Syrian civil war peace talks at risk as Iran accepts invitation

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Syrian civil war peace talks at risk as Iran accepts invitation NewsLineToday    Gallery Enlarge Image Play Video

Manju Shukla
Date  20/01/2014
The first direct talks between both sides in the three-year Syrian civil war appear to be at risk after Iran accepted a last-minute invite by the UN secretary general to attend the opening meeting.

The Syrian opposition only narrowly agreed to attend the talks, due to start in Geneva on Wednesday, over the weekend. On Monday, their attendance was once again in doubt after Ban Ki-moon`s decision to invite Tehran – a key regional ally of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – which they said must be withdrawn before talks can begin.

Iran said it will attend the talks and had accepted the invitation without preconditions.

Iran`s attendance also threatens to drive a wedge between the US and Russia, the key international sponsors of the talks.

Both the US and Britain said Iran should only be allowed to attend if it backed the formation of a transitional government in Syria, something the Assad regime has repeatedly resisted.

But Russia`s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Monday that excluding Iran from the talks would be an "unforgivable mistake".

Ban invited Iran to attend the first day of talks on 22 January in Montreux, Switzerland, before the first face-to-face meeting between both sides on Friday in Geneva. He said Tehran had pledged to play a "positive and constructive role" if it was asked to participate.

The Geneva II talks, which were first proposed last summer, are scheduled to discuss the creation of a transitional government, something tentatively agreed at the first Geneva talks in June 2012.

Both sides in the conflict, which did not attend the initial talks, have disputed the meaning of the agreement. Assad has insisted he will not relinquish power, a point he underlined to visiting Russian MPs over the weekend.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse he said there was a good chance he would run in a presidential election scheduled for June. He ruled out the opposition obtaining any ministerial positions in a new government, calling this "totally unrealistic".

The western-backed opposition has, until now, consistently rejected entering talks with the Assad government until he agrees to stand down.

On Saturday, the Syrian Opposition Coalition voted by a narrow margin to take part in the talks without that precondition, after coming under pressure from the US and Britain. But it is now threatening to withdraw.

"The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva II unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran`s invitation," it tweeted, quoting National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi.

Another senior coalition member, Anas al-Abdah, told Al-Jazeera TV that the body was surprised by the invitation to Iran. "It is illogical and we cannot in any way accept it."

The US state department backed this stance. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded."

Britain and France echoed this line, saying Iran must make it clear that it supports the formation of a transitional government before it can attend.

The Foreign Office said: "Iran must now clarify that they accept the basis of the secretary general`s invitation. This makes it clear that the only basis for anyone to attend Geneva II is to implement in full the June 2012 Geneva communique, calling for mutually agreed political transition."

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said participation amounted to an acceptance of a transitional government.

Ban said he had spoken at length to Iran`s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in recent days and he believed Tehran supported the 2012 plan.

The Iranian news agency ISNA quoted foreign ministry spokesman, Marzieh Afkham, as saying: "We have always rejected any precondition for attending the Geneva II meeting on Syria ... Based on the official invitation that we have received, Iran will attend the Geneva 2 without any preconditions."

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