Syria peace talks in disarray before they even begin

Opposition bloc threatens to pull out if Iran’s invitation is not rescinded by Monday evening

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks with Syrian President Bashar al Assad from his office in New York.
Mark Garten/AP

Last-minute negotiations are under way to keep Syria's peace talks from falling apart before they even begin, after the main opposition bloc issued an ultimatum that it would rescind its commitment to attend unless Iran withdraws from the talks. But even absent an Iranian presence, Syrian President Bashar al Assad's insistence that he has no intention of standing down makes clear that the Syrian regime enters the Geneva 2 meeting with a fundamentally different understanding of the purpose of the talks from its opponents'.

The Syrian National Coalition, the only opposition faction set to attend this Wednesday's Geneva 2 meeting, which will begin in Montreux before moving to Geneva, has given a deadline of Monday night for Tehran's invitation to be rescinded. The SNC objected in a strongly worded statement to an apparent overture from the United Nations to Iran, the main regional ally of Assad and his Alawite Shia regime.

Anas Abdah, a member of the SNC's political committee, told Reuters, "We are giving a deadline of 1900 GMT for the invitation to be withdrawn."

Earlier on Monday, Abdah told Al Jazeera that the bloc was "surprised" by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's invitation, saying, "It is illogical, and we cannot in any way accept it."

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Saudi Arabia, which backs and arms Syrian opposition forces, has also rejected Iran's participation in the Geneva 2 talks.

Ban said Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had promised his country would play a "positive and constructive role" in Geneva.

"He has assured me that, like all the other countries invited to the opening-day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June, 2012, Geneva communique," he said.

That communique, which came out of the Geneva 1 conference, laid out a road map for a transitional government but was largely ignored.

But Iran's Press TV reported on Monday that Tehran would participate in the upcoming Geneva 2 conference on the Syria crisis without accepting crucial elements of the 2012 Geneva communique, citing the chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran's parliament.

Iran has said it will attend the talks but it has not agreed to conditions, which means there is no requirement that Assad be removed from power or that a transitional government be established with full executive powers. Iran does, however, agree that a cease-fire is necessary.

‘A good joke’

Geopolitical obstacles to peace were compounded on Sunday by comments from Assad, who told AFP news agency that he was likely to run in June's presidential race. The he said in an interview there was a "significant chance" he would be a candidate.

"I see no reason I shouldn't stand," he said. "If there is public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election."

His statement could further undermine a successful outcome for Geneva 2. Opposition groups have said there is no chance they would accept any resolution at the Wednesday conference that did not involve a transitional government in which Assad had no role. 

Other rebel factions, including the Islamic Front, a powerful coalition of Islamist groups, have all refused to attend

"We continue in our revolution, and we will not accept any political solution before the realization of certain terms," the Islamic Front said in a statement released Monday afternoon. The coalition said it was demanding the release of political prisoners, the resignation of the Assad regime, the exit of all sectarian militias from Syria and a guarantee that foreign powers will not intervene after Assad steps down.

Assad countered, "The Geneva conference must lead to clear results regarding the fight against terrorism. That would be the most important result of the conference. Any political result that did not include the fight against terrorism would have no value."

Assad also ruled out that the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition could be given any ministerial positions in a new government, calling it "totally unrealistic."

"They ... come to the border for a 30-minute photo opportunity, and then they fled. How can they be ministers in the government?" he asked. "These propositions are totally unrealistic, but they do make a good joke.”

The U.S. hardened its position against Iran's participation in the conference on Monday, having earlier suggested that it could be tolerated under certain conditions. On Sunday the U.S. said it could support Iran's participation if it explicitly declares its support of a June 2012 plan for a political transition, meaning Assad would have to step down.

"This is something Iran has never done publicly and something we have long made clear is required," Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. "If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded."

But a senior State Department official told Reuters on Monday that Iran had made no effort to quell the fighting in Syria and that its participation in Geneva would "not be helpful."

Syrian opposition groups and the U.S., which accuse Iran of supporting Assad with manpower and arms during the three-year uprising, have long had reservations about the participation of Iran.

But Ban and the U.N. special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, are backing Iran's involvement.

As a regional power player, Iran "needs to be part of the solution to the Syria crisis," Ban said on Monday.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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