BEIRUT — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said Monday that Iran must commit publicly within hours to withdraw its “troops and militias” from Syria and abide by a 2012 transitional roadmap, or else the U.N. should withdraw its invitation for Tehran to take part in a peace conference this week.
The Syrian National Coalition said if those conditions are not met by 7 p.m. GMT, then it will not attend the so-called Geneva 2 talks that are scheduled to begin Wednesday. The U.N. issued a last-minute invitation late Sunday to Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, prompting the Coalition to threaten to sit out the peace negotiations and throwing the entire Geneva conference into doubt.
The negotiations, which are intended to bring together the Syrian government and its opponents for the first face-to-face talks in the three-year uprising, aim to broker a political resolution to a conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and touched off the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Diplomats and political leaders acknowledge that the prospects of achieving such a lofty goal any time soon are slim at best.
Both the government and the opposition have suffered enormous losses, but even now, neither side appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position. At this point, just getting the antagonists into the same room to start what is expected to be a long process that could drag on for years would be perceived as a success.
But those hopes of at least getting the two sides to talk were up in the air again Monday over Iran’s invitation to attend.
In its statement, the Coalition called on Iran to make a “clear public commitment” to withdraw all of its troops and militias from Syria and commit to all the terms of a 2012 roadmap for Syria agreed to by world powers that includes a transitional government with full executive powers. That roadmap is the basis for the Geneva talks.
“In case of failure to obtain the pledge, we ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to withdraw the invitation to Iran. Otherwise, the Syrian Coalition will not be able to attend the Geneva 2 conference,” the Coalition said.
Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally, and has supplied his government with advisers, money and materiel since the 2011 Syrian uprising began. The Islamic Republic’s allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad’s forces.
The invitation to Tehran from the U.N. secretary-general came after the U.N. chief said he had received assurances from Iran that it accepted the premise of the talks — to establish a transitional government for Syria, which has been led by the Assad family since 1970.
In Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, was quoted by the official IRNA news agency Monday as saying that Iran will attend the Geneva 2 conference after it was invited, adding that it will not accept any preconditions. She did not elaborate.
Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the Syrian opposition and a bitter regional rival of Tehran, said Iran should first approve the 2012 roadmap before being allowed to take part in the peace talks. “Iran is not qualified to attend because it did not declare this (accepting Geneva 1) and has forces on the ground,” state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official as saying.
Invitations to the one-day meeting of foreign ministers at a Montreux hotel had been subject to approval by the initiating states, Russia and the United States, but the two countries had been at an impasse over Iran. The negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition are slated to start Friday in Geneva.
The last-minute decision to invite Iran appeared to take the U.S. and its European allies by surprise.
In Washington, senior U.S. officials said Iran has still not met the criteria to participate in an upcoming international conference on Syria and its invitation to attend should be withdrawn unless it fully and publicly endorses the aims of the meeting. The officials told reporters that public statements from Iran about the conference fall “well short” of what is required for Tehran’s participation. They said that the United Nations must rescind the invitation unless that changes.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name. But, their comments were similar to a statement the State Department issued on Sunday.
France, another strong supporter of the opposition Coalition, took the same line, with the country’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, saying “the ball is in Iran’s camp” and Iran “must accept explicitly” the terms of the 2012 roadmap.
In New York, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said “of course” both the U.S. and Russia were consulted about the Iran invitation, and he said that if the Syrian opposition boycotts the talks, “that would be a big mistake.”
Syria’s crisis began in March 2011 in the heyday of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept away authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Unlike the others, Syria’s leadership responded to largely peaceful protests for political reform with a withering crackdown. That slowly forced the opposition to take up arms and gave birth to a civil war that has also spawned a proxy battle between regional Shiite Muslim power Iran and Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
The cumulative effect of the war over nearly three years has been disastrous. Syria lies in ruins, its economy shattered, its rich social fabric shredded.
A staggering list of figures testifies to the immensity of the conflict: 130,000 dead; 2.3 million registered refugees; an additional 6.5 million displaced inside the country; and at least 17 confirmed cases of polio, a crippling disease that was eradicated from the country more than a decade ago.
The rebels now control much of northern Syria along the border with Turkey, while the government has a firm grip on the capital and the corridor running north through the city of Homs to the Mediterranean coast.
The rebels seem incapable of conquering the rest of the country, while the government doesn’t appear strong enough to reclaim the territory it has lost. At the same time, neither side is exhausted to the point that it feels it has to cut a deal, analysts say.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lori Hinnant in Paris, Matthew Lee in Washington, and Anna Cara at the United Nations contributed to this report.