Too little, too late
Iran's conference on the Syrian crisis failed to attract key regional and international players, despite the presence of Russia and China
Delegates from countries having "realistic and principled positions" on the Syrian crisis were supposed to gather in Tehran on 9 August for a "consultative conference" sponsored by the Iranian government, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus, but despite the presence of delegations from Russia and China only 28 countries showed up, with key players in the crisis staying away.
Iran's efforts to resolve the crisis were met with suspicion by western and Arab states, most of whom boycotted the conference, saying that it was an "attempt at a distraction from the bloodbath going on on the ground and at strengthening Al-Assad's rule." It was "an insincere attempt to reconcile the warring sides," according to western diplomats, with Arab officials saying that "Iran's hands are covered in Syrian blood."
No senior officials attended the conference, and the only foreign minister attending came from Iraq. Contrary to Iran's expectations, it was mostly attended by diplomats from embassies in Tehran, a first sign that the conference was a failure.
In a statement made at the end of the conference, Iran warned that any sudden end to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would have "disastrous effects on Syria," and it called for talks between the regime and the opposition to find a political solution to the crisis, reiterating Iran's opposition to foreign military intervention in Syria.
The conference came hard on the heels of several political, military and intelligence setbacks suffered by the regime in Damascus over the past few weeks. Among these were the recent defections of the Syrian prime minister, MPs and senior diplomats from the regime, which has lost control over large areas of the country, including in the northern governorate of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, Damascus also failed to protect 48 Iranians who were taken hostage by the armed opposition in Syria, Iran implicitly acknowledging that these had been members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by saying that some of them had served in the Guard and had had their IDs with them.
The cracks in the Syrian leadership have taken Iran by surprise, implying that the Iranian leadership now recognises that the regime in Damascus is on the edge of collapse and something must be done to save what can be saved. Tehran has been trying to find ways of cutting its losses, with last week's conference indicating that it is trying to find ways of regaining its balance, even if this is now too late.
"After Syrian revolutionaries took control of large areas of the country, the Iranian leadership has been off-balance and confused," Loay Safi, director of the planning and policies bureau at the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is now trying to take control of political initiatives as a cover for military operations by the regime and to buy time in the belief that the regime can resolve the conflict through military means."
"One of the goals of the Iranian conference was to mislead domestic and international public opinion by trying to convince them that Iran and Russia were exerting efforts to resolve the crisis politically. This would have hidden the real role these two countries have been playing in placing their national interests above the right of the Syrian people to establish a regime that upholds their freedom," Safi said.
The Tehran conference came at the same time as intensive Iranian diplomatic movements in the region, with the Iranian foreign minister visiting Ankara and the chair of Iran's Supreme Security Council, Said Jalili, going to Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad and Iranian diplomats visiting several Arab states.
The Tehran gathering also took place a few days ahead of a scheduled meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to discuss the Syrian crisis, at which some Arab states intended to lobby member states to suspend Syria's membership of the organisation.
The tour of Iranian politicians in the region and the statements oscillating between hardline and more ready to compromise indicate that Tehran is indeed off balance and is trying to raise the Syrian crisis to a regional level in a bid to convince the international community that it should be involved in any solution to the crisis in Syria and that its interests should be protected.
On the eve of the Tehran conference, Al-Assad met with a six-member Iranian delegation headed by Jalili, envoy of the supreme guide of the Iranian Revolution. Traditionally, guests sit at Al-Assad's right, but on this occasion Al-Assad sat to Jalili's right, and the meeting was carried out by Al-Assad alone. According to the Syrian opposition, such departures from protocol indicate that "Al-Assad is under Iran's thumb."
Meanwhile, Tehran has been making covert threats of war to Ankara should Al-Assad be toppled, saying that it also holds Turkey responsible for the fate of the Iranian hostages. The escalation against Turkey is aimed to make it stay out of the battle for Aleppo and to dissuade it from establishing safe or no-fly zones in Syria.
During his visit to Lebanon, Jalili seemed to be seeking to replace Syrian influence in the country with that of Iran, declaring Iran's support for Lebanon and its support for the "resistance".
According to Safi, "Iran is not qualified to lead diplomatic action because it is too close to the Syrian regime. It has also made no efforts to contact the Syrian opposition, attacking it instead. The Iranian and Russian leadership is thus still gambling on the Syrian regime, despite its criminal actions."
"The Tehran conference not only failed in terms of the level and type of the participants, but also because it lacked the basic conditions for success. Iran knows that the first step to reach a political solution is to pressure the regime to stop its military crackdown and convince Al-Assad and his security aides to step down as a prelude to a transitional political process. However, Iran knows that the regime will never step down," he said.
Iran, Russia and China have been standing behind the Syrian regime since the uprising began in the country 17 months ago. Tehran has rejected a deal requiring Al-Assad to step down as part of a political transition, and the Syrian opposition has accused Iran of sending military personnel, lightweight weapons and tactical and communications expertise to Syria.
The Syrian opposition is also angry about Iran's defence of Al-Assad, asserting that the Syrian people are now not just fighting Al-Assad, but are also fighting Al-Assad's sponsor Iran. It claims that the military operations carried out by the regime have been run from Tehran, which is intervening to assist the regime even as the international community hesitates to arm the Syrian revolutionaries.
As the US and Turkey have been discussing post-Al-Assad Syria and contemplating a no-fly zone in the north of the country as an option to hasten the fall of the regime, Iran has been hosting a conference aiming to find a political solution based on democracy, a concept alien to Tehran.
Regional and international players believe that a political solution is no longer on the table, at least not in the format suggested by Iran, namely dialogue and power-sharing between the regime and the opposition.
Observers believe that Iranian-Syrian relations are now being tested, especially after leaks suggesting that if Tehran abandons Damascus it could rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the international community, ending the economic sanctions against it as part of a deal that could include recognition of Iran's nuclear programme.
The question remains of how solid the Syrian-Iranian alliance now is: will both countries float or sink together, or is the alliance contingent on domestic, regional and international calculations that could be revised at any time?
Will Iran, in other words, sell out Al-Assad's regime and try to escape the deluge, or will it fight on, all guns blazing?