Reuters: France spelled out on Friday that it would oppose a peace conference for Syria if Bashar al-Assad’s regional ally Iran is invited, clouding the prospect for a U.S.-Russian initiative to end the two-year-old war. By Darya Korsunskaya
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – France spelled out on Friday that it would oppose a peace conference for Syria if Bashar al-Assad’s regional ally Iran is invited, clouding the prospect for a U.S.-Russian initiative to end the two-year-old war.
No date has yet been agreed for the international meeting, which appears to face growing obstacles. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and said the conference should take place as soon as possible.
U.N. officials announced that the number of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria had exceeded 1.5 million. The war has claimed the lives of at least 80,000 people, the U.N. says.
Western leaders have been cautious about the prospects of the talks achieving any breakthrough, and Russia’s desire that Iran should attend could complicate matters.
“As far as we are concerned, not Iran,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters in Paris, discussing who should attend. “What’s at stake is regional stability and we can’t see how a country that represents a threat to this stability could attend this conference.”
Apart from the question of which countries will attend, it is also far from clear whether the Syrian foes would accept it. The main Syrian opposition, expected to decide its stance next week, has previously demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s exclusion from any future government as a precondition to talks.
After months of diplomatic stalemate, Washington and Moscow have been pushed to convene the conference by the rising death toll and atrocities, signs of escalation across Syria’s frontiers and suspicions that chemical arms may have been used.
“We should not lose the momentum,” Ban said of the conference proposal. “There is a high expectation that this meeting should be held as soon as possible,” he said after talks in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Lavrov agreed: “The sooner the better,” he said.
A Western diplomat at the United Nations in New York said the target date for the conference was June 10-15, but it depended on the readiness of the Syrian parties. An alternative plan would be to hold an international conference and then have the Syrians meet at a later date when they are prepared.
Putin also spoke by telephone with the British prime minister. David Cameron’s office said he told the Russian president that he supported the U.S.-Russian initiative.
Russia has made clear it believes Iran should attend the conference.
“Moscow proceeds from the position that all the neighboring countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the participants of the first Geneva conference, must be invited,” Lavrov said, referring to an international meeting on Syria held a year ago.
The Geneva talks on June 30 produced an agreement that a transitional government should be created in Syria, but the United States and Russia disagreed over whether that meant Assad must leave power.
Moscow says his exit must not be a precondition for a political solution, but most Syrian opposition figures have ruled out talks unless Assad and his inner circle are excluded from any future transitional government.
Lavrov said opposition participation would be crucial.
“The main thing now is to understand who, from the Syrian sides, is ready to take part in this conference – without that, nothing will happen at all,” he said.
The United States said on Thursday that it was not ruling anyone in or out of the conference.
Pressure has grown on Western countries to act after reports that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, which U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have described as a “red line”. The White House says it believes Syrian forces probably used poison gas but the evidence is not certain.
Assad and the rebels both have accused each other of using chemical weapons in Aleppo in March and in Homs in December. Syria is not a party to international treaties banning poison gas but says it would never use it in an internal conflict. The rebels say they have no access to it.
A team of U.N.-led chemical weapons experts has been ready for more than a month to investigate the rival allegations, but has been held up by diplomatic wrangling and safety concerns. Ban urged Syria on Friday to give the experts unfettered access.
Syria wants the U.N. team to probe only the Aleppo attack, but Ban wants the inquiry to cover both incidents.
“It is regrettable that this investigation team has not been able to visit and enter Syria to have an on-site investigation,” Ban said. “I have a mandate to conduct an investigation whenever there are allegations and wherever there are allegations.”
The team’s leader, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom “has been gathering information from various sources, including certain government sources, but it is important – crucially important – that he would be able to conduct an on-site investigation”, Ban said, adding that the team was ready to deploy at any time.
Lavrov said Russia believed Syria could agree to inspections of other sites after a probe of the incident near Aleppo.
Atrocities committed by both sides in Syria have made headlines in recent weeks. Human Rights Watch said on Friday it had been shown evidence of torture devices used by government forces against detainees in a jail now in rebel hands.
Obama said he reserved the right to resort to either diplomatic or military options to pressure Assad but U.S. action alone would not be enough to resolve the crisis.
The West has supported the opposition but is also increasingly concerned about the behavior of rebel fighters from an Islamist group allied to al Qaeda.
Russia, with China, has opposed sanctions against Syria and blocked three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to increase pressure on Assad during the conflict, which began in March 2011 with a crackdown on demonstrations.
Russia has flexed its muscles in the eastern Mediterranean since the start of the Syria conflict and military officials say it has begun implementing plans for the permanent deployment of a naval task force in the Mediterranean for the first time since shortly after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Russia staged naval exercises in the area in January and warships have frequently called at Russia’s naval supply and maintenance facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.
The New York Times cited U.S. officials as saying Russia had sent advanced Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria. A spokesman for Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport declined to comment.
Lavrov repeated that Russia is fulfilling existing contracts to deliver defensive weapons to Syria but would not comment on whether Russia has sent upgraded Yakhonts or an advanced air defense system which Israel has asked Moscow not to deliver.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Andrew Osborn in London; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)