Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?
Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.
Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.
Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.
The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.
What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.
What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.
 “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.