The statue of the singer Carlos Santana is seen in front of the Montreux-Palace, the hotel that will host the “Geneva II” peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland, tomorrow.
ISTANBUL: Syrian peace talks were in disarray yesterday even before they began after a surprise UN invite to Iran sparked an opposition boycott threat and President Bashar Al Assad bluntly ruled out a power-sharing deal.
In an exclusive interview, Assad said there was a “significant” chance he will seek a new term and said the talks opening in Switzerland tomorrow should focus on what he called his “war against terrorism”.
With just two days to go to negotiations, UN chief Ban Ki-moon sparked a furore by inviting Iran — one of Assad’s key backers — to take up a seat at the table. Syria’s main exiled opposition group promptly warned it would shun the so-called Geneva II conference, the most intensive diplomatic effort yet to end the brutal three-year conflict.
And a US official said Washington was in talks with the United Nations to retract Sunday’s invite in a last-ditch effort to keep Geneva II alive.
“By 1900 GMT, they have to confirm that Iran is not invited to the conference or we will not attend,” Coalition member Hadi AlBahra said in Beirut.
Washington, London and Paris said Tehran would have to clearly and publicly support the idea of a transitional government if it was to attend.
The conference, nine months in the making, is aimed at setting up a transitional government to find a way out of the civil war that has claimed 130,000 lives and made millions homeless.
The invitation to Iran came as an interim deal with world powers aimed at containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions came into effect yesterday although it was not clear if the two events were linked. “Based on the official invitation, Iran will participate in this conference without any preconditions,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told the official Irna news agency.
Western powers have opposed Iran’s presence on the grounds that it had not accepted a communique adopted by major powers in Geneva in June 2012 calling for the creation of an interim government.
Iran has “never endorsed the Geneva I communique” and “we expect the invitation will be rescinded,” a senior US State Department official said.
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian rebels, also rejected Iran’s participation, saying it was “unqualified to attend”.
The so-called Geneva I accord made no mention of Assad’s departure, something the Syrian opposition says is non-negotiable.
But Russia said Tehran’s absence would be a “unforgivable mistake”.
Moscow along with Washington has been one of the main backers of Geneva II but is also Damascus’s main ally and its major weapons’ supplier.
Ban said Tehran vowed to play a “very positive and constructive role” in peace efforts. After two days of intense talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ban had said both agreed “that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers”.
“I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said.
But his assurances failed to pacify Western powers concerned over Iran’s deployment of military personnel in Syria and its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which has sent fighters to back up Assad’s troops.
The exiled opposition said in a statement it wanted a clear public commitment from Iran to withdraw all troops and militias and to commit to the terms of Geneva I and II. “In case of failure to obtain the pledge, we ask (Ban) rescind/withdraw its invitation to Iran. Otherwise, the Syrian Coalition will not be able to attend the Geneva II conference.”
The deeply divided umbrella group had only decided on Saturday to attend, a day after Damascus offered a number of concessions including a ceasefire plan for Aleppo and a prisoner exchange. A Western diplomat described the invitation as a “catastrophic” decision.
“The opposition had great difficulty in deciding to attend when it was assumed Iran would not be there. Now it is impossible to agree with Iran at the table,” said the diplomat. “It’s complete deadlock.”
Both France and Britain said Iran’s participation was conditional on clearly accepting the establishment of a transitional government.
And the EU said it hoped Geneva II would be a “first step” to genuine political transition.
But Assad adopted a combative tone in his interview, dismissing the Syrian opposition as having been “created” by foreign backers and saying he saw no reason not to seek another term in a June presidential election.