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Last updated: January 20, 2014 11:53 pm
The UN on Monday withdrew an invitation for Iran to attend this week’s Syria peace talks just 24 hours after it was issued. The decision followed a day of intense diplomatic wrangling which nearly scuppered the negotiations before they had started.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, was forced to withdraw the invitation to Iran after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks if Iranian officials attended without first publicly committing to a transitional government for Syria.
Although talks involving the Syrian government and opposition members will start on Wednesday in Switzerland after months of painstaking planning, the slim prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough were underlined by the release on Monday of a report which claimed to detail mass killing and torture of opponents by the Syrian regime.
The episode is an embarrassment for Mr Ban. With the UN formally chairing the talks, which are sponsored by the US and Russia, Mr Ban announced on Sunday that he had received verbal assurances from Iran’s government that it supported the so-called Geneva communiqué, which calls for the establishment of a transitional government
However Iran, the biggest outside backer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, publicly refused to sign up to any preconditions before attending. Mr Ban faced a boycott threat from the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition umbrella, and heavy US pressure to rescind the invitation.
“The invitation to Iran was an unacceptable unilateral decision by the UN leadership,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition. “Iran is not committed to a transition to a free Syria and has proven through the deployment of Iranian Revolutionary Guard occupational forces and proxy militias in Syria that it is actively working to entrench the Assad regime.”
Following Mr Ban’s decision to withdraw the invitation to Iran, Jennifer Psaki, a US state department spokeswoman, said that “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”.
On Monday, a team of three internationally respected war crimes prosecutors released a report that the authors said contained concrete evidence of “systematic torture and killing” by the Syrian regime. It included graphic images showing signs of starvation, beatings and other forms of torture.
The report is based on evidence from a former military photographer who has since defected from Syria. The tens of thousands of pictures of tortured or dead bodies suggest “the killings were systematic, ordered, and directed from above”, wrote Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Professor David Crane, another former Sierra Leone prosecutor, and Sir Geoffrey Nice, former lead prosecutor of ex-Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic.
The lawyers said the evidence would be enough to bring war crimes charges against Syrian government officials. Their investigation was commissioned by a London firm of solicitors on behalf of Qatar’s government, according to CNN and the Guardian, which first published the report.
“This isn’t really news to us,” said a Syrian opposition official, who was not authorised to speak to the media. “We’ve been telling the world about Assad’s notorious torture centres for years. I’m glad the world finally got a look at what that means and glad that the media is doing their job of exposing this crime.”
The crisis over the UN invitation to Iran underscores the fragility of efforts to end Syria’s conflict, ignited nearly three years ago after Mr Assad’s troops repeatedly fired on peaceful demonstrators opposed to his family’s four-decade rule. The protest movement has evolved into an increasingly complicated armed conflict pitting rebel groups that include al-Qaeda affiliates against the regime and its allies and, lately, against each other.
It also highlights the increasingly prominent role of both sides’ foreign backers. Iran is seeking to build on its successful negotiations with the west over its controversial nuclear programme to enhance its clout on the global stage and in the Middle East.
An increasingly complicated armed conflict is pitting rebel groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda affiliates, against the regime and its allies and, lately, against each other.
Tehran had been sensing it had gained the upper hand by keeping Mr Assad in power so far despite huge regional and international pressure, led by Saudis and Americans, for him to step down and is forcing western powers to acknowledge its role in the region.
“Iran is ready for a deal on Syria now that it feels in a strong position but only if it can negotiate with the US from an equal position so that its interests in the future of Syria are foreseen,” said one reformist politician.
A senior western diplomat in Tehran said: “Priority number one for Iran is not to keep Assad in power; priority number one for Iran is a continued presence in Syria and keeping the link to [Lebanon’s] Hizbollah.”
Saudi Arabia, a pillar of military, financial and diplomatic support for the rebel cause, issued a statement on Monday saying Iran was “not qualified” to attend the talks because it had not endorsed the Geneva communiqué and “has military forces fighting side by side with the forces of the regime”. Riyadh and its allies have adamantly refused to allow arch-rival Iran to take part in talks that might increase its regional and international stature.
“The Syrian opposition is under the pressure of Saudi definitely,” said Randa Slim, a specialist at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think-tank. “But Iran and Hizbollah’s role in the conflict in the eyes of their constituency is so negative, going to Geneva and sitting in a room with Iran at the table is going to kill any standing they have left, if any, with the opposition inside Syria.”
Mr Ban caused an uproar on Sunday after inviting Iran to the talks after saying he had received assurances from Tehran that it would play a “constructive and positive role” and that he was “convinced” Iran would accept the Geneva communiqué’s terms.
However, Iranian analysts and western diplomats say Iran’s position had not changed. “If Mr Ban’s invitation to Iran is based on accepting the Geneva II communiqué, it means a precondition which is not acceptable to Iran,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker.
Preparations ahead of the talks were further complicated on Monday when Mr Assad told the Agence France-Presse news agency that he would probably run for president this year, defying demands by the Syrian opposition, the west and other Arab states that he step down.
Elections under Mr Assad have been little more than rigged referendums with lopsided results openly mocked by international monitors. Mr Assad came to the presidency with a staggering 99.7 per cent of the vote in 2000, the year his father, Hafez al-Assad, died.
“I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand,” Mr Assad told AFP in an interview published on Monday. “If there is public desire and a public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election. In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant.”
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