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Opinion

Opinion: You have to talk to your enemies too

The United States has fundamentally shifted its stance in the Syrian conflict. Now, Assad ally Iran will also be invited to participate in a new round of talks. The move is overdue, DW's Matthias von Hein writes.

After some four years of death, dying and destruction in Syria, there is finally movement among the deadlocked parties. Washington has undertaken a change of course and given up one of its key demands in the Syrian crisis. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's announcement that the US will be sending ground troops into the fight against "Islamic State" (IS) - mainly in Iraq, but possibly in Syria - is radical enough, but more important still is the US's willingness to invite a key player in the Syrian crisis to the negotiating table: Iran.

This week, a new round of talks on the future of Syria will take place in Vienna, and this time the Iranian foreign minister will be at the table, alongside representatives from the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Previously, the US and Saudi Arabia had been very much opposed to the idea of Iranian participation.

In January 2014, the United States insisted that UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon cancel Iran's invitation to Syria talks in Geneva. Now, the growing influence of the stone-age Islamists of IS, increased Russian military interventions and, above all, the utter failure of rebel groups trained and armed by the US have helped to bring about a change of heart. You cannot just talk with your friends when it comes to solving complex crises!

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App

DW's Matthias von Hein

Though Moscow and Tehran continue to see Bashar al-Assad as Syria's legitimate president, there can be no resolution of the conflict without them, the regime's two most important allies. Like it or not, that is the reality.

It also means that there will likely have to be a transition period that includes Assad. As unbearable as that may be in light of the 300,000 lives the war in Syria has claimed, the alternatives are no more attractive. The moderate Syrian opposition that the West so often conjures up is more fantasy than reality. The opposition is splintered into hundreds of armed groups. They are solely separated by the degree of their religious extremism, with IS and the al Qaeda offshoot Al-Nusra occupying the far edge of the spectrum.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore that fact that Assad enjoys growing support among the populace, as evidenced by the fact that 3-4 million of those people displaced within Syria have actually decided to seek protection under his wing in Damascus.

Three lost years

As welcome as this new dynamism in the Syrian conflict may be, some bitterness remains. We could have been at this point three years ago. At least that is what former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari says.

In mid-September, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Syria negotiator told UK daily "The Guardian" that Russia had offered a "face saving resignation" by Assad as part of a peace solution in 2012. At that time, however, the US, the UK and France were convinced that Assad was destined to fall soon, and ignored the offer. Ahtisaari says it was a missed opportunity. Hope remains that the five parties will not miss another such opportunity to begin steps to end the bloodletting in Syria when they meet in Vienna.

And coming back to the idea of US ground troops in Syria: That should - if at all - take place after talks with Russia and Iran. The risk that American and Russian troops might clash and a renewed escalation of the conflict ensues is simply too great.

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