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Iranian Role in Syria Transition Stirs Controversy at UN

UN Envoy Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The suggested involvement of Iran in ending Syria’s political strife has pitted Russia against the U.S. as a United Nations peace plan unraveled with shots fired at observers of a UN-backed truce.

With his cease-fire agreement in tatters, UN envoy Kofi Annan warned the General Assembly that more needs to be done to prevent Syria from sliding into civil war after two massacres less than two weeks apart. He joined Russia in wanting Iran, as a country with influence in Syria, to assist efforts to seek a possible successor to President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think Iran as an important country in the region, I hope would be part of the solution,” Annan told reporters in New York yesterday. Discussions on which countries belong in a broader coalition to engineer Assad’s ouster, he said, are at a “fairly early stage.”

The Russian-led drive to enlist Shiite Muslim Iran to help devise an end to more than four decades of minority Alawite rule will put President Vladimir Putin on a collision course with U.S. President Barack Obama when they meet at an economic summit in Mexico later this month.

Lobbying in European capitals and Beijing, Putin has picked up “positive” feedback from France, China and Iran on a proposal to gather all nations that exert sway over Assad and the opposition to come together for talks, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Still, the initiative was immediately rejected by U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and at the UN, the U.S. position has not changed.

‘Perpetuating Violence’

“I think Iran is part of the problem,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters yesterday after a day of briefings on Syria. “There is no question that it is actively engaged in supporting the government in perpetuating violence on the ground.”

The Islamic Republic “has not demonstrated to date a readiness to contribute constructively to a peaceful political solution,” she said before hosting a dinner with Annan and the five veto-wielding powers on the Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S..

The U.S. considers Iran a rogue state that supports terrorists and arms the Assad regime, and Russia’s effort to recruit it as a peacemaker in Syria has added a problematic new dimension to the international negotiations on its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Powerless to stem the violence in a 15-month conflict that has killed more than 10,000 Syrians, the international community remains reluctant to use force in Syria. Russia frequently cites the NATO military intervention in Libya as an example of the UN abusing its powers to bring about a change of regime.

Civil War

In Libya, there was a more cohesive opposition that held territory and was available for dialogue with foreign powers. Syria’s exiled political opponents have little contact with armed insurgents who are adopting guerrilla tactics. Moreover, the infiltration of foreign Sunni jihadists exploiting the chaos has raised alarms.

“If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war,” Annan told the world body yesterday in New York. Privately, he told the 15-member Security Council his efforts to bring about peace cannot be open-ended and international consultations must yield results, according to diplomats who were present and described the remarks on condition of anonymity.

Shots Fired

Adopting further measures to hasten Assad’s exit gained urgency after UN observers were fired upon while traveling to the village of Qubair to verify opposition reports that at least 78 people were killed by army shelling and attacks by Alawite Shabbiha militia.

While none of the observers was injured, one of their vehicles was damaged, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. He said at this stage it couldn’t be ascertained who was responsible for the shooting. The observers are among 300-odd unarmed military monitors overseeing the cease-fire.

Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, the head of the mission, said observers were halted at Syrian checkpoints and some were turned back. Syrian state television blamed “terrorists” for any atrocities and denied that the monitors were blocked, saying a group of them had arrived at the village.

If confirmed, the massacre would be the second in less than two weeks. On May 25, 108 people, including 49 children, were killed in Houla in one of the worst atrocities in the 15-month uprising against Assad’s government. The U.S., its Western allies and other countries such as Turkey expelled Syrian diplomats after the massacre, leading Syria to kick out the envoys of those states.

U.S. Debate

The debate at the UN is mirrored by one inside the Obama administration, two U.S. officials said yesterday, describing the deliberations on condition of anonymity.

Human rights advocates in the State Department and elsewhere argue that the U.S. should intervene to halt the growing violence against civilians in Syria and head off a sectarian civil war.

Some military officials, meanwhile, argue that the administration should be preparing for possible military intervention to secure Syria’s large stocks of antiaircraft missiles, chemical and biological agents, and other weapons. Otherwise, these officials argue, the arms could fall into the hands of Sunni Islamic militants or be given to the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah by Syrian officials or Iranian agents.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, expressed some frustration at a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.

“I have to know what the outcome is,” he said. “So you tell me what the outcome is, I can build you a plan to achieve that outcome. I can’t build that plan unless I understand the outcome.”

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