Monday, September 2, 2013

Stabilizing Syria Means Engaging Iran

Both al-Monitor and Barbara Slavin (at al-Jazeera America) have published analyses that make it clear: In the absence of any effective military option, the only possible path to calming the situation in Syria is negotiations.  And those negotiations must include Iran.  As al-Monitor notes, 
Unless the US commits all-out to regime change in Syria, which Obama said he has no intention of doing, a strategy to end the war necessarily involves diplomacy with adversaries as well as allies. The NATO air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, often and rightly considered successes for US policy, included intensive direct diplomacy with all parties, including Yugoslav dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. You need a cease-fire by all sides to stop the killing. It was the Yugoslav government, after the Kosovo war, which arrested Milosevic and transferred him to the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia. There should be several lessons here for Syria.
Terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and maybe even Egypt would likely continue to surge even after a US strike absent a diplomatic strategy to end the war and address the now-rejuvenated terrorist threat in Syria.
It is the continuation of the war, the destruction of Syria, the rise of jihadists, the spread of terrorism to Syria’s neighbors and the waves of refugees that are the threats to US interests, and these are best handled by an immediate cease-fire and the start of negotiations — not by taking sides in the war. 
The administration could seize the opportunity of the congressional debate to lay out the endgame in Syria with some clear benchmarks, beyond missile strikes in response to chemical weapons use, including: a channel with Iran; calling out both the Assad regime and the opposition, and especially their respective regional patrons, to enact a cease-fire immediately; urgently convening the Geneva II conference to include both the Syrian government and non-jihadist opposition forces, no exceptions; and a crackdown and some accountability on those US allies which directly or indirectly support the flow of jihadists to Syria. . . .
Iran, more than any other power in the region, is the “dynamo” and broker of either war or peace.  It is time to put Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the test and bring the Syria war to a close.

But bringing Rouhani (and, by extension, of course, Khamenei) into a negotiation can happen only if Mr. Netanyahu is willing to give Mr. Obama the political space to reach out to Iran.  As the two reports note above make clear, some of that outreach has already begun.  But it can only go as far as Netanyahu and his confederates - both in Jerusalem and in D.C. - will let it.  Bibi has invested enormous energy and cubic-yards of hot air in demonizing Iran (even referring to Rouhani recently as a "wolf in sheep's clothing") and its "existential threat" to Israel.  Any attempt by Obama to bring Iran into putative cease-fire negotiations over Syria automatically lends respectability and legitimacy to the Iranian regime.  It also undercuts not only Bibi's demonizing of Iran, but also his insistence that the threat of a military strike against Iran needs to remain unholstered.

Yet, as is becoming clear, damping down Syria's violence and refugee flow - both of which have destabilized the countries bordering Israel and threaten thereby to impact Israel itself - is going to require Iran's acquiescence at the very least.  That means reaching out and offering Iran some kind of role partnering with other countries that are interested in restoring some modicum of stability within which Syria - or whatever "Syria" is to become - can be sorted out.

Is Bibi up to keeping his finger off the bash-Iran button?  Giving Iran a chance to help restore some peace to the heart of the Arab world just might win Israel a few friends therein.

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