U.S., Russia Spar Over Iran Participation in Syria Peace Talks

A U.S.-Russia split emerged over Iran’s taking part in Syrian peace talks planned for next week, at a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We would support Iran coming if it supported the goals of the conference,” Kerry told reporters today in Paris at a press conference with Lavrov and United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. He cited the presence of elite Iranian troops in Syria and the Persian Gulf state’s support for the terrorist group Hezbollah, which is also assisting the Syrian government. “No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are,” Kerry said.

“It’s quite clear Iran and Saudi Arabia should participate in this conference,” Lavrov said, standing next to Kerry. “One cannot be influenced by ideological sentiments so much that it harms the course of the talks.”

Kerry and Lavrov met privately before joining Brahimi to discuss the U.S.-Russia effort to have the Syrian government and opposition meet for the first time since the conflict began in March 2011. The war has reduced cities to rubble, unleashed radicalism and produced a level of violence so high that the UN can no longer verify the number of dead and says its death toll will remain at 100,000, a level reached in July, because conditions are too precarious to accurately update figures.

To build confidence before the talks, set for Geneva on Jan. 22, the U.S. and Russia will push both sides to establish localized ceasefires, consider exchanging prisoners of war, and expand humanitarian access, Kerry and Lavrov said today. Lavrov said that the Syrian regime is considering opening corridors to allow easier access for humanitarian aid.

Defeat Islamists

While the U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in the civil war and have struggled to find common ground, a consensus is emerging around the need to defeat Islamist radicals, retain the structure and unity of the Syrian state and end the violence, according to analysts such as Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at policy group Carnegie Europe in Moscow.

“Russia and the United States are in full agreement on a number of points,” Kerry said. Even so, their disagreements were clear over Iran, and U.S. frustration about Russia’s support for the Syrian regime, even as it conducts aerial bombardments and besieges cities to the point of starvation.

Brahimi said that while the UN supports Iran’s participation in the peace talks, both organizing countries had to agree. “The agreement has been that the decision will be taken by consensus,” he said.

Opposition Undecided

Kerry arrived in Paris yesterday to coordinate with other key partners, including the U.K. and France, in advance of what have been dubbed the Geneva II talks. The 11 countries that form the so-called Friends of Syria are dealing with a fractured opposition that has said it won’t decide until Jan. 17 whether to even attend the peace talks.

The Friends group met with the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmad Jarba, and stressed the importance of attending. Today, Lavrov said Russia was “concerned” about the opposition’s delay in deciding about the talks and Kerry acknowledged that getting to the meeting is “a process that we all understand will be difficult and will take some time.”

Kerry, Lavrov and Brahimi met as Syrian government sources and anti-regime groups reported that a a mortar attack has killed at least 19 people in the city of Homs.

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