The UN sponsored conference on Syria started on schedule at Montreux, Switzerland on January 23. Even a wild-eyed optimist would perhaps admit that it is highly unlikely that the meeting will produce an agreement on transitional arrangements (read: Assad agreeing to relinquish power) to end the Syrian civil war. The best case scenario if the parleys do not break up in acrimony between the bitterly divided protagonists is that it could usher the start of a process of engagement between the two sides. The prospect of a final agreement appears to be a tall order even to those adept at reading tea leaves. But as the Chinese say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. This conference represents the first step.
Meanwhile Syrians are dying in large numbers daily. An estimated 130,000 have been killed. Millions have fled their homes to neighboring countries or have become internal refugees.To compound their misery turning it almost to a Dantesque inferno, is the lack of food, water and other necessities available to civilians trapped in enclaves between the Syrian army and rebel fighters. The United Nations is hoping that both Assad's forces and their opponents can be cajoled at this meeting to at least agree not to impede the supply of badly needed humanitarian aid to the hapless civilians caught in the vortex of this vicious civil war.
The conference is now expected to move from Montreux to Geneva where representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition will meet face to face for the first time since the conflict started nearly three years ago. It took a lot of preparatory work by the UN, the United States, Russia, the European Union and some other countries to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had earlier invited Iran to participate in the conference after receiving assurances from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. These assurances were apparently not credible enough for the Syrian opposition, which threatened to boycott the conference on the ground that Iran had not publicly signed on to the transitional arrangements agreed to at the earlier conference on Syria (Geneva I), envisaging the removal of President Assad from power. Reportedly Iran refused to give this assurance calling it an unacceptable "pre-condition" and was thus disinvited.
The inability of the Syrian opposition --divided into warring factions -- to mount a united front on the ground will redound to the advantage of Assad. For the time being he seems to have the upper hand, militarily and psychologically. However, the absence of Iran from the conference may in the end amount to be a Pyrrhic victory for the opponents of the Syrian regime. Iran is a major player in the Syrian civil war having supported the Assad regime to the hilt. Tehran has orchestrated this support by reportedly sending some of its troops to fight alongside Assad's troops, by encouraging the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to join in the fray on the side of Assad, and through the provision of substantial financial and military assistance to the Assad regime. It might even be fair to surmise that without this steadfast support from Shia Iran to the fellow Shia-dominated regime of Assad, the latter would either have been toppled by now, or would have sought a negotiated exit for himself like that of Abdullah Ali Saleh of Yemen. Another interesting assessment by a diplomatic source contends that Iran is not necessarily wedded to supporting Assad. What it does not want to see is a diminution of its influence in Syria -- a major Arab country. If it could be assured that the post-Assad dispensation in Damascus would not attenuate this influence, Iran could conceivably support a post-Assad transition.
Assad's fortunes were at low ebb last August after the discovery of a chemical weapons attack on rebel positions attributed to his forces, which killed a large number of civilians. Through this attack Assad's government had crossed a red line stated publicly by President Obama, namely that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would not be tolerated by Washington. Orders had accordingly been issued by Obama to the U.S. naval forces stationed in the eastern Mediterranean to prepare to launch a cruise missile attack on Assad's military infrastructure.
However, Obama wavered. Sensing a lack of support for this strike among a war-weary American public, as well as the U.S. Congress, he called off the impending attack. Instead he allowed an agreement brokered by Russia, that Assad's entire stockpile of chemical weapons would be dismantled under UN supervision. Some Republican leaders were furious with Obama at his volte-face on Syria. They suggested that only the U.S. had the military capability to get rid of the Syrian dictator whose regime had caused immense suffering to his own people.
The end result of this momentous Obama decision has been that it has allowed the Assad regime to regain the momentum in the grinding three-year old civil war. The regime has not felt much compunction in using aerial and artillery attacks on rebel-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus and in the north and north-east. A large number of civilians have been killed by these indiscriminate attacks. These attacks have been severely criticized by the United Nations as possible war crimes. Also, the United Nations has referred to the in-fighting among the rebel groups who have killed each other's fighters, which according to the UN might also constitute war crimes. The result appears to have been the eclipsing of the moderate elements in the Syrian opposition and their replacement by extremist elements such as the so-called Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, the al-Nusra Front, and other splinter groups.
Another destabilizing development is the spillover of the fighting, principally into southern Lebanon, but also into Turkey. Under the current conditions, it seems unlikely that the opposition can defeat Assad militarily. Assad has also been successful to some extent in portraying himself as the secular face of Syria, keeping extremist and fanatical forces at bay.
Whether some quarters like it or not, Iran is a major player in the Syrian civil war. Keeping Iran outside the tent may not prove to be a wise policy in the long run. If Iran keeps backing Damascus alongside Russia, the Assad regime could persist for an indefinite period of time. The terrible suffering of the Syrian people would continue. If this stark scenario does come to pass, it would represent a collective failure on the part of the international community.