Men transport a casualty after car bomb attacks occurred at
the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey,
in Idlib. REUTERS/Amer Alfaj
An unexpected last-minute UN invitation for Iran to a
peace conference on Syria has thrown the talks into doubt, with
Washington demanding Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdraw his
offer and the Syrian opposition threatening to pull out.
Iran is the main foreign backer of Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad and its presence has been one of the most
contentious issues looming over the first talks to be
attended by both Assad's government and opponents.
The talks are set to start on Wednesday in Switzerland.
Expectations of a breakthrough towards ending the almost
three-year-old conflict were already low but diplomats said
the entire conference was now in jeopardy.
"Is Geneva going to happen? That is the question we can't
answer at the moment," a Western diplomat said.
After the clamourous response to his invitation, Ban was
"urgently considering his options" his spokesman said.
Adding to dark clouds, Assad said he might seek re-election
this year, effectively dismissing any talk of negotiating his
departure from power, his enemies' main demand.
The West and the Syrian opposition have long said Iran must
be barred from the conference unless it first accepts an
accord reached in Geneva in 2012 calling for a transitional
government for Syria, which they see as a step towards
Ban said he had issued the invitation after Iran's foreign
minister assured him Tehran accepted the earlier accord. But
Iran said it had done no such thing.
That put Western countries on a collision course with the
United Nations: "If Iran does not fully and publicly accept
the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded,"
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a
Syria's main political opposition in exile - the National
Coalition, which agreed to attend the conference known as
Geneva 2 only two days ago - said it would announce it was
withdrawing from the talks unless Ban revoked his invitation
"We are giving a deadline of 1900 GMT for the invitation to
be withdrawn," Anas Abdah, a member of the National
Coalition's political committee, told Reuters.
DISPUTE OVER 2012 ACCORD
Ban said his invitation was based on an assurance from
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that "Iran understands
that the basis for the talks is the full implementation of
the 30 June 2012 Geneva communique".
But deputy foreign minister Hosein Amirabdollahian and
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top advisor both
appeared to contradict him.
"If Ban Ki-moon's invitation is based on Iran accepting the
Geneva 1 agreement, then it means setting preconditions and
Iran will not accept any preconditions," the official IRNA
news agency quoted advisor Ali Akbar Velayati as saying on
Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said the secretary general
was "deeply disappointed" by Iran's public statements and
also disappointed the Syrian opposition had conditioned its
participation on the withdrawal of Iran's invitation.
Russia, which has long lobbied for Iran to attend and
criticised the opposition and the West for opposing Tehran's
presence, said there was no point in a conference without it.
"Not to ensure that all those who may directly influence the
situation are present would, I think, be an unforgivable
mistake," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional foe and the rebels' main
sponsor, said Iran should not be permitted to attend because
it had troops on the ground aiding Assad. However, it stopped
short of saying it would not go or urging the opposition to
ASSAD TO SEEK RE-ELECTION
The conference had already appeared highly unlikely to
produce any major steps towards ending a war that has killed
at least 130,000 people, driven a quarter of Syrians from
their homes and made half dependent on aid, many out of
Western countries and the opposition say the 2012 accord
promoting a transitional governing body means Assad must
leave power, and no deal is possible unless he goes. But that
fundamental demand, always difficult to achieve, is far less
realistic now after a year that saw Assad's position improve
both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.
His forces recovered ground, rebels turned against one
another and Washington abandoned plans for air strikes,
ending two years of speculation that the West might join the
war against him as it did against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in
In an interview on Monday with news agency AFP, Assad
declared that he was likely to run for re-election later this
year, making clear that his removal was not up for
"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," Assad said. "If
there is public desire and a public opinion in favour of my
candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for
He ruled out accepting opposition figures as ministers in his
government, saying that was "not realistic" and said the
Swiss talks should aim to "fight terrorism" - his blanket
term for his armed opponents.
A powerful alliance of Islamist rebel groups has denounced
the Switzerland talks and refused to attend. Even securing
the attendance of the main political opposition National
Coalition was a fraught affair, with many groups voting not
Syria is now divided, with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels
controlling the north and east, Kurds controlling the
northeast and Assad's forces, led by members of his Alawite
minority sect, controlling Damascus and the coast.
Western leaders who have been calling for Assad to leave
power for three years have curbed their support for his
opponents over the past year because of the rise of Islamists
linked to al Qaeda in the rebel ranks.
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq in and the Levant,
which fought battles with other groups and controls the town
of Raqqa, imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms
in recent days, banning music and images of people.
No faction has the muscle to win a decisive victory on the
ground. Rich Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are
funding and arming the rebels, while Iran and its Lebanese
Shi'ite allies Hezbollah back Assad. Violence is spreading
into neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon, and survival is becoming
increasingly difficult for the millions of Syrians forced
from their homes.
Syria is one of the biggest issues dividing Tehran from the
West at a time when relations marked by decades of hostility
have otherwise started to thaw with the election of
comparatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.
Global powers agreed in November to ease U.S. and EU
sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear
programme, but the thaw has so far had little impact on Syria