Last Updated: Wed Jun 27, 2012 12:11 pm (KSA) 09:11 am (GMT)

World powers still split over Iran’s participation in Syria talks in Geneva

Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Jubar near Damascus. (Reuters)
Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Jubar near Damascus. (Reuters)

International mediator Kofi Annan intends to convene a high-level meeting on Syria in Geneva on Saturday, June 30 and is seeking a “common position on the proposed outcomes,” his deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno said on Wednesday, as world powers differed over whether Iran should participate in the talks, with Washington opposed and Moscow in favor.

Guehenno, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, said: “Over the past few weeks, these efforts focused on the creation of an action group on Syria which the Joint Special Envoy intends to convene on 30th June in Geneva.:

Annan, joint United Nations-Arab League envoy, is working with states and all sides to help bring about a peaceful and comprehensive settlement, but “time is running out,” Guehenno said.

Russia and the United States were locked in a high-stakes diplomatic standoff over how to end Syria’s bloody civil war.

The dispute, which hinges on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could scupper the scheduled multilateral negotiations. Russia confirmed on Tuesday that it will attend the meeting in Geneva.

“It is better to involve Iran in the settlement (of the Syrian crisis),” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference following talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on the shores of the Dead Sea.

 The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the settlement process the better. Ignoring these possibilities, these interests would be counterproductive, as diplomats say. It is better to secure its support 
Russian President Vladimir Putin

“In any case it would complicate the process (if Iran is ignored).”

“The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the settlement process the better. Ignoring these possibilities, these interests would be counterproductive, as diplomats say,” he added. “It is better to secure its support,” said Putin.

The meeting, brokered by international envoy Annan aims to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, which has so far killed an estimated 15,000 people and increasingly threatens regional stability.

Washington presses for an end to violence

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Reuters)

Amid a day of frantic telephone diplomacy between capitals, top State Department officials insisted Hillary Clinton would not attend the meeting unless all parties first agreed on the need for political transition in Syria.

“The sticking point is a clear agreement that there needs to be a political transition,” said a senior U.S. official late Tuesday, stating that a deal could yet be done.

“Once that is agreed there are a lot of different ways of moving forward from there. What it can't be is just another round of dialogue for dialogue's sake,” he said according to AFP.

Washington, facing a domestic outcry over human rights atrocities committed by the Syrian army, has pressed for an immediate end to the violence and for Assad -- never an ally of the West -- to step down.

“The current regime under Assad has lost legitimacy,” said the official.

But jettisoning Assad would signal a major shift in policy for Russia, which has ties to Syria’s military and the ruling Baath Party that stretch to the Soviet era.

And U.S. officials said they saw no sign that such a shift had yet taken place.

Russia, which also has a naval base in Syria, has resisted the type of regime change that has swept the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Moscow was furious with Western powers and NATO for the military operation that ousted Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (File photo)

Earlier Tuesday, Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed for the meeting to go ahead, but shied away from anything that could smack of outsiders dictating terms to Assad.

“One needs to agree to influence all Syrian sides so that they themselves sit down at the negotiating table and begin to get along and look for consensus solutions,” he said.

“Only they themselves can find agreement, and outside players can help them get together.”

The Geneva talks had been expected to focus on reviving a peace plan devised by Annan, which has been rendered moribund by repeated violations of a ceasefire agreement.

Should diplomacy fail, the violence in Syria seems certain to escalate, with uncertain repercussions for the region.

Western powers, along with some Arabian Gulf nations, have reportedly been arming Syrian forces that hope to overthrow the Assad regime, despite doubts about the fighters’ motives.

Russia meanwhile has continued to arm Assad’s government, further deepening the standoff.

“We think that Russian, or any other, arms sales to the Syrian regime is unhelpful and fuels the conflict,” said the senior U.S. official, adding that such actions lent the regime “support and legitimacy.”

Clinton will likely raise the issue at a dinner with Lavrov scheduled for Friday in Saint Petersburg, said the official.

It is not still clear if Britain, France and China -- the other three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council along with Russia and the United States -- will attend the Geneva meeting.

Annan’s efforts

U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. (Reuters)

So far Annan’s attempts to get the opposition and government to begin a dialogue aimed at ending the 16-month conflict have failed. Annan has said that a “contact group” of the permanent council members and regional players could pressure the Syrian government and opposition to begin political negotiations.

Annan’s deputy, Nasser al-Qudwa, on Tuesday briefed the 15-nation council by video-link on Annan’s attempts to prevent the total collapse of his moribund six-point peace plan.

In a phone call with Al Arabiya, Qudwa said that he had briefed the Security Council on the on-ground developments in Syria as well as the “contact group” for the country.

One diplomat inside the council chamber told Reuters that Qudwa said “it’s essential states with influence agree themselves on principles and guidelines to support a Syrian-led political transition.”

He added that Qudwa said an “agreement on principles and scope of participation” -- possibly a reference to whether Iran should take part - would be needed before the June 30 meeting could go ahead.

Russia, joined by China, has thus far used its Security Council veto to block Western- and Arab-backed moves for tougher U.N. action on Damascus, which has long been a key regional Russian ally and an important market for Russian arms.

Regional tensions have spiked after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish F-4 jet in the eastern Mediterranean last Friday.

Turkey convened a meeting of NATO allies to discuss the issue and threatened to cut electricity supplies to Syria.

Ankara also warned that further incidents would be met with serious consequences.

Even before the incident, tensions between the two Middle Eastern neighbors had been running high.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the border to Turkey, while a steady stream of arms for Syrian insurgents had flowed in the opposite direction.

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