For almost three years, America’s approach to Syria has revolved around pushing Russia to use its influence on President Bashar al-Assad to drive a political transition in the country. Even before the crisis in Crimea put Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Moscow on ice, this was a failed strategy.
President Obama needs to do everything he can to put Syria on a path to peace quickly. That requires rethinking his approach to the region and reaching out to a country that he has so far kept at a guarded distance from the negotiating table: Iran.
The problem with Russia is that it is a bad-faith partner on Syria: Its president, Vladimir V. Putin, is bent on thwarting Washington in the Middle East, disdains what he considers American naïveté about the opposition’s growing jihadism, and may not even have the leverage to sign up Mr. Assad for meaningful change.
Iran is likewise adamant that Mr. Assad not be forced out, but its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming, as demonstrated by productive talks on nuclear issues. Furthermore, Syria’s strategic and operational dependence on Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, afford Tehran immense influence over Mr. Assad.
This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear: The United States and its European partners seem to have nudged the expatriate Syrian opposition toward a transition agenda that does not explicitly entail Mr. Assad’s departure. The Syrian National Coalition’s Statement of Basic Principles, issued last month, does not mention it.
The Obama administration should consider discreetly and frankly discussing possible power-sharing scenarios with Iran — including those under which Mr. Assad might stay in office for some finite period. Iran might even welcome such a diplomatic opening, particularly after the United States forced the United Nations to revoke the country’s invitation to the recent talks on Syria in Geneva.
At least at first, an American approach to Iran should take place outside the formalities of the Geneva negotiations. It need not be strictly bilateral — Britain or France could also be involved — and could be facilitated by the Swiss government.
Before getting to what power-sharing in Syria might actually look like, the parties would try to establish a sustainable cease-fire. The United States and Europe could probably get the opposition and its supporters from the Sunni Gulf states to stand down; Iran could do the same with Mr. Assad.
The next step would be to speed the delivery of civilian aid. Given that Iran and Hezbollah have personnel on the ground in Syria, their cooperation on such an effort would be much more effective than Russia’s. Aid delivery would not only help Syrians in need, but such a good-faith effort on Mr. Assad’s part would improve the climate for substantive negotiations on the actual transition plan.
A diplomatic approach to Iran would not sit well with many in the Syrian opposition. But they also have to face facts: With or without Iran, the United States and its allies will remain wary of any political deal unless the moderate opposition substantially purges its ranks of jihadists, who are infiltrating Syria in increasing numbers.
Even partial success in these endeavors would make Russia — which is genuinely concerned about transnational terrorism — more inclined to urge Mr. Assad toward a power-sharing deal, and possibly a graceful exit. Beyond that, it would address the regime’s purported sticking point, namely the opposition’s perceived subordination of “terrorism” to political transition.
Iran, of course, would prefer the status quo. So what, realistically, could we expect out of this approach?
Support for the Assad regime is stretching both Iran’s resources and Hezbollah’s, and Tehran may see value in signaling conciliation to improve the mood for nuclear negotiations. Accordingly, Tehran could probably accept a framework under which a rump element from the Assad regime retained a meaningful degree of political power.
That, in turn, would be consistent with longstanding American and allied policy, which calls for the retention of key state institutions in order to avoid the hazards that were encountered with de-Baathification in Iraq.
If an American-Iranian channel bore fruit, Iran could then be brought into the Geneva process as a full participant alongside Syria, the Syrian opposition, the United States and Russia. In view of its geopolitical rivalry with Iran, at that point Saudi Arabia could also be given an equivalent role to ensure its cooperation in implementing an eventual transitional framework.
One thing Washington should not do is condition progress toward a long-term nuclear deal with Iran on its willingness to cooperate on Syria. These must be two separate tracks.
At the same time, they’re complementary. If the United States can seal a nuclear deal and reset relations with Iran, Tehran will face much higher economic and political costs to doing anything destabilizing or provocative with regard to Syria or Lebanon.
Syria continues to present Mr. Obama with one of the knottiest foreign-policy problems of his presidency. Mr. Assad has proved far more resilient than anyone expected. But a realistic solution may lie in a principle that the president has espoused since he was on the campaign trail in 2008: To avoid the risky use of force, sometimes you have to talk to your enemies.
Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College, was the director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.