Iranian involvement in Syria peace plan a 'non-starter' says Nelson

Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday that lawmakers would not stand for any effort to hand a modicum of control over a potential Syrian peace plan to Tehran. 

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His comments were in response to claims by former United Nations Secretary General and current U.S.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan that Iran should be part of any regional solution for the growing crisis in Syria. 

“Iran, as an important country in the region, I hope will be part of the solution,” Annan told reporters on June 8. 

That solution was a tentative plan floated by the White House would have Washington and Moscow ease Syrian President Bashar Assad out of office while allowing a number of his top officials to remain in government.

Assad's forces are in the midst of a bloody campaign to quash anti-government forces inside Syria that has left thousands of rebel fighters and innocent civilians wounded or dead. 

A similar plan was used to push out former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of the Arab Spring movement. Saleh's vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, took control of the government when Saleh stepped down earlier this year. 

But Tehran's involvement in any power transition plan was simply unacceptable, Nelson said, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin has already scuttled any Yemen-style transition plan for Assad, he added. 

"He has said no to it," Nelson said of Putin's support for such a plan. "The most that the Russians have said ... is that they do not consider Assad their ally." 

The task of deposing Assad from power, from Russia's perspective, "is up to the Syrians, which is to say that it isn't going to happen, unless there is some outside influence," Nelson said. 

That outside influence needed to help stem Assad's brutal campaign in the country took a significant step back last Saturday, when the U.N. pulled its observers from Syria due to the escalating violence there. 

The observers, who have also been subjected to attacks by Assad forces, were tasked with ensuring Assad was complying with mandates under a peace plan brokered by Annan in March. 

However, Nelson and other lawmakers remain unconvinced the U.N. pullout has swayed lawmakers toward supporting direct military action, either by the United States or its regional allies.

"I think there are other, broad-based solutions that are being worked on that will be brought to the U.N. about Syria that has a broad base of support ... and unlikely to be vetoed," he said. 

One such option that has not gotten enough attention among lawmakers is establishing safe zones for Syrian refugees along the country's border with Turkey, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said on Tuesday. 

"I think that is the one option that has not been adequately explored" by either Congress or the administration, Levin said. 

The key, according to Levin, would be to secure support from NATO to assist in providing overwatch over those safe zones so U.S. forces would not have to shoulder that burden alone. 

That said, the U.N. pullout may have done less to sway the opinions of Congress and more to convince Assad the window for diplomacy was rapidly closing. 

"It is understandable [U.N. observers] are pulling out," Levin said. "But that could also represent a signal to the Syrians as well, that [their] options are limited," Levin said.