U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on Sunday there might
be ways Iran could "contribute from the sidelines" in a so-called
Geneva 2 peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland, on January 22,
and on Monday U.S. officials said Tehran might still be able to play
a helpful role.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was sending out
invitations on Monday to potential participants the talks, but while
he wants Iran to attend there was no agreement yet on whether to
The key players in the talks are President Bashar al-Assad's
government and opposition rebels who have been fighting for nearly
three years to oust him.
Syrian opposition groups and Washington, which accuse Tehran of
supporting Assad with manpower and arms during the uprising against
him, have long had reservations about the participation of Iran,
although the United Nations special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi,
has backed Tehran's involvement.
While there has been a warming in U.S.-Iranian ties this year
including a November 24 deal to curb the Iranian nuclear program,
there are no visible signs that this has led to greater improvement
in other areas such as Syria, where they are on opposite sides of
the civil war.
Kerry reiterated U.S. opposition to Iran being a formal member of
the peace talks because it does not support a 2012 international
agreement on Syria.
That "Geneva 1" accord called for the Syrian government and
opposition to form a transitional government "by mutual consent", a
phrase Washington says rules out any role for Assad. Russia, a
sponsor of the plan, disputes that view.
On Monday, U.S. officials said Iran could improve its chances of
playing a role on the sidelines of the Syria peace talks by working
with Damascus to stop the bombardment of civilians and improve
"There are ... steps that Iran could take to show the international
community that they are serious about playing a positive role," one
of the officials said in Brussels.
"Those include calling for an end to the bombardment by the Syrian
regime of their own people. It includes calling for and encouraging
Another official made clear that the comment on bombardment referred
to Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, where dozens have been killed in
raids in which the Syrian air force has used improvised barrel
Iran had however given no indication it was ready to take any of
these steps, a U.S. official said, and noted there was opposition to
Tehran's participation from other nations. The official did not
identify these, but they are likely to include Gulf Arab states such
as Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival.
The U.S. officials, who declined to be named, said Washington still
believed it was "less likely than likely" that Iran would play any
role at the conference, even on the sidelines, and Iran and the
United States had not discussed the matter directly.
State Department spokesman Marie Harf said that for the Iranians
even to be considered for any role in the talks "they would have to
demonstrate that they would do things that would be less destructive
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Iran would have to publicly
endorse the terms of the "Geneva I" accord if it wanted to
participate in the process.
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In remarks quoted by state television, the Iranian foreign
ministry's spokeswoman said Tehran supported a political solution to
end the Syrian civil war, in which at least 100,000 people have been
killed and millions uprooted.
"But in order to take part in the Geneva 2 conference, the Islamic
Republic of Iran will not accept any proposal which does not respect
its dignity," the spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, was quoted as saying.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov would meet on January 13, and voiced the hope they
could agree on Iran's participation.
Haq also said the opposition had not yet named members of its
delegation for the conference. He said the United Nations urged the
Syrian opposition to announce the composition of their "broadly
representative" delegation as soon as possible.
In Syria, rival Islamist rebel groups fought in the city of Raqqa on
Monday, residents said, as local fighters tried to drive out a
foreign-led al Qaeda affiliate which has also seized towns across
the border in Iraq.
Activists opposed to Assad said dozens of Syrian members of the
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had changed sides to join other
Sunni Islamist factions which have taken advantage of a local
backlash against the ISIL and the foreign al Qaeda jihadists
prominent among its commanders.
The battles in Raqqa, a provincial capital on the Euphrates river in
Syria's largely desert east, left bodies clad in the black favored
by al Qaeda fighters lying in the streets. They followed similar
violence elsewhere in recent days that have seen the ISIL lose
manpower and abandon some of its positions.
"The ISIL has split roughly into two groups — locals who are
beginning to defect and foreign fighters who seem intent on going on
fighting," Abedelrazzaq Shlas, an opposition activist in the
province, told Reuters.
The fighting comes as groups in Iraq identifying themselves as ISIL
have seized Sunni Muslim towns hundreds of miles away on the
Euphrates in Iraq, challenging a Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad
which they see as allied, like Assad, to Shi'ite Iran.
Speaking from Istanbul, Abdallah al-Faraj, a member of the Syrian
National Coalition from Raqqa, said the ISIL has been driven out
from most of the city and its units were heading to the town of
al-Manakhel, 50 km (30 miles) away, where they have a training base
and could be re-grouping.
Faraj said although the defeat of the ISIL is strengthening Nusra
Front, which is also linked to al Qaeda, the Nusra are seen as a
less hardline group, composed of local fighters as opposed to
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Louis
Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Roberta Rampton
and Doina Chiacu in Washington; editing by William Maclean and Giles
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