Ending nearly 24 hours of confusion that dismayed diplomats who
have spent months cajoling Assad's opponents to negotiate, Ban's
spokesman said Iran was no longer welcome at the initial day of
talks at Montreux, Switzerland on Wednesday.
The opposition immediately withdrew its threat to stay away from the
conference known as Geneva-2. But the uproar over Iran, which has
provided Assad with money, arms and men, underlined the difficulties
of negotiating an end to a bloody, three-year civil war that has
divided the Middle East and world powers.
Ban, his spokesman said, made the invitation to Iran after Iranian
officials assured him they supported the conclusion of a U.N.
conference in 2012, known as Geneva-1, which called for a
transitional administration to take over power in Syria — something
neither Assad nor Tehran have been willing to embrace.
Throughout Monday Iranian officials made clear that they were not
endorsing that conclusion as a basis for the talks.
"The secretary-general is deeply disappointed by Iranian public
statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated
commitment," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters at a
"He continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the
Geneva Communique. 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.
While rebels and their Western and Arab allies see the 2012 accord
as obliging Assad to step down, the Syrian leader has support from
Iran in rejecting that view. Russia, too, though a participant in
the 2012 accord and co-sponsor of this week's first direct peace
negotiations, says outsiders should not force Assad out. Moscow has
said Iran should be at the talks.
Syria's opposition National Coalition had said it would not take
part if Iran did, threatening to wreck painstaking months of
diplomatic effort in bringing representatives of the two sides to
the table. It welcomed Ban's change of heart.
"We appreciate the United Nations and Ban Ki-moon's understanding of
our position. We think they have taken the right decision," Monzer
Akbik, chief of staff of the coalition's president, told Reuters.
"Our participation is confirmed for 22 January.
Expectations are low all round, but Western diplomats, some of whom
had spoken of a "mess" and "disaster" after Ban's unexpected
invitation to Iran late on Sunday, said the talks could now provide
some start to easing a conflict that has killed over 130,000 Syrians
and made millions refugees.
"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," U.S. State
Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Washington had earlier called on the United Nations to rescind the
invitation to Tehran.
Adding to clouds over prospects for accord, however, Assad said he
might seek re-election this year, effectively dismissing any talk of
negotiating an end to his rule.
DISPUTE OVER 2012 ACCORD
Ban has said his invitation was based on an assurance from Foreign
Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that "Iran understands that the basis
for the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva
But other officials appeared to contradict him before Iran's U.N.
ambassador issued Tehran's unambiguous statement saying that the
country would definitely not take part if it was required to accept
a June 2012 deal agreed in Geneva.
"If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I
communique, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference,"
Mohammad Khazaee said.
Russia said there was no point in a conference without Iran. It did
not immediately react to Ban's change of heart.
"Not to ensure that all those who may directly influence the
situation are present would, I think, be an unforgivable mistake,"
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
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Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional foe and the rebels' main sponsor, had
said Iran should not be permitted to attend because it had troops on
the ground aiding Assad.
ASSAD TO SEEK RE-ELECTION
The conference had already appeared highly unlikely to produce any
major steps toward ending the war. Western and rebel demands that
Assad end four decades of rule by his family seem less realistic now
after a year that saw Assad's position improve both on the
battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.
His forces recovered ground, rebels turned against one another and
Washington abandoned plans for air strikes, ending two years of
speculation that the West might join the war against him as it did
against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
In an interview on Monday with news agency AFP, Assad declared that
he was likely to run for re-election later this year, making clear
that his removal was not up for discussion.
"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," Assad said. "If there is
public desire and a public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will
not hesitate for a second to run for election."
He ruled out accepting opposition figures as ministers in his
government, saying that was "not realistic" and said the Swiss talks
should aim to "fight terrorism" — his blanket term for his armed
A powerful alliance of Islamist rebel groups has denounced the
Switzerland talks and refused to attend. Even securing the
attendance of the main political opposition National Coalition was a
fraught affair, with many groups voting not to go.
Syria is now divided, with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels controlling
the north and east, Kurds controlling the northeast and Assad's
forces, led by members of his Alawite minority sect, controlling
Damascus and the coast.
Western leaders who have been calling for Assad to leave power for
three years have curbed their support for his opponents over the
past year because of the rise of Islamists linked to al Qaeda in the
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which
fought battles with other groups and controls the town of Raqqa,
imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms in recent days,
banning music and images of people.
No faction has the muscle to win a decisive victory on the ground.
Rich Sunni Muslim Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are funding and
arming the rebels, while Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite allies
Hezbollah back Assad. Violence is spreading into Iraq and Lebanon,
and survival is becoming increasingly difficult for the millions of
Syrians forced from their homes.
Syria is one of the biggest issues dividing Tehran from the West at
a time when relations marked by decades of hostility have otherwise
started to thaw with the election of comparatively moderate
president Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.
Global powers agreed in November to ease U.S. and European Union
sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear program, and
some sanctions were suspended on Monday, but the thaw has so far had
little impact on Syria diplomacy.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations,
Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Ali Abdelatti in Cairo, Lesley Wroughton in
Washington, John Irish in Paris and Tim Heritage and Gabriella
Baczynska in Moscow; writing by Peter Graff, Philippa Fletcher and
Alastair Macdonald; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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