07/01/2013 09:48 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Is a Strategy for Syria Possible?

The increased complexity of the situation in Syria makes the problem of resolving the conflict seemingly resistant to any strategy the Obama administration can come up with. While Washington tries to cautiously develop a response to events unfolding in Syria, the situation on the ground shifts under the administration's feet, undermining the effectiveness of its strategy before it even leaves the launch pad. Backing the rebels by supplying light arms, partnering with allies Turkey and Qatar, and cajoling Moscow into isolating Assad are centerpieces of this new strategy for Syria. While these responses are both necessary and sound, they are also woefully inadequate, for they take into account the realities of yesterday, not of today.

Developing a strategy that has even a remote possibility of success necessitates responding not to old realities but to the recent developments that have shifted the power balance towards Assad and away from the rebels. Part of this shift comes from an increased willingness by Assad to use heavy armaments against its own citizens. But there is another factor at play here that the current strategy doesn't take into account. That is that since March the fulcrum of the leverage Syria derives from the international community has shifted away from Moscow and towards Tehran, and its proxy Hezbollah. In other words, while over the past couple of years Moscow played the role of primary spoiler of any peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria, over the past several months Iran has played an increasingly large role. While Russia's support for the regime in Damascus in the form of arms has been given at a safe distance, Iran has put significant skin in the game by recently sending upward of 4000 members of its Revolutionary Guards to Syria to fortify the Assad regime. Coordinated with this effort, Hezbollah has entered the fray, contributing to the regime's victory over rebels in the strategically critical town of Qusayr. These events have shifted the epicenter of external support for Assad from Moscow to Tehran.

So what does this shift mean for any possible strategy for ending the carnage in Syria? It means that while U.S. recent success in getting Moscow to support language in the G-8 communiqué that calls for a transitional government in Damascus and greater investigation into reports of the use of chemical weapons are important, we should move closer to Russia's position that Iran be part of any Geneva II talks. While Iran and the U.S. have many divergent interests when it comes to Syria, the fact that Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah have become such a big part of the problem means that they need to be considered an equally big part of a possible solution.

Some might argue that the risks of direct engagement with Iran on the Syrian issue are too great and that any contact should be made indirectly through the Russians. This is problematic for several reasons. First is that it is not clear that Moscow has sufficient sway over Tehran on the Syrian issue. Iran has more invested in Syria and the survival of Assad than do the Russians, and it is not clear how much real influence Russia could have. Second of all, even if it were able, it isn't clear that Russia's interests would compel it to try to pressure Tehran. Think about it. By displaying a modicum of cooperation with the U.S. through the G-8 and UN Security Council, Russia can have its cake and eat it too. It wins brownie points with the international community by appearing to cooperate, while Iran's efforts on the ground successfully tilt the strategic balance towards Assad and closer to Russia's preferred outcome. Moscow wins politically while all of the cost and military risk falls squarely on Tehran. Why, then, would Russia try to undermine its own position by putting pressure on Tehran?

Are there risks in having Iran participate in a Geneva conference when they are doing everything possible to preserve a treacherous regime in Damascus? Of course there are. It is possible that the Iranians could be obstructionist and further encourage the Syrian government to dig in its heels. And it is also possible that Tehran will try to use participation in the talks as a ploy to soften the U.S. position on the nuclear dispute or flex its geopolitical muscles, outcomes the Israelis would surely bellyache over. But since Iran's support for Assad is motivated as much by a perception of threat from the United States, as it is by an opportunity to preserve the country's strategic depth in the Arab Middle East, being included in the process could work to reduce the threat Tehran perceives and give it skin in the game in any reconciliation process. While Iran will certainly work hard to protect its interests in Syria, these are not necessarily incompatible with an outcome that leads to a stable and sustainable transition process.

Having Iran as part of a solution certainly has downsides, but the bigger risk is that the west appears impotent by investing in a process that ignores the single biggest contributor to the Syrian regime's leverage. Washington needs to recognize that there has been a shift in power and that while Iran is the primary problem, it needs to also be part of a solution. In a situation where time seems to be on the side of the Assad regime in Damascus, a realpolitik approach that takes into account the new power realities on the ground is one of the only viable strategic pathways available to Washington.