Is Iran pushing a diplomatic solution for Syria?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is on a bit of a diplomacy jag in the aftermath of reaching the nuclear agreement with the P5+1. On Tuesday and Wednesday he was in Lebanon, where he met with Lebanese Prime Minister (and acting President, on account of they don’t currently have one) Tammam Salam and other top Lebanese politicians, to talk about finding a way to end the Syrian civil war and to collaborate on regional security issues. He also met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and what makes that interesting is that Zarif’s chat with Nasrallah immediately preceded the announcement of a 48 hour ceasefire in the Syrian border town of Zabadani, where government/Hezbollah fighters have been pressing a force of Syrian rebels (mainly Ahrar al-Sham) pretty hard for the past several weeks. Talks on that ceasefire have reportedly been going on for a month, with Turkish and Iranian mediation. That may not seem like so big a deal — a 48 hour ceasefire in one town in a four year war that’s engulfed an entire nation is the definition of a drop in the bucket — but for Iran to collaborate productively with a country that has been supporting the rebels is a pretty remarkable development.

Zarif then spent the rest of Wednesday in Damascus, meeting with Bashar al-Assad to go over Iran’s grand proposal for ending the civil war. The devil is in the details, but the overarching points of Iran’s proposal are known, and…actually, they’re not bad:

A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that his country has a four-step plan for Syria. The plan was presented to Turkey, Qatar and Egypt, then other member states of the UN, and has seen some amendments. “It’s still feasible,” the official said.

When it was presented, the proposal’s four steps were: Secure an immediate cease-fire, create a national unity government, rewrite Syria’s constitution to include the majority of Syrian ethnic groups and hold national elections under international supervision.

The Iranian official explained that the plan is under serious consideration by Syria and countries involved in the Syrian crisis and that an updated version will be sent to the UN secretary-general. The main aim is finding an exit strategy from the crisis.

A ceasefire is beyond necessary, but the real holdup in resolving the conflict has obviously been the disposition of Assad himself. A “national unity government” would likely have to include Assad, and who knows how long it could be before those elections are held — devil in the details — but if those elections are legitimate then Assad will lose and the country can finally move on. Assad’s remaining support is motivated at least in part by a fear of the deluge of Sunni extremism that could follow him, but a unity government that transitions into democracy while writing minority protections into the constitution could dissipate the risk of extremism and of attacks against vulnerable communities. Skeptics have argued and will continue to argue that Iran is running a long con, trying to simply buy time for Assad to remain in power, and that may be true, but there’s reason to think otherwise:

However, this position is increasingly disputed. “There is no doubt that there’s an Iranian will in reaching a political solution in Syria,” former Saudi diplomat Abdullah Al Shammari told Al-Monitor. “The primary reason behind this is the weak position of its ally Assad, and the second reason is that post-nuclear deal, Iran wants to concentrate on its economy and introducing itself as an example for the whole region in terms of diplomacy.” Al Shammari asked, however, “What’s the Iranian definition for a political solution in Syria? What are the limits of Iran’s ability to maneuver as its ally is losing more ground? Iran is more than [ever] serious about preserving its interests, the same interests it has fought four years to keep safe.”

It’s probably past the point where “buying time” for Assad was a reasonable strategy. Buy the guy all the time you want, but his position in Syria — reduced to a sliver of territory, hard pressed on every side, and running out of manpower — likely isn’t going to get more tenable. It’s possible that Iran has seen the writing on the wall and is ready to start talking about a post-Assad Syrian reality, and the rebels and their backers don’t really have much to lose right now by playing along.

Zarif’s diplomatic flurry may be an effort to take advantage of the momentum that he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have coming out of the nuclear talks to stake out a role in Iran’s regional foreign policy. That file has heretofore largely been out of their purview, which has been largely restricted to the nuclear talks. Along those lines, Zarif has been pushing for a “G7” (not that one; in this case he’s talking about the 6 GCC nations plus Iran) dialogue on dealing with “extremism” (i.e., ISIS). Part of that dialogue, the core of it really, is going to have to revolve around finding a solution to Syria that brings the rebels and the government (whatever it may be) together to deal with ISIS and lesser-but-still-awful elements, like Jabhat al-Nusra and maybe the aforementioned Ahrar al-Sham. A political compromise is the only thing that will allow this to happen now, while it could still matter; coalition air-strikes won’t do the trick, and it’s certainly not going to happen because the US keeps training and losing 60 or so rebel fighters every couple of years. A political deal that Iran, the GCC, and Turkey can all accept and then foist on their Syrian proxies is the only real game in town.

A little while ago I wrote that it would probably be better for the US and Iran to start working together on Afghanistan, where their interests are more closely aligned, than to jump in to Syria, where they’re not. But that’s because I assumed the Iranians weren’t ready to move on from Assad yet. They should be; he’s never going to be the ruler of Syria again the way he was before the civil war started, and the longer he stays under siege in Damascus and keeps bleeding away parts of the country to the rebels and ISIS, the more Iran loses its ability to influence what will happen in Syria after he’s finally gone. But assuming that these diplomatic initiatives are genuine, it suggests that the Iranians (at least moderates like Zarif and Rouhani) are ready to move on from Assad. It seems foolish not to at least test how serious they are. Zarif may not be on the level, or he may wind up having his diplomatic initiative slapped down by Supreme Leader Khamenei, but who knows? There may actually be some reason to be a little hopeful about Syria for a change.

In other Syria news, Nusra declared on Monday that it was withdrawing from the fight against ISIS in the northern part of Syria, citing US-Turkey plans for a safe zone north of Aleppo. They complained that the safe zone was more for Turkey’s benefit than Syria’s, which is true, but I still don’t imagine too many people are weeping for Nusra. Meanwhile, rebel forces are reportedly advancing on ISIS in Um Hosh, an area just north of Aleppo, under cover of US air support launched from Incirlik Air Base (although the Americans and Turks disagree over whether the US is launching airstrikes from Incirlik or just flying reconnaissance missions).

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