How the Ukraine crisis made Iran a better US partner on Syria

US and Russia's relations are at their lowest point in decades as the US and Iran hold productive nuclear negotiations. A nuclear deal could unlock cooperation on fixing Syria.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
The UN Security Council vote on referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes, May 22. The resolution was vetoed with Russia and China, two of the council's permanent members, voting against.

The crisis over Ukraine, which has undercut already faltering US and Russian efforts to resolve the Syrian war, has prompted speculation that the US might either reach out to Iran to help resolve the impasse or act more unilaterally. 

The US and Russia have been at loggerheads over Syria since the conflict began. Russia, a staunch backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has vetoed a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria, to the frustration of pro-opposition Washington. Moscow also has provided Mr. Assad with large quantities of weapons and ammunition.

The two countries reached agreement on some issues, most notably the UN resolution demanding the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. That effort is inching toward completion, but UN-brokered negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition collapsed at a Geneva conference in February. The resignation of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi last week underlined the failure of the political track.

On the other hand, Iran is deeply engaged in talks with six world powers, including the US, over the fate of its nuclear program. The deadline for a deal is late July. If reached, it could propel discussions on other regional issues such as Iraq and Syria. Iran has been instrumental to Assad’s continued survival, contributing enormous military and financial support.

“People right now are saying ‘Well, forget the Russians but maybe we can talk to the Iranians’ to revive some kind of process on Geneva,” says Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“I think the Iranians understand the Syrian predicament better than [Russian President Vladimir] Putin does. Putin sees it as police action [like] Chechnya. The Iranians understand that this is the Levant and that you cannot bomb your way to victory over sectarian issues… there’s a sense that Iran could offer something in the interim while Russia is out.”

Eastern Europe worries

Some analysts argue that Washington’s rift with Moscow over Ukraine should spur the US to ignore the Russian veto threat on the Security Council and adopt a more unilateral approach to Syria.

“It’s now clear that Russia was unwilling to deliver the Assad regime to anything like transition talks…. [and the failure of] cooperation strategies between the US and Russia are no longer an excuse for doing little directly ... in the Middle East,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But the Obama administration is clearly reluctant to become more involved in the Syria conflict, reflecting a war-weary American public and a desire to focus on the emerging economic powerhouses of East Asia.

President Obama has been criticized for failing to follow through on his 2012 “red line” promise of “enormous consequences” if chemical weapons were used in the Syria conflict and for forestalling a military strike in Syria to pursue the chemical weapons agreement with Russia.  

Obama’s “red line” retreat was much debated among nervous Eastern Europeans at last week’s GLOBSEC 2014 security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. Some conference attendees questioned the effectiveness of sanctions on Russia as well as the ability of the European Union to act cohesively on Ukraine and whether Washington can be relied upon to stand up to Moscow given its hesitancy on Syria.

“If the West is not united [on Ukraine], we are in a very difficult position,” says Oleh Rybachuk, chairman of the Centre of United Actions, a Ukrainian non-governmental organization.

US waffles 

The Ukraine crisis is a “bold-faced punctuation mark” that confirms the failure of current US policy on Syria, according to Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former special adviser to the Obama administration for transition in Syria.

The Assad regime's recent territorial gains are far short of outright victory and it's unclear whether the overstretched Syrian Army and its allies can hold the ground against future rebel counter-attacks. Nevertheless, the regime is in a stronger position than at this time last year, underlined by Assad’s decision to hold a presidential election on June 3 to boost his legitimacy.

“It took the disaster of Geneva itself… to convince the Obama administration that he who is winning on the ground is not likely to yield in the conference room... Moscow will not pull Washington's chestnuts out of the fire for Syria or anything else,” says Mr. Hof, a critic of the administration’s Syria policy since resigning early last year.

Mr. Salem of the Middle East Institute says that the US recognizes that pressure is required to compel Assad to return to the negotiating table, and there are signs that the US is providing "a bit more training, a bit more weaponry... so an improvement, but nothing major."

Still, given Obama's reluctance to become entagled, Hof expects the US to offer rebels little more than "inadequate assistance" to vetted members of the armed opposition.

“I doubt that Iran or Russia thought it would be this easy to revive and sustain a moribund client regime,” he says.

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