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Next week, two momentous occasions in Middle Eastern affairs will take place: President’s Obama’s long-negotiated sanctions deal with Iran takes effect on Monday, and on Wednesday, the Geneva II peace conference begins in Switzerland, where Syria’s opposing forces will come together to begin negotiating an end to hostilities and the building of a transitional government. Successful navigation of both events by all parties involved will bring the region significantly closer to long-term stability, with the Obama administration and both houses of Congress leading the charge in the days to come.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way that our gridlocked, warmongering Congress will ever let either of these events go off without a hitch, and in that, you’re probably right. There will undoubtedly be setbacks, due to both the aforementioned gridlock and our rather contentious relationship with both Iran and Syria. However, despite all that, there is a glimmer of hope: the combination of strategic incoherence, partisanship, and political posturing on behalf of the US government over both nations just might be the thing that will allow the success of both the sanctions deal and the peace conference.
In order to parse this one out, let’s start with the state of affairs surrounding Geneva II. At present, the Obama administration is essentially seeking complete surrender by Bashar Al-Assad as a precondition for the negotiations to begin. This is an impossible demand; Assad’s regime is well-supported by Russia, Iran, and numerous other nations, firmly entrenching his political authority. While the Syrian government is prepared to make a variety of concessions for peace, Assad’s surrender is not one of them, nor will it ever be.
At the same time, the various insurgent forces that make up Assad’s opposition are equally entrenched in the region, and equally unwilling to surrender. A military solution is no longer an option; too many people are dead. The solution must be a diplomatic one, and the best candidate for facilitating that solution is – you guessed it – Iran. However, Iran is currently being blocked from participation in Geneva II by the US, despite the recent thaw in US-Iran relations over the latter’s nuclear program. It’s a bad move, one that stands to thoroughly invalidate any hope for peace not only in Syria, but in the rest of the region.
In recent years, Iran has emerged as something of a diplomatic linchpin for the Middle East. According to former US State Department official Hillary Mann Leverett, “Iran brings not only a deep, long-standing relationship with the sitting government in Syria…but also brings an ability to work with countries around Syria, as well.” This includes both Iraq and Turkey, who have played an active role in Syrian affairs since not long after the conflict began. Together, the three nations can further encourage Assad’s willingness to negotiate. Iran’s absence at the talks will likely condemn them to failure before they even begin.
It also stands to reason that blocking Iran from Geneva II will set the upcoming US-Iran sanctions deal off to a very rocky start, something that Obama really can’t afford. Bipartisan support in the Senate for new, tougher sanctions has greatly hampered the peace process thus far, making any current margin of error very slim both from a political and foreign policy standpoint. Here’s where that ‘glimmer of hope’ comes in: House Republicans are currently considering bringing the Senate’s sanctions bill to the House floor, a purely political maneuver that would force a vote from Senate Democrats on their bill, expediting the process of putting a sanctions bill in front of the president prior to the interim deal.
If House Republicans decide go on the offensive over sanctions, “Democrats may become more anxious about supporting [them] and less likely to buck the White House,” according to The Huffington Post. Without Democratic support, Senate Republicans cannot override a promised veto of their bill by the president. House Democrats are already in mostly in line with the President on Iran, and while there have been some tensions, there support will not likely waver if new sanctions are proposed.
When you begin looking at both Iran’s sanctions deal and Syria’s peace talks in a larger context, it’s hard to ignore the significance of their scheduling. The latter comes not two days after the former, with both Iran’s and America’s reputation on the line in both circumstances. Obama met with Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting yesterday to lobby their support against the new sanctions, and while it’s unclear whether Iran’s potential role in Geneva II was discussed, it seems likely that it was on the agenda. If Obama can convince Senate Democrats to withdraw their support for new sanctions before the interim agreement with Iran goes live, it seems feasible that he could then immediately pivot toward allowing Iran’s participation in Geneva II as a sign of good faith. This would further encourage to Iran to honor their end of the sanctions deal, and free up much-needed political will for Obama and Iran to focus on the Geneva talks together. This will allow the president room to buck opposition against Assad from nations like Saudi Arabia, and soften his position on Syria as the conference proceeds.
There’s never been an easy solution to any problems in the Middle East, and the days ahead will once again test the mettle of everyone involved. But in a strange twist of fate, business as usual on Capitol Hill just might be the very thing that paves the road to peace.