Difficult political situations usually require thinking outside the box. It is a pertinent time for the international community to adopt that spirit in the Syrian conflict. It is neither Bashar al-Assad nor the Syrian rebels the ones holding the reins of the continuous deterioration of the Syrian peace process. The driving force behind the downfall of this process is pessimism, a highly contentious tool to use as a means to an end, especially when the envisioned end is peace.
Pessimism needs to be transformed into optimism by the international community in order to capture the commitment for peace of the Syrian government and the rebel groups, in a conflict that some already regard as a civil war. Unconventional thinking has led me to propose an idea that may perhaps fall outside of many observers’ conception of a realistic solution to the conflict. To be blunt in the interest of brevity, my solution involves the inclusion of Iran in the peace process. More specifically, it involves drafting a mediation scheme where Iran and a Western power would serve as co-mediators in the peace process. This idea is somewhat related with UN envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to create a contact group of countries that wield influence on the warring parties. In his plan, he too proposed the inclusion of Iran. My idea, however, differs in that it would confer on the included parties an official status in the peace process, giving them a more direct role in solving the conflict. In thinking about Iran, I see an important opportunity to generate much-needed momentum in a peace process whose future under conventional thinking looks bleak.
There are three specific benefits I see in giving Iran an active mediating role in the Syrian peace process. Firstly, if Iran is conferred with mediator status, it will convey on the Assad government a veritable belief that any potential peace produced through negotiations will ultimately be beneficial for Syria. Assad’s poor response towards the peace process puts in serious question his unilateral commitment to negotiated peace in Syria, which may be due to the fact that the costs of waging war outweigh those of peace. This may have, in turn, contributed in the Syrian government deeming the peace process unprofitable to pursue, helping to explain why the peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan has failed so drastically. Given Iran’s close ties with Syria, and its perceived role in the region, Iranian participation in the peace process would help dissipate Syria’s scepticism towards the process and raise the benefits of negotiated peace.
Secondly, the active participation of Iran, along with an equally active participation of a Western power would, I argue, expand the UN’s ability to operate through its own mechanisms. This point deserves special attention, for the UN has been one of the strongest proponents of peace in Syria, yet has failed in having a strong presence in the process. The UN’s inability to navigate through the political storm that is its Security Council, has rendered it incapable of providing a task force strong enough to monitor and enforce the Annan Plan. With vetoes from Russia and China, the UN has not been able to effectively represent the desires of the international community vis-a-vis peace in Syria.
The intended proposal of including Iran in the Syrian peace process would make use of the former’s strong bilateral relations with both Russia and China. If Iran were formally included in the peace process as a mediator, it would create a scenario where future vetoes from Russia and China would be met with strong Iranian opposition, hence making it less likely to occur. In other words, Iran’s participation in the peace process would allow it to triangulate the non-usage of Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, allowing the UN to enhance its presence in Syria. Iran’s participation alone, however, would not eliminate the deadlock at the Security Council level.
As stated above, Iranian mediation must also be coupled with the active meditational role of a Western power. Allowing a Western country to mediate alongside Iran would not only provide a balance in the mediation effort in Syrian soil, but it would also ensure that the veto use in the Security Council does not rebound to the other permanent members (US, UK, and France). Having a co-mediation scheme would create a convergence of goals between Iran and the Western power in the Syrian conflict, which would in turn increase the political cost of using and/or supporting the use of a veto at the Security Council level. Ultimately, this scheme would result in a more fluid decision-making process at the Security Council level and a better equipped UN.
Finally, the proposed inclusion of Iran would bear beneficial results beyond the confines of the Syrian conflict. Strained relations with the US and controversies surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have helped in giving Iran a “pariah” status in the international community. Providing Iran with an opportunity to collaborate with the UN, and potentially placing it in a position where its goals converge with those of countries such as the US, would help to create a political bridge between Iran and the rest of the world, and would greatly improve its status in the international community.
I would like to conclude this piece by asserting that it is in the interest of the international community to help realize the cessation of hostilities in Syria, and it is time to recognize that conventional conflict resolution thinking has failed, and that we should start considering alternative paths towards peace. Iran is only one such path, but it is a path that remains fairly unwalked by peace practitioners and worth studying.