PARIS — How often are war crimes being committed in Syria? Is it every time a helicopter from President Bashar al-Assad's regime drops a barrel bomb on a school, a hospital, an apartment block? Every time a fighter-bomber launches a strike in the middle of a town? Or every time a group of Islamist rebels slaughters people — sometimes by crucifiction — or abducts and tortures them?
The level of media attention varies depending on the day's news, but the Syrian disaster is perpetuated with every massacre. Of Syria's 23 million citizens, almost 10 million are now refugees, and after three years of war, between 150,000 and 160,000 are dead. As political commentator Frédéric Encel noted, Bashar al-Assad has managed a "tour de force" by having exceeded the number of victims from all Israeli-Arab wars combined.
Between the regime and its opponents, the status quo is over. The balance appears to have tilted to the side of Damascus. The government forces are slowly regaining control of the western part of the country, as Assad is preparing for his presidential "reelection" in June, in what will be a charade vote endorsed by his Russian protector. But this turning point in favor of the regime would not have been possible without Iran, the country with the most significant role in the Syrian tragedy.
The Islamic Republic is the architect of the conflict's current evolution. It supervises the Syrian forces. It ordered Lebanon's Hezbollah troops to take part in the fight. Thanks to its ties with the government in Baghdad, it also called upon Iraqi Shiite militias to join the ranks. And finally, it offers financial support to Damascus, spending billions of dollars while the Iranian economy is struggling under the weight of international sanctions.
At the same time, Iran plays another part — one that is more diplomatic but that could be remotely linked with Syria. A new series of talks on Tehran's nuclear program ended in Vienna.
Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, United States, Britain, France, Russia) are looking to rebalance the nuclear project with one goal in mind: to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining atomic weapons. In exchange, Iran wants the lifting of all sanctions imposed after its repeated violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The news from Vienna is bad: There has been little progress, if any. The two sides are supposed to meet again in mid-June and ideally want to seal an agreement by July 20. In this matter, the devil is not just in the details, but everywhere else too.
The negotiations revolve around a central proposition. In exchange for the possibility of enriching a limited amount of uranium in a limited dosage — and under strict international supervision — Tehran must abandon or seriously rebuild all its installations. As the West sees it, this is only way to guarantee that Iran does not have nuclear weapons.
A two-headed regime
The West is united on this question, and even Beijing and Moscow show no sign of breaking from this position. Iran's chief envoy, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, maintains a cordial demeanor, according to a source close to the negotiations. But he does not budge. On every single controversial point, he is unwavering.
For diametrically opposed reasons, two groups block any possible agreement. On one side, and hand-in-hand, are a large contingent within the U.S. Congress and within the current Israeli government, neither of which trusts Iran. On the other are the Iranian hard-line, guardians of the revolution and pro-nuclear advocates close to Ayatollah Khamenei, none of whom trusts the United States.
The main question in Vienna is which Iran is sitting at the negotiating table? The Islamic Republic's DNA is hard to identify. The nationalist tendency, for which the nuclear issue is a matter of status, is a part of it. Iran does not want to be a pariah state anymore. It wants to be free of sanctions, take part in the global economy and normalize its relationship with the United States. President Hassan Rouhani is probably the one who best represents this part of the Iranian family.
But there is another Iran, the one that maintains — either by belief or for material reasons — the original revolutionary streak as leader of radical Shia Islam. Accepting this messianic ambition, at much economic cost, it feels destined to be the Middle East's main power and to oppose American allies in the region. That Iran is looking more for expansion than recognition.
This is the Iran embodied by Yahya Rahim Safavi, Khamenei's main military adviser, who in a recent Financial Times interview claimed "victory" for Iran in Syria and assured that Tehran's "forward line of defense" was on the south Lebanese border with Israel. Through Hezbollah, Safavi's Iran is taking strongpoints in Lebanon and Syria. He is not concerned with the Vienna talks, and could not care less about what is happening to the Syrian people.
The conclusion is far from reassuring: Whether the martyrdom of Syria lasts depends a lot on the game of power being played in Tehran.