The Middle East is in a state of emergency. Syria is on the verge of total collapse, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed by government and opposition forces, and more than 7 million civilians have become refugees, either internally displaced or outside their country. On Monday the United Nations announced that all parties involved in the conflict would come together for talks, dubbed the Geneva 2 conference, to discuss a political solution, beginning Jan. 22. The efforts had been marred with delays, particularly owing to the United States' inability to persuade Syrian opposition leaders to participate. It remains unclear which groups will represent the opposition and who will represent the government.
The first stumbling block to a political settlement has been the opposition of the U.S., its regional allies and the Syrian opposition to Iran's attendance at Geneva 2. "We have tried again to persuade them that Iran is an important participant of the process who plays a serious role in resolving the Syrian crisis and who can contribute positively and that it is therefore necessary to invite the country to the conference,” said Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov. On Monday when Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, was asked whether Iran would participate, he said, "We haven't established a list yet. (Iran and Saudi Arabia) will certainly be among the possible participants."
A second problem concerns demands for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. Syria's foreign-backed opposition coalition has been divided over taking part in Geneva 2, with 19 rebel groups refusing outright to be at the negotiating table unless Assad steps down, an unacceptable condition for Tehran, Moscow and Damascus. It is a difficult concession to secure, given that Assad has the upper hand in the conflict, with full control over the intelligence and security establishments.
A third complicating factor is the weakness of the Syrian opposition. The U.S., its European allies and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have invested heavily in the Syrian opposition but with limited returns. Marred by internal divisions, the opposition has neither credible representatives nor a leadership structure. In addition, the opposition lacks a broad-based vision of Syria's future post-Assad and is largely dependent on foreign tactical, financial and military support.
Western governments are concerned about the increasing presence of Salafi extremist elements in the opposition. The role being played by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra in the civil war is especially worrisome. Some of these extremist groups, like ISIS, seek the disintegration of Iraq and Syria — which would have major implications for the security and stability of the whole region. Now that terrorist groups have a strong foothold in Syria — the heart of the Middle East — they have the potential to branch out across Syria's borders to Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Syria's two-and-a-half-year sectarian and civil war has already spilled over into Iraq and Lebanon, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. An Al-Qaeda-linked group in Lebanon claimed responsibility for a dual blast at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Nov. 19 that killed 23 and injured 146 people, including an Iranian cultural attache.