UPDATE: Soon after this analysis was published, reports surfaced that the U.S. government is expected to announce plans to dispatch 20-30 special operations military advisers to Syria to assist forces combating the Islamic State. The advisers will reportedly support air operations against the group through training and coordination efforts. It is unclear which groups they will be working with, although one official said they would work primarily with Kurdish fighters and groups with a proven record against the Islamic State. Another U.S. official said the move would not change Washington's overall strategy in Syria.
On Oct. 30, for the first time in recent history, Iran and the United States are publicly sitting down at the same negotiating table to discuss something other than the Iranian nuclear issue. This is the new normal for the Middle East.
Despite Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's repeated warnings that Iran cannot trust the United States in discussions beyond the nuclear issue, the reality is that the nuclear deal was merely the stepping stone to a much broader strategic dialogue. This dialogue has already been underway on a tactical level, hidden from the public eye in Iraq, where the United States is reluctantly deepening its military involvement and where Iran-backed Shiite militias are leading the fight against Islamic State on Baghdad's behalf. Washington and Tehran have also conducted a backchannel discussion to feel out each other's stance on shaping a political transition in Syria. Public engagement on an array of issues will only reinforce an unsettling reality for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states: They can no longer use an exclusive relationship with Washington to shape U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
This is not say that the multi-party meeting in Vienna counts as a diplomatic break-through on Syria. Russian and Iranian reinforcement of pro-government forces in Syria has created only more incentive for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan to fortify their support for their favored rebel groups to try to even out the playing field. This creates an even bigger dilemma for Washington, which has its hands full trying to deny Russia the diplomatic spotlight in engineering a Syria negotiation while restraining Gulf Arab states from supplying rebels with man-portable air defense systems. The United States is also working with the Turks to coordinate an offensive involving passably moderate rebels against the Islamic State west of the Euphrates, while simultaneously managing Turkish outrage over U.S. support for Kurdish rebels to the east. Notably, no rebel representatives will be present at the meeting in Vienna; so long as Russia continues to target rebel factions in support of the loyalists, there is little chance of credible rebel factions coming to the table.
Then there is the question of what to do about Syrian President Bashar al Assad. All parties in Vienna have more or less acquiesced to Russia's insistence that negotiations over a political transition in Damascus take place before al Assad is formally removed. But the military support from Russia and Iran, along with the negotiation process itself, is providing al Assad with a boost of legitimacy that may encourage him to stick around. Oman, the resident mediator of the region, had Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah meet with al Assad in Damascus on Oct. 26 following the president's trip to Moscow. There are indications that Oman could provide the Syrian president with asylum as part of a transition plan. However, a Stratfor source claims that al Assad has also asked Oman to open up a backchannel to the White House. Uncomfortable with relying too heavily on Russia, the al Assad may be trying to feel out whether he has any room to engage directly with the United States in this negotiation and thereby regain some level of legitimacy with the West. To be sure, Washington is unlikely to show flexibility at this point when it comes to removing al Assad. Still, the alleged attempt to open a dialogue with the White House points to growing confidence by al Assad that he still has time and room to maneuver.
Even if the issue of al Assad's amnesty were settled, the method of his removal would remain in question. If the method is elections, as Russia and Syria insist, then someone will first have to implement and enforce a cease-fire. Someone will also have to ensure that the vote is even remotely free and fair and involves as much of the rebel-held areas as those held by the loyalists. Then there is the not-so-small question of how to implement a cease-fire at a time when the Islamic State remains a major force on the battlefield, ready to take advantage of any openings in the fight to surge into new areas. Given that not a single credible rebel faction is at the negotiating table, as well as that most parties at the table are far more interested in fighting al Assad than the Islamic State, talk of a cease-fire is highly premature.
Few revelations of substance will come out of the discussions in Vienna, but the image of the United States and Iran negotiating openly on issues of mutual interest is one that everyone is still just getting used to.