Moment of truth for Syria, but Iran left in the cold by UN - and now Assad says he may stand in this year's presidential election

The Geneva II meeting which begins tomorrow is a rare opportunity to de-escalate the conflict. But diplomatic niceties mean it is fraught with risk

A long-awaited peace conference on Syria is likely to go ahead without one of the major participants of the conflict after the United Nations withdrew an invitation to Iran to attend the talks in Geneva.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, rescinded Iran's invitation on the same day it was unexpectedly issued, following the threat of a boycott from the Syrian opposition and pressure from the United States.

That the conference would take place at all looked in serious doubt through much of Monday, with Iran's participation being a major sticking point for the opposition.

The meeting, arranged with strong US and Russian backing, is the only opportunity available for de-escalating, if not ending, the civil war in Syria.

Iran is a main backer of President Bashar al-Assad and has supplied him with arms, money and military advisers during the three-year-old conflict. Critics argue that holding a peace conference with some main regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, but not others, like Iran, is unrealistic and would limit chances of achieving peace.

The invitation to Iran to attend the Geneva II meeting came from Mr Ban and did not appear to have been expected by American officials. Mr Ban had earlier argued that a successful conference "needs all players at the table" and said that the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had assured him that Iran accepted that "the goal of the negotiations is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body with a full executive powers".

The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the exiled opposition political grouping that narrowly decided over the weekend to attend the talks, expressed its shock at the invitation to Iran. The Western and Gulf-backed political arm of the rebels, which is the only part of the opposition planning to go to Switzerland, threatened to pull out if Iran was to attend. Its spokesman, Louay Safi, said that "the Syrian Coalition will withdraw their attendance in Geneva II unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation."

Syria peace talks: Geneva II is the only hope for Syria – and Iran should have been part of it

The UN later announced that urgent discussions were under way to ensure the talks went ahead. Later, when public statements from Iran made clear that it did not agree to preconditions for the talks, a spokesman for the Secretary-General announced that the conference would proceed without Iran's participation. 

Russia says there would be little point in holding a conference without Iran present. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "not to ensure that all those who may directly influence the situation are present would, I think, be an unforgivable mistake".

It is unlikely that Mr Assad would agree to step down It is unlikely that Mr Assad would agree to step down (AFP/Getty Images)

The chaotic diplomacy that followed Iran's invitation and subsequent withdrawal from the talks within the space of a day appears have been caused by a supposition that the terms under which the conference is held are less woolly and ambiguous than they are.

The US and Russia have always disagreed since the first Geneva meeting in June 2012 about whether the departure of Mr Assad was an immediate aim or an ultimate long-term goal. In practice, since he controls almost all Syrian cities and his forces are advancing, albeit slowly, it is unlikely that Mr Assad would agree to step down or even seriously share power with the opposition. This was underlined when Mr Assad said in an interview yesterday that he might seek re-election later this year.

It is surprising that a diplomat as cautious as Mr Ban would not have cleared his offer to Iran with American officials at a senior level. A UN invitation would have freed the US of the embarrassment of issuing an invitation itself. Already, in insisting that the conference take place, the US and Russia have shown a determination to bring the war to an end which has not previously been in evidence. The new mood of co-operation between the two countries stems from their joint success in removing Syria's chemical weapons peacefully after the US and Britain came close to launching air strikes last September in retaliation for poison-gas attacks in Damascus. The Syrian civil war involves many other outside players, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been locked in confrontation since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

MPs revolt over failure to admit Syrian refugees as Yvette Cooper condemns minister's dismissal of 'token' impact

Syria has also become the battleground for a deepening religious war between Sunni and Shia that is spilling out into Iraq and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more determined to see the civil war end with the defeat of Mr Assad than are the US and West Europeans who are increasingly fearful of the expansion of jihadi Islam and the growing strength of al-Qa'ida-type movements in Syria and Iraq. Americans were particularly shaken to see the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) once more take control of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, from which they were driven in a battle by the US Marines in 2004.

Meanwhile, in Damascus Mr Assad sounded confident in an interview with AFP, saying: "I see no reason why I shouldn't stand [in a presidential election this year]. 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." He added that having members of opposition in his government was "not realistic" and that the talks in Switzerland should focus on fighting terrorism.

Mr Assad may be overconfident because political and military developments have been running in his favour. The opposition is not only split but is fighting a savage "civil war within the civil war" in which over 1,000 rebels were killed in the first two weeks of the year. But the military stalemate on the ground remains very much where it was since last summer and the government has failed to capture rebel-held districts in Damascus. The long-term future of Syria is one of geographical division with each side holding on to well-defended enclaves.

The Geneva II negotiations were never expected to end the war in Syria, but they might de-escalate it significantly through local ceasefires and humanitarian assistance to besieged areas. These have often collapsed in the past but might be more stable under greater international scrutiny. If even a small section of the opposition does turn up in Geneva then its presence validates for the first time negotiations between the warring parties that have hitherto ­simply wanted to eliminate each other. 

The complexity of the Syrian war that has drawn in so many foreign players and become the focus of so many other conflicts - such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar  vs Iran, Sunni vs Shia, the US and Israel vs Iran and the US against Russia - that it will be difficult to end. But there are some signs that the political temperature in the region is dropping. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has called for a "recalibration" of Turkey's hostile policy towards Syria where it has done all it can to help the rebels overthrow Mr Assad but without success. The open 500-mile-long border between Turkey and Syria has been crucial to the success of the rebels in the north of the country. Turkey is therefore in a strong position to mediate or force concessions from both sides if it takes a more evenly balanced position. It is also seeking to improve its relations with Iran.

A further incentive for Turkey and others - such as state and private donors supporting rebels in the Gulf - to think about bringing an end to the conflict is the apparent success of Isis in counter-attacking other rebel groups that seemed to be making headway against it a fortnight ago. Isis has recaptured Raqqa, the one provincial capital held by the rebels, and taken important towns on the border with Turkey. Powerful rebel groups like the Islamic Front, reported to be funded by Saudi Arabia, have failed to make any decisive headway against Isis. This puts in doubt Saudi hopes of establishing an Islamic military force capable of defeating both Mr Assad and al-Qa'ida.

The fate of the Geneva II conference is still in doubt, but several powerful participants in the Syrian war have an interest in bringing it to a conclusion or at least ensuring that it does not spread further. The endgame may not be yet at hand but opportunities for de-escalation are greater than ever before. 

Syria conflict: the key players

Syrian regime

Speaking on Monday, President Bashar al-Assad reiterated that he does not intend to step down and would not share power with the SOC.

After Washington’s decision to abandon air strikes against regime targets, pro-Assad forces have made considerable gains on the battlefield.  Regime representatives said they would attend the talks.

Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC)

The SOC is the main political opposition to Assad. Based in Istanbul, the coalition is backed by the West, but has struggled to win the support of rebel fighters in Syria, who view its members as detached from the conflict and consumed with infighting. The SOC voted to attend talks in Geneva on the  condition that the primary aim would be the formation of a transitional government and that Assad would have to step down.

The rebels

The myriad rebel groups fighting against Assad’s forces possess many different ideologies, but most are opposed to peace talks in Geneva. They say victory can only be won on the ground and that Assad’s government cannot be trusted in talks. 

Iran

Assad’s main foreign backer has previously been excluded from talks. The US and France said yesterday, before Iran’s invitation was rescinded, that Iran would not be welcome unless it publicly backed the 2012 Geneva accord, which calls for the formation of a transitional government in Syria.

The West

Western countries have stuck to the demand that Assad must leave power. But given the regime gains on the ground and in the diplomatic arena, this has become far less realistic since Geneva I.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar

While the West has refused to support the rebels militarily, that gap has been filled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The vast majority of funding to the rebels is thought to come from the two Gulf countries – with much of it flowing to Islamist groups. Saudi Arabia is thought to be the principal backer of Syria’s largest rebel coalition, the Islamic Front.

Hezbollah

The Lebanese militant group has sent thousands of fighters to support Assad – a key backer of the group.  Hezbollah leader Hassan  Nasrallah views the fight in Syria as a threat to his party and to the region.

Russia 

Russia has been a key backer of Assad throughout the conflict – both financially and materially – and has repeatedly vetoed any attempts  to pass UN resolutions  condemning the Syrian  regime. Russia strongly opposes Assad’s removal.

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Retail Sales Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fragrance store are looking for enthusias...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting and rewarding role ...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Executive - UK / International

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a long-established, renown...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - Signs and Graphics

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The key requirements of the rol...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible