Last winter, in an article for Foreign Affairs, I argued that in light of escalating violence in Syria it was time to back the Syrian national coalition. Given that the Syrian moderates were “the only forces in the country without a steady flow of foreign arms,” I suggested that providing “military and financial support to the national coalition” was the best of many far less desirable options.

After months of deliberations in Washington and European capitals, the die was cast. Two months ago, the European Union decided not to extend a comprehensive arms embargo against Syria, effectively facilitating European military support for the opposition. Two weeks after that, the White House authorized the “expansion of assistance to the supreme military council.”

These were anything but easy calls. Since the Syrian conflict arose, the notion of getting involved in it has posed severe moral, tactical, and strategic dilemmas. The assessment, as I laid it out in my original article, that “the kaleidoscope of opposition groups in Syria seems too fractured, and their ideological leanings too opaque, to merit support” was and remains difficult to dismiss, as does the fact that that supporting one side in the Syrian conflict could “effectively close the door on negotiations with the regime.” In fact, with seven months lost and 100,000 people killed, these quandaries have only gotten worse.

All this is not to say, however, that the Western decision to arm the opposition is wrong, especially if it is planned the right way. To that end, in the last few weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry discussed ways to coordinate flows of weapons from Western and Arab states with his Saudi counterpart in Jeddah. At the same time, calls to broaden engagement by setting up a no-fly zone are gaining traction among Republicans, a sentiment that echoes long-standing calls from within the Syrian opposition. But potential costs aside, two years of war have shown that the United States will need to do more than just focus on tactics. It will have to consider military support as part and parcel of a political solution.

In theory, regional politics has always been on the agenda. Last June’s final communiqué of the Action Group for Syria meeting in Geneva took note of “regional dimensions” of the conflict and reiterated that it “must be resolved through peaceful dialogue and negotiation alone.” The last paragraph of June’s White House statement on chemical weapons in Syria echoed this stance. Western commitment to such an approach and the Geneva commitment to a "transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," however, should not be relegated to a footnote. 

A promising political strategy would require redoubling efforts to summon relevant players to a comprehensive Geneva II conference, possibly in October. Last year’s Geneva conference only went part of the way. The summit brought together Clinton; representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, the League of Arab States; and the foreign ministers of China, France, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Against the advice of then-UN mediator Kofi Annan, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not included. Thus, one of the key players in the unfolding Syrian drama was absent. Consequently, the conference failed to pave the way for a political breakthrough.

To prevent a repetition of last year’s failed endeavor, it is time to give in to long-standing Russian demands to formally include the Islamic Republic in talks. In June, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov had called for Iran’s participation as “a matter of principle” -- a position reiterated earlier this week. That would not only give political voice to those already shaping realities on the ground but would also be seen as a much-needed signal that vital Russian interests in Syria would be respected.

There would be significant obstacles in reaching out to Iran, both among members of the U.S. Congress and from the hard-liner leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But there is precedence for it. In 2007, Washington and Tehran briefly suspended decades of diplomatic silence to hold direct ambassador-level talks on Iraq. Although results were scant, talks were anything but counterproductive given that Washington and Tehran had a common stake in preventing an all-out sectarian war in Iraq. Now, with the election of Hassan Rouhani as president, talks might bear more fruit. It is worth remembering his stated objective to to promote “effective and constructive engagement.”

Here, a historical lesson can be drawn from attempts to end the Lebanese civil war, which culminated in the Taif Agreement. The war in Lebanon was fought along the sectarian fault lines that recently resurfaced in Syria. Concluded in Saudi Arabia in 1989, the accord brought together Lebanese factions and regional stakeholders such as Riyadh, with the discreet participation of Washington and Damascus. Notably, in the Lebanese conflict, the Syrian regime played a role similar to the one Iran is playing in Syria today. Although the Taif Agreement was certainly not perfect -- notably, it excluded relevant Lebanese actors -- it pointed to the necessity of including regional stakeholders when confronted with sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.

For the United States, the ideal political endpoint in Syria would be a swift removal of Assad. Given realities on the ground, a diplomatically arranged transition remains at the top of the agenda. But any such transition must be based on realism. This is where the decision to support opposition groups is most crucial. The Assad regime will be willing to engage in serious negotiations only as long as a Beijing-style solution, in which moderate opposition groups are simply defeated by the Syrian military apparatus, remains unattainable. And sending arms to the insurgents will ensure that it won’t.

To be sure, supporting the opposition is not only about sending a message to Assad. The West should also use its increased leverage to force a reassessment of the opposition’s own political stances. Its fractured leadership has frequently rejected engaging in negotiations prior to a cessation of violence and effectively considers the fall of the regime a precondition to diplomacy. This is understandable but far from helpful. Arms shipments should thus be conditioned on the participation of the Syrian National Council in diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.

More than two years of devastating conflict in Syria have shown that the Assad regime has lost the legitimacy to govern Syria, and months of fighting have underlined the harsh reality that the moderate opposition is outmatched. The regime has proved to be a formidable and ruthless foe. In this respect, a military backing of the opposition is not a contradiction to a negotiated transition through regional diplomacy but, rather, a precondition.

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  • MICHAEL BRÖNING is a political analyst at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a Berlin-based political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He also lectures at the Freie Universität in Berlin. This article reflects his personal views.
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