Plans for Syria Conference Dogged by Russian Insistence That Iran Take Part

May 17, 2013 - 12:53 AM

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in February 2012. Moscow is a longstanding Assad ally. (Photo: Syrian Arab News Agency)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama said Thursday a planned international conference seeking a solution to the Syrian crisis “may yield results,” but with Russia insisting that Iran takes part and the Syrian regime and opposition at odds over a role for President Bashar Assad the prospects are looking slim.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview posted on his foreign ministry website Thursday that Iran should be involved in the forthcoming conference, and expressed the view that some Western powers wanted to “narrow the circle of outside participants,” so as to preset the agenda and outcome.

Separately, Itar-Tass quoted Lavrov as telling journalists that Syria’s neighbors, including Iran, must be invited.

“If we are going to do serious work, it’s necessary to ensure the participation of all the key influential external players and give up ideological and geopolitical predilections,” he said.

Russia and Iran are Assad’s most dedicated backers, providing diplomatic support, arms shipments and, in the case of Iran, deploying Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units to support the regime.

Although it has repeatedly characterized the Iranian role in the conflict as a destructive one, the Obama administration did not explicitly reject the idea of Iranian representation at the envisaged conference.

“We are not ruling in or out,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a press briefing Thursday. “We’re mainly working through the U.N. to determine the participation in this conference.”

Plans for the conference were first announced in Moscow last week by Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry. They said it would bring together representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition with the aim of resuscitating a peace plan drawn up by world powers in Geneva last June.

Known as the Geneva Communique, that plan called for the establishment of a transitional governing body on the basis of “mutual consent.” But the initiative faltered from the outset because it was vague, and therefore open to different interpretations, about the future of Assad.

Almost a year later – and with the Syrian death toll having doubled over that period to 80,000 according to U.N. estimates – the U.S. and Russian governments appear to be downplaying differences over that issue, but without either having necessarily have changed its stance.

No venue has been announced for the conference, although the Obama administration is calling it “Geneva II.”

Russia wants Iran to take part in the meeting as a counterweight to some of the other countries likely to be involved. At the June 2012 meeting in Geneva, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were joined by Turkey and Arab representatives including Qatar. Turkey and Qatar are both leading supporters of the anti-Assad opposition.

Also likely to play a role in “Geneva II” are members of the so-called Friends of Syria working group. Its 11 members – the U.S., Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE – have all sided with the Syrian opposition.

In the interview posted by the Russian foreign ministry, Lavrov said Iran “can play the same role as the other outside players, directly interacting and supporting one or other Syrian side in a political or other way.”

Meanwhile the sensitive question of a future role for Assad, which hampered progress after “Geneva I,” shows no sign of going away.

Syria’s main opposition coalition said in response to the U.S.-Russian announcement that it welcomed “all international efforts which call for a political solution to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and their hope for a democratic state, so long as they begin with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.”

Meanwhile Iranian and Lebanese media quoted Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Miqdad as saying, “The international conference which they are talking about would not be there without Assad, and any such suggestions to solve Syrian crisis without the Syrian leadership would be disaster.”

Despite those unpromising signs, when Kerry and Lavrov met Wednesday on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Sweden both expressed optimism about the “Geneva II” plans.

And on Thursday, at a joint White House appearance with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama said, “I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and [Syrian] representatives about a serious political transition that all the parties can buy into may yield results.”