Iran-Saudi feud: Does it imperil Syria peace talks?

Iran and Saudi Arabia were already in opposing camps regarding a solution to Syria's civil war. A UN envoy is trying to keep the process on track.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (r.) shows a copy of a Security Council resolution concerning Syria, during a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (l.) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (c.), Dec. 18, 2015 at UN headquarters. The resolution was approved on vote during a meeting in the UN Security Council of foreign ministers.

Diplomatic efforts to preserve the staggering Syrian peace process have gone into overdrive amid a surge in Iran-Saudi tensions in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of a dissident Shiite cleric on Jan. 2 prompted Iranian protesters to ransack and burn the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Now there are concerns that the two regional rivals – who support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war and proxy forces elsewhere in the region – could jeopardize UN-sponsored peace talks due to resume in Geneva Jan. 25.

The stakes could not be higher, with a quarter million dead in Syria and more than half of its pre-war population of some 22 million internally displaced or in exile as refugees. Since the war began in 2011, Syria has become, with Iraq, a base of operations for the self-declared Islamic State. 

Two rounds of talks in Vienna last fall brought the international players around the same table for the first time. Among them are Iran and Russia, key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Saudi Arabia, the US, and others are supporting a cast of anti-Assad rebel groups. Analysts point out that Washington had to pressure the Saudis to sit at the table with Iranians at those talks, underscoring the risk of further polarization. 

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is visiting Saudi Arabia and Iran this week to try to ease tensions between the two sides. “We cannot afford to lose this momentum, despite what is going on in the region,” he said Tuesday in Riyadh. He travels next to Tehran. 

As Mr. de Mistura seeks to salvage the diplomatic process, what is in jeopardy?

How much progress has been made toward peace in Syria?

A roadmap agreed in Vienna  – and codified in a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on Dec. 18 – spells out the establishment of a transitional Syrian government and seeks a cease-fire in six months, and elections within 18 months.

But it makes no mention of the fate of President Assad, perhaps the thorniest point of disagreement.

A meeting in Riyadh in December of key anti-Assad political and armed factions – minus the Islamic State, and the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra – led to formation of a unified committee to negotiate. One important group withdrew, Ahrar al-Sham, saying that armed groups were not sufficiently represented.

Syria's regime has dismissed the opposition's effort to form a united front. 

Meanwhile, opposition groups are insisting on pre-conditions that could scupper a resumption of talks. Opposition leaders in Riyadh told de Mistura that they would not resume talks unless the regime committed to a prisoner release, stopping attacks on civilian areas, and ending the use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters – perhaps the single most lethal type of attack used in Syria. 

What is the Saudi position now?

In Riyadh, de Mistura said he found a “clear determination” not to let current tensions “have any negative impact on the Vienna momentum” toward the upcoming Geneva talks, according to a UN statement issued after his meeting Tuesday with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

However, while Mr. Jubeir said “we will continue to work with you” to reach a political solution, he also said Saudi Arabia would continue to give “military, political, and economic support to the Syrian people” – meaning anti-Assad rebel groups. And he repeated the long-standing Saudi position that Assad could play no role in Syria’s future.

What about Iran’s reaction?

In his first press conference as Iran’s president-elect in June 2013, Hassan Rouhani spoke of his desire to reengage with the Saudis, calling them “neighbors and brothers” and saying Iran was “fully ready” to end decades of rivalry.

But Wednesday Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of refusing Iran’s overtures, and instead openly stoking sectarian Sunni-Shiite tension and opposing Iran's landmark nuclear deal reached last July with the US and five other world powers.

“For the past 2-1/2 years, Saudi Arabia has opposed Iran’s diplomacy,” Mr. Zarif said at a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart. Iran says Saudi Arabia has been recklessly aggressive in the past year, with a 9-month bombing campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthis, and by supporting anti-Assad rebels in Syria, among them jihadists. 

However, Iran hasn't indicated that it would pull out of the Geneva talks.  

What is the US doing?

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called officials in Riyadh and Tehran to deescalate tensions, noting that on top of risking the Syria talks, such division may hurt the US-led battle against Islamic State, which US officials say today poses a greater threat to the West than Al Qaeda. 

“One of the key things on Kerry’s mind is not letting the Vienna process stall or fall backward,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

The White House has come under fire for its light public condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s execution of Mr. Nimr – the consequences of which Washington says it warned Saudi officials in advance – and also of the embassy sacking in Tehran.

In an end-of-year opinion piece, Mr. Kerry said easing the Syria conflict would “remain a foremost challenge to us all.”

He cited the diplomatic initiative and “timetable for negotiations” between the “responsible opposition” and Syria’s government.

The more progress made toward peace, wrote Kerry, “the easier it will be to mount a truly sustained and united effort against [Islamic State] – the foremost embodiment of evil our generation has known, as a foe we are absolutely determined to defeat.”

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