U.S. Thanks Russia, Turkey, Others for New Syria Agreement, Leaves Out Iran's Role

The United States has welcomed the United Nations' announcement of a new agreement between Syria's government and opposition, expressing gratitude to members of the international community who helped—except for Iran.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced on Monday the formation of a "credible, balanced and inclusive Constitutional Committee that will be facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva." The move came one week after the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran finalized a list of participants during a trilateral summit in Ankara and as U.N. special envoy on Syria Geir Pedersen concluded the latest round of talks with Damascus.

Guterres noted his envoy's role in facilitating the agreement, adding "I appreciate the diplomatic engagement of the Governments of Russia, Turkey and Iran in supporting the conclusion of the agreement" as well as "the support of the members of the Security Council and the members of the Small Group"—which consists of Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, the State Department called the announcement "an encouraging step toward reaching a political solution to the Syrian conflict." U.S. officials also "appreciate the work of the U.N. Secretary General, U.N. Envoy Pedersen, Turkey, Russia, and the members of the Small Group in achieving this result," but made no mention of Iran's role, which President Donald Trump's administration has painted as negative for stability in war-torn Syria.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) pose for photographs during a press conference following a trilateral meeting on Syria, in Ankara, September 16. The trio agreed on the constitutional committee last week as the U.N.'s special Syria envoy engaged the Syrian government in Damascus. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Syria's eight-year conflict has been marked with clashes both sectarian and geopolitical in nature. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced a mostly Sunni Muslim 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising backed by the United States and its regional allies such as Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iran offered the Syrian leader extensive support and helped to mobilize partnered, largely Shiite Muslim militias from across the region.

The U.S. entered directly alongside an international coalition in 2014 order to battle the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) as it spread from neighboring Iraq, itself the target of a U.S. invasion that stirred jihadi unrest over a decade earlier. The following year, Washington officially switched its local allegiance in Syria from an increasingly Islamist opposition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a non-aligned, largely Kurdish group focused on defeating ISIS.

The Kurdish militias that comprise the Syrian Democratic Forces have alternatively fought against and alongside the Syrian government and its allies, but both factions found a common foe in ISIS and rebel groups sponsored by Turkey, which views Kurdish separatists as terrorists due to an ongoing insurgency at home. With ISIS mostly defeated, however, it was the goal of countering Iran's growing influence that the U.S. increasingly used to justify its military presence in Syria.

Iran's own anti-ISIS campaigns in both Iraq and Syria had allowed it to establish a greater foothold in these countries via local and regional partners, some of whom—such as the Lebanese Hezbollah movement—were considered terrorist organizations by the United States. Amid this backdrop, Israel has launched its own campaign of strikes against such suspected Iran-backed groups in Syria and has reportedly expanded these attacks to Iraq as well.

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Syrian troops sit atop a military vehicle in front of a welcome sign in the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on August 24, after they announced the total control of the city a day before. The victory a signaled the latest blow to jihadis and allied rebels in their final, northwestern bastion of Idlib province. MAHER AL MOUNES/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian government itself, however, has continued talks, both with the opposition as part of the trilateral process overseen by Russia, Turkey and Iran, and with the Syrian Democratic Forces in an oft-stalled track based in Damascus. Washington has accused the government of war crimes, however, and has so far refused to engage in any dialogue with representatives of Assad, who has called for the Pentagon's immediate withdrawal from the country.

"The Assad regime must accept the will of the Syrian people to live in peace and not be threatened by targeted violence, arbitrary detention, starvation, and brutality," the State Department said in Monday's statement. "Vicious attacks by the Assad regime and its allies against innocent Syrians in Idlib must cease immediately for the humanitarian crisis to end and for the political process to go forward."

Washington's foreign policy attention, however, has shifted in recent months to the Persian Gulf, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Iran of being behind attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and a recent missile strike against Saudi oil facilities. Trump, the Pentagon and Saudi Arabia have also expressed skepticism toward the Yemeni Zaidi Shiite Muslim Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement's claims of responsibility and have indicated Iran's involvement.

Iran has denied any role in the conflict and has called for greater regional and international support in hopes of countering a U.S.-led campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic since Trump's decision to abandon a 2015 nuclear deal.