GENEVA: The U.S. is blocking Iran’s participation at next month’s planned Syria peace conference but the other delegations have been agreed on and will include other regional players such as Saudi Arabia, officials said Friday.
The U.N.-Arab League’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said about 30 nations would be invited to a day of speechmaking planned for Jan. 22 in the city of Montreux, and Iran’s participation was the only sticking point, but was still a possibility. The Syrian opposition also has opposed Iran’s involvement.
“Our partners in the United States are still not convinced that Iran’s participation would be the right thing to do,” Brahimi told a news conference. “We have agreed that we will be talking a little bit more to see if we can come to an agreement on this question.”
His comments came after a day of meetings with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Syrian neighbors Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and non-Arab Turkey.
Other invitees include Algeria, Brazil, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The actual negotiations between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition representatives begin on Jan. 24 at the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva.
The Syrian government delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, according to Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov.
Gatilov added that the Syrian opposition had yet to come up with a set delegation because of internal divisions, which threatened the conference.
“Without settling this issue, it will hard to expect that the conference will be held,” Gatilov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
“We may need additional contacts at the ministerial level in order to clear up the situation around Iran,” the Russian deputy foreign minister added.
A senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Washington objected to Iran’s participation because it hasn’t publicly endorsed the principles from the first Geneva peace conference on Syria in June 2012 and is providing financing and military personnel to militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is backing Assad’s troops.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has said it has high-level advisers in Syria, but denied having fighters there.
The meetings Friday included Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov, whose country is Syria’s main ally, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Syrian neighbors who have been struggling to cope with the conflict and the more than 2.3 million Syrian refugees.
Disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government, and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table, have blocked previous attempts to bring Syria’s warring sides for peace talks.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Bogdanov, the Russian president’s special envoy for the Middle East, met Thursday with Western-backed Syrian National Coalition’s Secretary-General Badr Jamous and other coalition officials.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds will send two delegations to upcoming peace talks, one with the opposition and another with representatives of Assad, opposition leader Ahmad Jarba said.
“The Kurds will participate in the Geneva meeting in two delegations,” Jarba, leader of the National Coalition, told AFP during a visit to the Kawergosk Syrian refugee camp in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
It seems likely that the Kurdish National Council, part of the opposition coalition, will attend with opposition representatives, while the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), seen as close to the regime, will accompany the government representatives.
The main group in the PCWK is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the most powerful armed Kurdish organization in Syria.
The KNC and PCWK have been at odds since the latter announced last month a transitional autonomous administration for Kurdish-majority areas of northeastern and northwestern Syria without the former’s backing.
Since Tuesday, they have been holding talks in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, aimed at establishing a unified front ahead of the talks.
Separately, Western diplomats are increasingly saying that Assad keeping power is a better option for Syria than his overthrow by Islamist militants, Russia’s foreign minister was quoted as saying.
“Not only in private meetings but also in public comments, the idea is occurring to some Western colleagues that ... Assad remaining in office is less of a threat for Syria than a takeover of the country by terrorists,” Sergey Lavrov told RIA news agency in an interview published Friday.
Lavrov said the gains made by Islamist rebels on the Syrian battlefield are pushing a shift in the Western stance on Assad.
“Jihadists and terrorists are rapidly increasing their influence in Syria, seizing territory and immediately establishing Shariah law there,” Lavrov said.
However, the comments run counter to the version of events put forward by the Syrian regime and its backers in recent months, namely that the government forces are gaining the upper hand.
The commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, for his part, urged all opposition fighters to join ranks in the struggle against Assad’s forces and vowed to stave off rebel infighting.
In remarks broadcast Friday by satellite television Al-Arabiya, Gen. Salim Idriss said all rebels in Syria who believe in the “goals of the revolution” are “our brothers.”
Idriss spoke after a meeting late Thursday in Istanbul with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.