WASHINGTON — The Syrian peace initiative beginning in Vienna has made headlines for bringing a new party to the table — Iran, a key backer for the government of Bashar al-Assad.
It's also noteworthy who won't be present: the Syrian parties doing the fighting on the ground.
That no one from the Syrian opposition or government will attend highlights the fact that Syria is spiraling ever deeper into proxy war. At the table for the talks will be the United States, Russia, and Iran, along with key foreign players ranging from the U.K. and France to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
As Russia and Iran step up their support for Assad, rebels have become more reliant than ever on the backing of their own international allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The U.S. government has meanwhile promised to increase its support for the armed groups it prefers.
"Holding a meeting without the main belligerents highlights the degree to which foreign actors are shaping the course of the war, through direct action or support for various clients on the ground," said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In sitting down to negotiate with Iran and Russia, the U.S. is recognizing its increasingly powerful presence in Syria, as Russia pounds opposition fighters with airstrikes and Iran sends troops as reinforcements. One idea behind the talks is that the warring parties have become so reliant on foreign support that their backers, if an accord were reached, might be able to bring them into line.
But that thinking could backfire. "It's very hard to make local players [in a conflict] do things that they see as not in their interests," Itani said. "This is the age-old question about patrons proxies: Who has the real power?"
Few seasoned observers of the conflict expect real progress from the talks. Diplomatic efforts to date have failed, and the Geneva peace conference — known in diplomatic circles as Geneva II — arranged by the U.S. and Russia last year is widely seen as an embarrassment.
In Washington, officials and analysts say they're keeping an eye on Vienna but not expecting much. With the Iran deal done, some believe, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is eager to throw his efforts into the cause of peace in Syria. But despite Kerry's famed confidence in his negotiating abilities, there is little optimism that the chances for real progress are any more likely now than before, as Syria reaches new peaks of chaos and bloodshed.
The Obama administration hopes that Vienna can at least be the starting point for a new peace process. Yet as the U.S. enters the negotiations, it appears to be undecided even about what plan for Syria to push. "My strong impression is that the U.S. government is still very uncertain and internally divided about what to do in Syria," said David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "As it has been for the past five years."