The military balance on the ground has shifted as a result of Russia's air campaign against rebels that began in September. Paired with Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah ground support, which has been in full swing since late 2013, Moscow's intervention has helped roll back rebel advances that had put Assad’s military on its back foot. The White House, meanwhile, still wants Assad removed from power, but has made clear that its top priority in Syria is to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“The Obama administration has been weak and passive in the face of Russian intervention, basically allowing Russia to set the terms of debate,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. “Obama’s position is that there can only be a political solution. If that’s the position you’re going to take, if you’re not going to use military force to shape events on ground, then that necessitates a political dialogue. Since Russia’s dictating terms, Iran gets let into this dialogue.”
Underlining Russia’s ascendance in Syria, President Barack Obama last week announced that the Pentagon would coordinate the flight paths of its anti-ISIL aircraft with Russia’s, which are mainly striking anti-Assad rebel factions rather than ISIL, as Moscow initially claimed. The message this cooperation sent, Hashemi said, was that “Russia can fly wherever they want, do whatever they want."
The Syria talks will also mark the first regional dialogue between Iran and the U.S. on a topic other than Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran’s invitation to the talks in Vienna comes as the White House tacitly acknowledges alignment with Iran against ISIL, their mutual enemy in Syria and Iraq. Even though the U.S. still accuses Iran of "destabilizing" Syria, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that U.S. officials "always have recognized that at some point in the discussion, moving toward a political transition, we have to have a conversation and a dialogue with Iran."
“The Americans are being realistic,” said Ammar Waqqaf, a prominent Syrian political activist who is based in London and supports the Assad regime. “They have very few options but to coordinate and accommodate the Russian moves. They want … to explore what the Russian-Iranian-Syrian thinking is and take a position from there.”
The winner in this diplomatic shift appears to be Assad. While Russia is his most important military backer, Iran has demonstrated a steadfast commitment both politically and militarily, sending some of its top Revolutionary Guard commanders to fight and die in Syria, according to recent reports. Unlike Russia, which has expressed openness to the possibility of Assad being eased out of power, Tehran continues to reject that premise.
“In any political process the role played by Bashar al-Assad will be important,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, told U.K. newspaper the Guardian last week. “We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president, but we are very cognizant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country.”
That is partly why Saudi Arabia — Iran’s foremost regional rival — has opposed a Tehran role at peace talks. Riyadh reportedly volunteered to sit out the 2012 Geneva conference, the first talks to involve both government and opposition delegates, in exchange for disinviting Iran as well. According to Guardian correspondent Ian Black, “The fact that King Salman has apparently given way reflects U.S. determination, Saudi weakness and international desperation about Syria.”
The Saudis and other staunch opposition backers, including Turkey and Qatar, are likely to continue pressing for Assad's ouster to be among the conditions for ending the war. And Syria’s political opposition, which has protested Iran’s inclusion in talks but will not be represented in Vienna, has refused to be part of a peace process that doesn't guarantee Assad’s departure. But the U.S. and other Western powers fear that replacing the government too early would expand the power vacuum in Syria that ISIL and other hardline groups have exploited.
“We might be heading toward an understanding where, instead of talking about a transitional body, we would be talking about a national unity government,” perhaps with Assad at its helm, Waqqaf said.
Each side comes to the table with its battlefield leverage intact. Russia's air campaign may have decisively halted the rebels' progress, analysts note, but the associated ground offensive by Syrian, Hezbollah and Iranian forces appears to have reinforced a stalemate on the ground. The Saudis and Turkey, if dissatisfied by the outcome in Vienna, could ramp up weapons supplies for the rebels. Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah could double down. And there are further complications in the form of the Syrian Kurdish forces, battling ISIL with U.S. air support but under attack from Turkey, which is ramping up its own offensive against Turkish Kurds seeking greater autonomy.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., before boarding his flight to Vienna on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry summarized the difficult path ahead: The “challenge that we face in Syria today is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell.” Given the vast gaps between the participants, Friday's session seems likely to be the start of a protracted negotiation over Syria's future — conducted both at the table and on the battlefield.