The World

What Does the Iran Deal Mean for Syria?

A rebel fighter points his weapon through a hole in the wall towards forces loyal to the regime on November 24, 2013 in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. 

Photo by MEDO HALAB/AFP/Getty Images

The Iran nuclear negotiators have barely left Geneva, but already speculation is turning to the city’s next big event, the so-called “Geneva II” Syria peace talks on Jan. 22. And one serious question is what impact the Iran agreement will have on the situation in Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said today that his government would be willing to attend the Syria talks. U.S, and rebel groups oppose Iran participating until it accepts an earlier communiqué that endorses political transition in the country.

Along with Russia, Iran has been Bashar al-Assad’s major backer throughout the conflict through both direct assistance and through the Hezbollah militant group.

Syria’s government enthusiastically welcomed the “historic agreement” over Iran’s nuclear program and there are fears that the reduced sanctions that come along with the deal will take the pressure of Iran, allowing it to continue supporting the Assad regime. In this view, the West sold out the Syrian rebels in exchange for a nuclear agreement.

On the other hand, there’s a competing view that the framework built during the talks could set the stage for future agreements between Iran and Western countries. “We hope the Iranian nuclear deal will provide impetus for a Syria deal,” Abdelbaset Sieda of the Syrian National Coalition told The Associated Press. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor skeptical of this argument, noting that in contrast to the Iran situation, there’s not much room for common ground between the two sides in Syria.

On the other hand, despite its steadfast support for Assad, Iran may actually have more of an interest in quickly finding a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict than the U.S. and its allies. American material involvement in the conflict has been relatively minimal, and support for the rebels probably isn’t breaking the bank for Saudi Arabia or Qatar either. Iran, on the other hand, according to some estimates, is spending as much as $600 to $700 million per month to keep Assad afloat during a time of economic distress while simultaneously driving its reputation in the Arab world into the ground. Syria might not exactly be “Iran’s Vietnam,” but it’s certainly more costly for Tehran than for the rebels’ backers.  

Iran is unlikely to break with Assad altogether, but if the precedent established by the nuclear talks was that Iran will cooperate in exchange for sanctions relief—and yes, we won’t know for a while just how genuine that cooperation is—it seems possible that through either public or backchannel negotiations, Iran could be talked into putting some more pressure on the Syrian government.

In one potentially positive development, Iran will be participating in a humanitarian conference focused on Syria tomorrow, reports Colum Lynch. Ahead of the conference, the Syrian government has agreed to allow the U.N. to run humanitarian aid convoys over its borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, but not Turkey.

Of course, Iranian help or no, prospects for an agreement to end the violence seem extremely limited right now. The Syrian National Coalition has been cajoled into reluctantly attending the talks in January, but as long as they’re still capable of making military gains, it doesn’t seem likely that rebel groups will accept a deal under which Assad stays in power. As for Assad, he’s planning his reelection campaign for next year and doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave.

For all its flaws, the Iran agreement was a better deal that most could have anticipated a few months ago. Syria will likely be even tougher to resolve, but here’s hoping some of the good vibes stick around in Geneva. Syria can’t wait much longer.