Kurdish militant groups, which it has been bombing in Turkey and Iraq.
Getting an invitation to this round of talks was a diplomatic victory for Iran. Tehran doesn’t want Assad to lose power, an outcome that would jeopardize its ability to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon, a key tool of its regional influence. Iran has sent money, equipment and military advisers to Syria. “Iran fears that collapse of Assad will lead to anarchy and even greater power for the Islamic militants,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. For Iran, Assad’s removal would be the very last step in any transition. “Iran is not a huge fan of Assad and they think he has mismanaged the situation,” Goldenberg said. “But they don’t see any other options.”
The Syrian Government
The Assad government isn’t a party to the negotiations – at least not directly. Assad, who traveled to Moscow this month, will rely on Russia and Iran to represent him. His main aim is to hold on to power and avoid a fate like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who was shot and killed after being captured by rebels. To do that, his government argues that a resolution to the civil war can come only after a victory over terrorists, which is how it categorizes all its opponents. “What Syria wants from the conference is for the world to realize that eradicating terrorism is not just a Syrian priority but a global one too,” Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh said.
The Syrian Opposition
Syria’s main political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, won’t be at the table either. Nor will the largest Sunni rebel factions. The SNC rejects a settlement that would allow Assad, who belongs to Syria’s minority Alawite sect, to play a role in a transitional period, fearing that a deal might leave an opening for him to stay, according to politburo member Nasr al-Hariri. The SNC blames the government for most of the more than 250,000 deaths in the conflict and wants it held accountable.