For a brief moment this past weekend, just for a brief moment, it seemed as if sanity might prevail in preparing for the Wednesday start of Geneva II, the Syria peace conference in Montreux and Geneva, Switzerland. That’s because Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, saw fit to defy the United States and deliver an invitation to Iran to take part in the conference.
For months and months, the United States has opposed the inclusion of Iran in the talks, scheduled to begin January 22 after many postponements and false starts since last summer. For most diplomats, excluding Iran is—or ought to be—the literal definition of insanity: if you’re having peace talks, it’s generally a good idea to have the other side present. And in the case of Syria, Iran—along with Russia—is President Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and supporter. Not only that, but Iran’s new leadership, including President Hassan Rouhani, is looking for better relations with the United States and the West, and if there is to be a settlement of the civil war in Syria, then Iran will certainly play a role. Or, obstruct things.
And let’s face it: Assad isn’t going anywhere. Belatedly, long after Obama made the egregious error of calling for Assad to quit—a call that emboldened the opposition and sent a signal to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf Arab kleptocracies to unleash a flood of support—the United States has gradually come to realize that Assad will remain in power for at least the medium-term future, and he may very well run for re-election in June. Despite the machinations of the ineffective, outside opposition that spends its time in hotels and offices in Cairo, Turkey and the Persian Gulf, Assad is making military gains across the board and racking up political gains too. In September, by agreeing to the deal to dismantle Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, the United States in effect acknowledged that Assad will have to remain in place in order to implement the deal through at least the middle of 2014. And Secretary of State Kerry, joined by his Russian counterpart, has welcomed Assad’s representatives to the table in Geneva, despite the great unhappiness that provoked among the Syrian opposition.
As I’ve reported before, former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has explicitly declared that Assad may be the “least bad option” to rule Syria, when the alternative is a mishmash coalition that includes the Al Qaeda–linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the pro–Al Qaeda Al-Nusra Front and the radical religious bloc called the Islamic Front. As The Washington Post reported on Saturday: