- POSTED: 21 Jan 2014 03:44
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The United States and United Nations were scrambling Monday to rescue the much-heralded Syrian peace talks, thrown into disarray by a surprise UN invite to Iran.
UNITED NATIONS: The United States and United Nations were scrambling Monday to rescue the much-heralded Syrian peace talks, thrown into disarray by a surprise UN invite to Iran.
The deeply divided Syrian opposition, which had struggled to agree to join the so-called Geneva II conference, is now threatening a boycott unless the invitation to Tehran is withdrawn.
Adding to the tensions, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bluntly ruled out a power-sharing deal and said in an exclusive AFP interview that the talks opening Wednesday should focus on what he called his "war against terrorism".
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who sparked the furore with his invitation to Tehran Sunday, was "dismayed" by Iran's refusal to back an international statement calling for a transitional government in Syria and by the Syrian opposition's threat to boycott the talks, his spokesman said.
"The secretary-general is currently urgently considering his options in light of the disappointing reaction of some participants," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.
Nesirky said Ban is in contact with the US and Russian foreign ministers over the mounting storm just two days ahead of the start of the peace conference in the Swiss town of Montreux.
But a senior US State Department official insisted: "We expect the invitation will be rescinded."
The Geneva II conference has been nine months in the making and is the most intensive diplomatic effort yet to end the brutal three-year conflict.
And a US official said Washington had received messages from members of the Damascus regime keen to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
But the opposition National Coalition, holding crisis talks in Istanbul, threw down an ultimatum, had said unless it received confirmation Iran was not invited to Switzerland, "we will not attend."
Washington, London and Paris have said Tehran would have to clearly and publicly support the idea of a transitional government, as agreed in a communique adopted by major powers in Geneva in June 2012, if it was to join the talks.
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian rebels, also said Iran was "unqualified to attend."
The surprise invitation came as an interim deal with world powers aimed at containing Tehran's nuclear ambitions came into effect on Monday although it was not clear if the two events were linked.
Iran remained defiant, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman saying it will participate "without any preconditions."
The conference is aimed at setting up a transitional government to find a way out of the civil war that has claimed 130,000 lives and created a humanitarian disaster with million of people homeless.
Car bombing kills 16
But the situation on the ground has become increasingly complicated, with various jihadist groups fighting both against the Assad regime and against more mainstream Islamist factions.
A double suicide car bombing at a border post controlled by moderate Islamist rebels between Syria and Turkey killed at least 16 people on Monday, a monitoring group said.
Ban was "dismayed by the developments regarding participation in the Geneva conference," Nesirky said Monday.
"Iran, despite assurances provided orally to the secretary general, has made a disappointing public statement that suggests Iran does not accept" a statement agreed by the major powers in 2012 as the basis for the peace conference, he said.
Ban had said after two days of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that Tehran vowed to play a "very positive and constructive role."
Russia, a key sponsor of the talks but also Damascus's main ally, said Tehran's absence would be a "unforgivable mistake."
But Ban's assurances failed to pacify Western powers concerned over Iran's deployment of military personnel in Syria and its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which has sent fighters to back up Assad's troops.
The opposition coalition, which had voted on Saturday to go to Geneva, said in a statement it wanted a clear public commitment from Iran to withdraw all troops and militias and to commit to the terms of Geneva I and II.
"In case of failure to obtain the pledge, we ask (Ban) to rescind/withdraw its invitation to Iran. Otherwise, the Syrian Coalition will not be able to attend the Geneva II conference."
"Regime elements want a way out"
A Western diplomat described the invitation to Iran as a "catastrophic" decision.
US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that a public statement by Iran was "a minimum requirement for participation in this peace process."
France and Britain also said Iran's participation was conditional on clearly accepting the establishment of a transitional government.
And the EU said it hoped Geneva II would be a "first step" to genuine political transition.
But Assad adopted a combative tone in his AFP interview, dismissing the opposition as having been "created" by foreign backers and saying he saw no reason not to seek another term in June's presidential election, a plan US officials dismissed as "ludicrous."
In Washington, a US official said he hoped the Swiss talks would provide "an impetus" out of the bloodshed.
"There are elements inside the regime itself, among its supporters, that are anxious to find a peaceful solution, and we've gotten plenty of messages from people inside, they want a way out," the State Department official told reporters.