The Cable

Assad Rules Out Negotiations With Pretty Much Everyone in Opposition

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long vowed to negotiate with the Syrian opposition to end his country's civil war. But on Sunday, he made perfectly clear which rebels he deems worthy to negotiate: Almost none of them. The determination bodes poorly for U.S. and Russian efforts to hold a peace conference between both sides in Geneva by November.

In an interview with Italy's Rai News 24, Assad ruled out talks with any al-Qaeda-aligned groups, which have become some of the most lethal and well-organized foes of the regime. "We cannot discuss with al-Qaeda offshoots and organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda," said Assad.

While the exclusion of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant may not come as a surprise, he didn't just draw the line there. In an interview with Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, Syria's foreign minister rejected any negotiations with the Western-backed opposition group Syrian National Coalition due to its support for a U.S. military strike. "[The SNC] is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the U.S. to attack Syria militarily, meaning that it called for attacking the Syrian people," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He noted that there are other members of the opposition that should be represented at the talks "but not the coalition."

That begs the question, what groups is he talking about?

"Assad is precluding almost all interlocutors with these sweeping preconditions," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, tells The Cable. "He has named the select groups that he believes are the appropriate opposition, which are seen to be stooges of his government by much of the opposition."

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Syrian opposition group not affiliated with either the SNC or Al Qaeda.

The only group that Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin could think of is the Syrian Islamic Front, which would never become party to talks with Assad anyway. "It doesn't have a foot in the Supreme Military Council like other Islamists or Salafis nor is it in al Qaeda or a front for it," he told The Cable. "But they have no interests in negotiations."

The fear is that Assad -- emboldened by his chemical weapons deal with the U.S. and Russia -- is erecting more barriers to a political settlement that would ultimately remove him from power.  "What he's doing is delaying and putting up obstacles to negotiations," a senior congressional aide familiar with the Syrian opposition tells The Cable. "This is just an attempt to defuse the whole process."

Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly, Moallem continued his campaign to discredit the rebels on Monday, accusing them of eating human hearts and dismembering live bodies.

"There are innocent civilians whose heads are put on the grill just because they violate the extremist ideology and deviant views of al-Qaeda," Moallem said. "In Syria ... there are murderers who dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified and secular Syria."

The message is clear: The Assad regime is the only thing standing in the way of a radical Islamic state in Syria run by al Qaeda-linked groups. And that's a problem for Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now facing tough questions about how he can forge a political solution that removes Assad from power while relying on Assad to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors. "This process has legitimized Assad and ensured that we will do nothing to expedite his removal," opined the congressional aide. "It's likely to go and and on and on."

But Kerry, in an interview with 60 Minutes, acknowledged that ridding Syria of chemical weapons is only one important step in the crisis, not the final goal. "I agree with you, 100,000 people it's beyond a human tragedy," Kerry said, speaking of the war's escalating casualties. "There will be more. There'll be another 100,000 if we don't work to bring people to the table and try to get a peaceful resolution."

Experts say that type of resolution looks increasingly bleak. "A negotiated settlement is impossible at this juncture from either side," said Zelin. "There is no incentive. Both sides believe they are winning and think it is an existential crisis. Further, outside actors such as Gulf states and Iran believe they are fighting a wider proxy war."

Others who want to see all sides come to the table in Geneva say Assad isn't the only one to blame here. "It must be said that the U.S. government is beginning from a similarly narrow position," said Landis. "Its insistence that the SNC be the sole opposition interlocutor and representative at Geneva is silly."

"We have seen most of the strong fighting groups in Syria reject the SNC, General Salim Idriss and the SMC over last two weeks," he continued. "What is more, the SNC says it will only engage in dialogue with the regime, once Assad has agreed to step down and his men have agreed to a transition government being established once the talks have concluded."

In any event, few see any chance for a peaceful resolution until the various factions with the most guns on the ground come together and talk. But as of right now, neither Assad, the primary militia commanders nor the al Qaeda linked groups are prepared to do that.

The Cable

Can This Man Bring Iran to a Nuclear Deal?

The negotiations had been dragging on for days, and no deal was in sight. It was December 2001, and Afghan leaders were deadlocked over how to share power in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The victorious Northern Alliance insisted on taking 18 of the country's 26 ministries, a demand immediately rejected by all of the country's other factions. U.S. officials worried that the fragile calm in Afghanistan would unravel if no agreement was reached.

It was just after 4 a.m. when an unlikely savior emerged. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, had watched as Western officials spent two hours unsuccessfully pressing the Northern Alliance's representative, Yunus Qanooni, to accept fewer ministries. Zarif finally took him aside and whispered in his ear for a few minutes. Qanooni then came back to the table and said the Northern Alliance would accept five fewer ministries. James Dobbins, who had represented the U.S. at the negotiations, recalled in 2007 Congressional testimony that Zarif had almost single-handedly saved the talks.

"Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which the Karzai government might never have been formed," Dobbins said then.

President Obama's Friday phone call with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani made headlines worldwide, but Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, will be the one actually leading the negotiations with the U.S. over his country's nuclear program, including the high-level negotiations scheduled for next month in Geneva. The success of those talks, like the ones in Bonn more than a decade ago, will depend on how successfully Zarif -- an American-educated diplomat whose children were born in the U.S. -- can bridge the seemingly intractable differences between the two sides.

"Zarif has a deeper understanding of America, and American politics, than any senior Iranian official since the 1979 revolution," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He's one of the only Iranian officials whom I've met whom I think would be well-qualified for his position even in a truly democratic, meritocratic Iran."

Sadjadpour, who has made numerous trips to Tehran, said Zarif once intervened on his behalf when Iranian security personnel were threatening to arrest him.  He describes the diplomat as a pragmatist who is genuinely interested in coming to an agreement with the U.S.

Still, Sadjadpour cautioned that it was unclear whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would actually give Zarif the authority to strike a deal that would be acceptable to the U.S. Such a deal would likely require Tehran to agree to halt its production of highly enriched uranium and to potentially close at least one of its nuclear facilities.

Zarif's growing prominence highlights a pair of unexpected shifts within Iran over the past six months. First, Rouhani, a relative moderate, won Iran's presidential election by a surprisingly large margin despite early projections that a more conservative candidate would triumph. He appointed Zarif, formerly Iran's U.N. ambassador, to his new post shortly after taking office. Perhaps most importantly, responsibility for all negotiations over Iran's nuclear program was taken from the Supreme Council for National Security, which reports directly to the Office of the Supreme Leader, and given to Zarif's Foreign Ministry.

The diplomat has followed an unusual path to his current post. Born in Tehran, he attended San Francisco State University as a graduate state and did his Ph.D. in international law and policy at the University of Denver. As a young diplomat in the 1990s, Zarif helped negotiate the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. Zarif's children were born in the U.S., and the diplomat used his time at the U.N. to get to know then-Senators Joseph Biden, now the vice president, and Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense. A fluent English speaker, Zarif appeared on Charlie Rose and gave speeches at think tanks and universities like the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs.

Despite Zarif's pro-Western credentials, it would be wrong to assume that his time in the U.S. means that he will be a pushover in the upcoming talks with the Obama administration. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who denied the Holocaust and called for Israel's destruction, kept Zarif at the U.N. for nearly two years after taking power in 2005. That is a clear reminder of the diplomat's loyalty to his government and his willingness to use his considerable charm to advance its interests even in the face of Western opposition. Moreover, Zarif will have to tread carefully to ensure that he doesn't cross any of the red lines set by Khamanei, who ultimately has the final say on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Still, Zarif has taken great pains to make clear that he doesn't share the Iranian regime's more extreme views. Last month, just before the Jewish New Year, Zarif tweeted out "Happy Rosh Hashanah," using the Hebrew words for the holiday.

Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, tweeted back that "the New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial."

"Iran never denied it," Zarif responded. "The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images