The U.S. and rebel groups continue to oppose Iran’s participation in international talks to end Syria’s civil war, U.S. and United Nations officials said today.
In Geneva to prepare for the negotiations, UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the international agency continues to talk to Iran, a major backer of the Syrian regime, about taking part in the meeting, planned for Jan. 22 in Switzerland. While Iran has expressed interest in attending the talks and the UN would like it to attend, Brahimi said, Iranian participation is still blocked by Syrian opposition groups and the U.S.
“Iran is not off the list,” Brahimi told a news conference. “We hope that they will participate. That is the reason why we still would like to work with them to support our process.”
Iranian authorities, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have told the UN that while they would like to come to Geneva, “it’s not the end of the world” if that’s not possible, Brahimi said.
In Washington today, State Department spokesman Jennifer Psaki said U.S. concerns about Iran participating in Syria talks are about “what the understanding is of participants, about what the goal of a Geneva conference would be. If they have a different goal, their participation does not seem particularly helpful.”
Brahimi met today with U.S. and Russian officials as the war, which began in March 2011, approaches its third year and has now claimed more than 120,000 lives. The political talks will unfold alongside the international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, an initiative that averted a threatened U.S. military strike against the regime.
While U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” some reports have raised the possibility that Western governments may now consider Assad preferable to the militant Islamic militant groups that now dominate the armed rebellion.
Obama talked about “a future where Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed” at a White House news conference today without repeating his call for Assad’s ouster.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today told the RIA Novosti news agency that “some of our Western colleagues have started voicing the idea -- not only in private but also publicly -- that the rule of President Assad is a lesser threat to Syria, taking into account the growing influence of jihadists and terrorists who capture vast territories, impose sharia law, exterminate minorities and burn people alive only because their religion is different.”
Brahimi, who met today with U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said the question of Assad playing a role in a future Syria, or even in a transitional government, didn’t arise.
“We have not mentioned this point in today’s meetings,” he said. “We didn’t meet to discuss this particularly.”
Psaki, when asked about this today, said the U.S. “view has been long-standing on President Assad and the fact that he - - there’s no future for him in the future of Syria.”
The Syrian government already has formed a delegation to attend the talks, and Brahimi said he expects it to publish a list of attendees soon. The Syrian opposition, long plagued by infighting, is still reaching out to those inside and outside Syria, Brahimi said, and hopes to form a delegation not long after Dec. 27.
“I hope that it will be as representative as possible,” Brahimi said. “This will be the beginning of the process and I’m sure that in following phases, the representation of the people of Syria will be better and better.”
The Geneva II meetings in Switzerland will take place “without any prior conditions,” Brahimi said. “Each party can bring topics they see as most important. The Geneva communique asserts that agreements are on the basis of mutual understanding between two parties.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will open the conference in Montreux on Jan. 22, attended by the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the EU, U.S., U.K., Russia, China and France, as well as opposition backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Negotiations between the Assad government and the opposition are set to begin Jan. 24 in Geneva.
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