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UN talks on Syria to proceed despite furor over Iran

A man stands near a burning motorbike at the site of a car bomb attack at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, in Idlib January 20, 2014. Two car bombs hit a rebel-held border post in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib on Monday, opposition activists and fighters said, killing at least 10 people and closing the frontier.

Amer Alfaj/REUTERS

The international conference on ending the Syrian civil war is scheduled to begin Wednesday as planned despite a day of diplomatic wrangling over an invitation sent to Iran that threatened to derail the entire process.

The dispute was resolved only when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew the offer he had extended to Iran 24 hours earlier, citing Tehran's failure to accept the consensus of a political arrangement that formed the basis for this week's talks.

The so-called Geneva Communiqué of June, 2012, calls for the establishment of a transitional administration that would govern Syria by "mutual consent" of the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition.

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The United States and other Western powers, along with the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), object to Iran joining the 39 other participants unless Tehran publicly endorses the mandate of the conference. The Islamic Republic is an ardent supporter of Syria and has dispatched trainers and paramilitary fighters to help prop up the Assad regime. It is unwilling to agree in advance to any transition.

For its part, the SNC said it would not participate in the talks unless Iran changed its position or was disinvited.

Tehran, however, balked at the ultimatum.

"Setting such a condition to accept the Geneva I agreement for attending at the Geneva II meeting is rejected and unacceptable," an Iranian news agency quoted deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying.

Mr. Ban, speaking through his spokesman, said he was disappointed by the Iranian position which, he said, was "not consistent" with assurances he had been given by Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Secretary-General told reporters Sunday: "Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis." Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on Syria, has long argued that Iran, a major regional player, should attend the discussions.

The conference, to begin Wednesday in Montreux before moving on to Geneva for protracted talks, is not expected to make great strides any time soon.

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"Neither the regime nor the opposition is ready to talk," said Yezid Sayigh, a Syria analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut.

Only one part of the badly divided opposition – the SNC – agreed to attend the talks and only after considerable pressure from Washington to do so. But the SNC doesn't represent all of those opposed to the Assad regime, Mr. Sayigh noted.

The civilian group doesn't have a say in the military command, it lacks connections to local groups on the ground and it certainly doesn't represent the foreign al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who have taken the fight to the Assad forces in several areas.

Participating in Geneva II may be their "last chance to play a role," he said, adding that all the opposition bickering "makes Assad look attractive" to a lot of Syrians.

Indeed, immediately after the SNC confirmed its attendance at Wednesday's conference last evening, the coalition's largest member group, the Syrian National Council, resigned from the body.

For its part, the Assad regime has agreed to attend the conference but not because it wants to negotiate, says David Shenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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"Assad is going to try to ingratiate himself with the international community," Mr. Shenker said. He'll try to show he's "a great humanitarian by allowing some supplies to get to some of the people he is starving as a matter of policy."

Indeed, the regime has made a fuss over offering a ceasefire to rebel fighters in Aleppo, knowing full well the jihadists there would never accept it, notes Mr. Sayigh.

As for Geneva II, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, said his group will reject any conference decisions.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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