STATE DEPARTMENT — President Obama says he is working to boost support for Syrian rebels and for neighboring countries threatened by the violence of the ongoing civil war. Negotiations on a nuclear accord with Iran might give Obama an opportunity to weaken Tehran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran remains the biggest backer of President Assad's fight against three years of rebellion, as efforts to reach a political settlement have failed. With Syria's neighbors struggling to care for refugees and to contain cross-border violence, President Obama announced he is stepping up support for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, but ruled out sending U.S. troops.
"As president I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war. And I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn't help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people," said Obama.
Some, such as American University professor Hillary Mann Leverett, think the ongoing talks with Iran on an international nuclear accord may help lessen Tehran's support for the government in Damascus.
"If we can unlock the nuclear issue and even further diminish our sense of Iran as the boogeyman, it would allow us to, I think, more productively sit at the table with them and get serious about conflict resolution in Syria," said Leverett.
She said Iran's role in a ceasefire in Homs shows its willingness to helping stop the fighting.
"Iran has shown now in a very tangible way that it's not just an ally of Bashar al-Assad. It is a player that can bring stability, that can talk to all of the parties -- including deeply anti-Shiite rebel parties -- and it can be a positive player," said Leverett.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says nuclear talks are at a "tough juncture," but he believes they can produce an agreement "beneficial for both sides." But even if a nuclear deal is reached with Iran, there would be little impact on Syria, according to former U.S. ambassador Adam Ereli.
"I don't think it would change Iranian behavior in Syria for one very simple reason: questions of national security are the most fundamental to any country," said Ereli.
And national security for Iran, said Ereli, is challenging Gulf States that back Syrian rebels.
"There's so much of the Iranian regime that feeds off of, or that uses the international system and its fight against the international system as a way to legitimize its rule, particularly its relations with the Gulf states," he said.
This makes supporting Assad forces central to blocking Gulf ambitions in the Levant.
"It also maximizes Iranian influence. So why would they voluntarily give that up? And oh, by the way, if they did withdraw support for al-Assad, they would be handing a victory to their opponents. Again, why?" asked Ereli.
President Assad is assured of being re-elected in voting next week in areas he controls. With a new mandate, experts say he will have even less incentive to negotiate, increasing pressure on Washington to boost support for rebels and to look for openings with Assad allies Russia and Iran.