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Global Viewpoint

Obama must seize diplomatic opening with Iran to help end Syria crisis

Diplomacy is alive again at the United Nations this week. And it's deeply needed. President Obama should make clear to Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani that Iran would be welcome to participate in a conference to discuss an end to the civil war in Syria.

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Why is it so vital to involve Iran? The reason is simple: realpolitik based on four facts. Iran is involved already on the ground with its elite Revolutionary Guard. Iran helps finance Russian-made arms for Syria. Iran has a crucial influence on Hezbollah, the Shiite fighters based in Lebanon who are also on the ground in Syria. Iran, as a Shiite-majority country, is also close in religious terms to the Alawite minority in Syria, from which the Assad regime, first the father and now the son, draws its strength.

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Realpolitik is a tactical plan or conduct designed to deal with facts that are often difficult, even disobliging, to face up to. The most intangible conflicts often demand the practice of realpolitik, and its absence can both prolong and exacerbate conflict situations. The reason for creating five veto countries within the Security Council in 1945 was to reflect the realpolitik that was absent in the structure of the League of Nations once Woodrow Wilson found he could not convince the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Over Syria there has been a total failure of the Security Council to work toward a solution based on realpolitik. The US, Britain, and France have moralized while refusing to face uncomfortable facts. Namely, that after acquiescing in passing a resolution over Libya by abstention, Russia and China were not prepared to pass any similar resolution over Syria involving Chapter VII of the UN Charter. They feared such a resolution would be used again to force regime change. On grounds of realpolitik, Russia always had to be involved in creating the climate for a negotiated ceasefire and settlement in Syria. Over time, as a civil war emerged, events have demonstrated that just as Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan have to be involved, so does Iran.

Why is it so urgent to start peace negotiations? The prime reason is that the map that shows which forces control territory in Syria is changing rapidly and in an adverse direction for a sustainable peace. Bashar al-Assad's forces are coming ever closer to imposing a partition line, which is defensible yet has profound consequences. They still do not control the whole of the capital city, Damascus, but that could soon change. They do not yet quite control the whole border down south to Jordan that abuts the Palestinian West Bank and Israel, though they do control the border with Lebanon.

In the north and east of the country, the rise of the Al Qaeda-linked forces is becoming more apparent each day. Their black flag is evident everywhere, and the Syrian-based Kurds are having difficulty maintaining their position. The countries of the Middle East do not have time to develop a leisurely peace-negotiation timetable. Events on the ground are dictating the pattern of a future Middle East.

We in the Western democracies cannot dictate the map or the nature of a settlement, but we can, with Russia and within the framework of the UN, help to establish a negotiating process. As the world saw in Bosnia from May 1993 to September 1995, delay created a far bigger mess than settling and compromising earlier. Now, this week in New York, a pattern for peace can be set. Let us hope the dwindling opportunity is seized.

Lord David Owen is a former British foreign secretary and was European Union co-chairman of the peace negotiations in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995.

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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