For a while there, it looked like the bumbling of US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would derail the Syrian peace talks before they even got started. Kerry had floated the idea of including Iran in the talks earlier this month, albeit “with conditions.”
But Ban went Kerry one better and invited Iran with no preconditions — the most important being that they accept the removal of President Bashir Assad. Without that precondition, the Syrian opposition threatened to torpedo the talks by walking out.
Ban had no alternative but to climb back off the limb he had wandered on to:
“He continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva Communiqué,” spokesman Martin Nesirky said, referring to an earlier agreement. “Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.”
Iran, at that point, already said it would not participate if it had to accept the precondition. In the wake of the U.N. announcement, the Syrian opposition coalition reportedly confirmed it would participate.
For the time being, the secretary-general’s decision to back off his invitation helps preserve the peace talks and eases tensions between his office and the State Department, which had urged him to rescind the invite.
“We are hopeful that, in the wake of today’s announcement, all parties can now return to focus on the task at hand, which is bringing an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and beginning a process toward a long overdue political transition,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The peace talks are intended to bring together for the first time representatives of Assad’s government and members of the Western-backed opposition that is trying to overthrow him.
Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that a quick end is unlikely for a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. The battle lines have been largely frozen since early 2013, and the Syrian National Coalition has little sway or respect within Syria’s rebellion.
But the U.N.-hosted peace talks in Geneva and Montreux this week had raised hopes of at least getting the two sides to talk — expectations that were called into question on Monday.
Ban said he had initially issued the invitation to Iran after “speaking at length in recent days” with Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, who had “pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux.”
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Assad held a meeting with the official delegation that will head to the talks, telling them to “prevent any foreign intervention no matter what it is,” state TV said. The officials were quoted as saying that they were directed to “start a political dialogue as a first step toward an internal Syrian dialogue inside Syria.”
The mix of jihadists, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Free Syrian Army members, and young Syrians of the Local Coordinating Committees view the opposition with equal contempt. Most of the recognized opposition is made up of Syrian ex-pats — men who haven’t lived in Syria for decades, some of them. The opposition itself is hopelessly fragmented and is even less coherent than the Libyan opposition was when western forces handed them power following the ouster of Gaddafi.
In short, the talks aren’t going to accomplish anything that the jihadists fighting Assad inside Syria are going to accept. And Assad will never assent to his departure. This means that the opposition, who won’t accept anything unless Assad goes, are bound to reject any and all proposals coming from Damascus.
Meanwhile, the body count rises and al-Qaeda grows in strength and influence.