Saturday, May 18, 2013

France opposes Syria conference if Iran attends

May 18, 2013 12:46 AM
Russian sailors are seen aboad the Admiral Panteleyev Russian war ship moored at the Cypriot port of Limassol on Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Pavlos Vrionides)
Russian sailors are seen aboard the Admiral Panteleyev Russian war ship moored at the Cypriot port of Limassol on Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Pavlos Vrionides)
BEIRUT: France spelled out Friday that it would oppose a peace conference for Syria if Bashar Assad’s regional ally Iran is invited, clouding the prospect for a U.S.-Russian initiative to end the 2-year-old war.

No date has yet been agreed for the international meeting, which appears to face growing obstacles, including the announcement by a top U.S. military officer Friday that a Russian shipment of advanced missiles to Syria could embolden Assad.

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 Assad’s exclusion from any future government as a precondition to talks.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday and said the conference should take place as soon as possible.

“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 Sergey 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 would be prepared.

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.

A factor complicating possible talks was an announcement Friday by U.S. officials that Russia had sent advanced anti-ship missiles to Syria, bolstering Assad’s defenses despite pleas from Washington to stop supplying the regime’s forces.

An official, who did not want to be identified, said the latest Yakhont surface-to-air missiles were delivered recently. The transfer of the missiles was first reported by the New York Times.
A spokesman for Russian state arms exporter Rosoboron export declined to give a comment.
Lavrov repeated that Russia is fulfilling existing contracts to deliver defensive weapons to Syria but would not comment on whether Moscow has sent an upgraded air defense system.

The anti-ship missiles to Syria could embolden Assad’s forces and prolong the conflict, a top U.S. military officer said.

“It’s at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering, so it’s ill-timed and very unfortunate,” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.

Washington also confirmed a report that Russia had deployed a dozen or more warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Syria.

“This is not necessarily a deterrence approach designed specifically for Syria. It’s probably a broader power projection for the Russian navy,” an official said.

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.

In Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch opponent of Assad, said Friday he backed the involvement of Russia and China in the talks.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington a day after discussing Syria with President Barack Obama, Erdogan said “a second Geneva process with Russia and China included has our support.”

He also said a no-fly zone could be discussed at the peace conference.

“We are in the process of putting together a conference in Geneva ... If that process decides on such a zone, as Turkey we would also do whatever is necessary,” he said.

Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, has been one of Assad’s fiercest critics, throwing its weight behind the uprising against him, allowing the rebels to organize on its soil and sheltering 400,000 refugees.

But Erdogan has grown frustrated by a lack of international consensus on how to respond to the violence. Car bombs, which tore through a Turkish border town last weekend in the deadliest spillover of violence yet, have added to the sense of urgency.

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.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 18, 2013, on page 1.

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