Syrian Rebels Head to Talks After Iranian Withdrawal

Destruction in Deir Ezzor
Destruction in the northeastern city Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Jan. 4, 2014. Photographer: Ahmad Aboud/AFP via Getty Images

A delegation of Syrian opposition leaders left to join peace talks in Switzerland after the United Nations agreed to their demand that an invitation to Iran should be withdrawn.

Iran and Russia, Syria’s closest allies, criticized the UN decision, with Iran saying Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had bowed to pressure. The Syrian opposition hailed it as a victory.

“This was a triumph for the coalition’s diplomacy and the credibility of the international community,” Soner Ahmed, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, the main Syrian political opposition, said by phone from Istanbul. A private jet will fly 15 delegates representing the rebels later today, Ahmed said.

The dispute over Iran’s attendance threatened to derail the conference, the first face-to-face meeting between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Since then more than 100,000 people have died and more than 2 million have fled the country, the UN says.

Syria’s opposition said it would withdraw if Iran attended, saying the country has troops in Syria and is supporting pro-government militias.

Ban was “deeply disappointed” that Iran reneged on private assurances that it supports the goal of the 39-nation international peace conference -- scheduled to open tomorrow in Montreux, Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters yesterday in New York.

Geneva I

The meeting opens on the same day as the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which Ban and other world leaders are expected to attend.

The rebels, the U.S. and France said that participants at the talks must accept the conclusions of the Geneva I talks in 2012, which included Russia. That communique called on the Syrian regime and opposition to establish a transitional government chosen “by mutual consent.”

Speaking today, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said his country won’t take part in the talks “given the U.S. insistence to set a pre-condition,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran accepted no pre-conditions during talks with Ban last week, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters today, the state-run Fars news agency reported.

“We regret that Ban rescinded his invitation under pressure and we don’t see this action as being in line with a secretary-general,” Zarif said.

Russian Criticism

Russia also criticized the UN decision. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a press conference that rescinding the Iranian invitation was a mistake.

“The U.S.-Russian initiative doesn’t provide any basis for regime change,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow today. The Geneva I signatories agreed “that this transitional body would be useful to resolve all issues relating to the future political and social structure for Syria,” he said.

The latest disagreements underscore the pessimism surrounding the talks to stop Syria’s civil war.

The two main Syrian sides are going to the talks with different goals. The opposition wants the negotiations to yield a transitional government with full powers and that Assad be denied any role. The government doesn’t see the transitional body as replacing Assad and wants him to be part of the process as head of state.

‘Killing Civilians’

Ahead of the talks, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Syrian government’s “policy of waging war by killing civilians,” along with increasing abuses by rebel groups, “elicited horror in 2013 but not enough pressure from world leaders to end atrocities and hold perpetrators to account.”

“As the Geneva II peace talks begin, with uncertain prospects of success, they shouldn’t become the latest excuse to avoid action to protect Syrian civilians,” Kenneth Roth, the group’s executive director, said in a statement on its website.

“This requires real pressure to stop the killing and allow the delivery of the humanitarian aid they need to survive,” he added.

Syria’s conflict has evolved into a civil war pitting largely Sunni rebels against the government of Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Major oil producers, Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, have been drawn into the conflict, with each country supporting its co-religionists.

Car Bomb

The conflict has seeped into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where a car bomb killed five people today in the stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Syria ally fighting alongside Assad’s troops. The violence was the latest in a string of attacks against the group for its role in the crisis.

Meanwhile, Sunni extremist groups, some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda and the uprising in neighboring Iraq’s Anbar province, have assumed a larger military role, prompting Assad and his allies to portray the uprising as a war against terrorism.

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