Within 24 hours of an interim deal aimed at reining in Iran’s nuclear program, world powers raised hopes Monday for the first face-to-face talks to end the Syrian civil war as the United Nations called the warring parties to the table.
But huge gaps remain. The opposition remains vague on whether it will even attend the Geneva conference called for Jan. 22, and both sides hold fundamentally different visions on the very basics, particularly the future role of President Bashar Assad.
Nevertheless, Monday’s announcement of a date for the talks after months of delay produced palpable hope that the precedent of successful nuclear negotiations with Iran might open new diplomatic channels that could help broker an end to the nearly 3-year-old civil war in Syria that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Success in negotiations on a final accord could pave the way for normalization of ties between Iran and the West, reshaping the Mideast political map.
As Assad’s staunchest ally, Iran has given him significant financial support and is believed to have sent military advisers, trained pro-government militiamen and directed one of its proxies, Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Hizbullah terrorist organization, to fight alongside Assad’s troops.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky played down the possibility that the negotiations with Iran played a direct role in the movement on Syria, which followed a meeting in Geneva of senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia and the U.N.
Still, a senior member in the main, Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition expressed hope the nuclear deal would transform Iran into a “positive regional player,” relinquishing its support for Assad.
A break between Iran and Assad is unlikely in the short term given the foothold the alliance gives Tehran in the Arab world. Still, a thaw between Iran and the U.S. — which backs the opposition coalition — could prompt Tehran to encourage Assad to make concessions, at least enough to keep talks going.