Russia criticizes Iran snub at Syria talks
Russia on Thursday condemned the decision to exclude Iran from crucial talks on the crisis in Syria, accusing the West of "double standards."
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on Wednesday announced the countries invited to the key talks in Geneva, including small Gulf states Kuwait and Qatar.
But Annan declined to invite Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a key regional power.
"Iran is an influential player in this situation and to leave it out of the Geneva meeting, I believe, is a mistake," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The decision was made after pressure from the US government and Lavrov slammed Washington's "double standards" on Iran.
Clarifying Russia's position on a possible Syrian unity government proposed by Kofi Annan, Lavrov said Saturday's talks should initially focus on bringing about a ceasefire.
"The meeting in Geneva was intended to support Kofi Annan's plan and it must set the conditions for the end of violence and the start of an all-Syrian national dialogue, and not predetermine the contents of this dialogue," Lavrov said.
Annan's proposal for a political transition aimed at ending the 16-month conflict in Syria is one of the main topics that Russia, the other four permanent Security Council members and key players in the Middle East will discuss at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday, diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
One diplomat summarized Annan's proposal, saying the Syria conflict can only end when all sides see a peaceful way to a shared future."
Annan made clear it was "vital that (any) settlement (be) irreversible, (with) clear transition steps in a fixed timeline," he said.
"These include establishing a transitional national unity government to create a neutral backdrop for transition," the diplomat said in his summary of Annan's plan.
"It could comprise present government members, opposition and others, but would need to exclude those whose continued participation or presence would jeopardize the transition's credibility, or harm prospects for reconciliation and stability."
The diplomat added that the idea of excluding certain people was clearly referring to Assad, though Annan's proposal does not explicitly say Assad could not serve in a national unity government.
That gives Russia the option of insisting that Assad be allowed to stay in power.
"The Russians signaled to Annan that they accept his transition plan," he said.
Several Western diplomats confirmed his remarks, adding that all five permanent veto-wielding UN Security Council members backed it.
Another diplomat said Russia's acceptance of Annan's proposal, which he circulated to the five permanent Security Council members this week, did not mean it has abandoned Assad.
"I'm very skeptical," he said. "I don't see the Russians giving up on Assad."
The Russian mission at the United Nations was not available for comment.
Another shot at diplomacy
Annan made acceptance of his guidelines for a political transition for Syria a condition for organizing Saturday's meeting, which will include the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar.
It will not include regional heavyweights Iran or Saudi Arabia, both states said to be deeply involved in the Syrian crisis.
Russia has repeatedly said its supports Annan's idea of creating a "contact group" of powerful nations and regional players with influence on the Syrian government or the opposition to push for an end to the violence in Syria
Moscow has said that any decision on whether or not he should step down should come from the Syrian people, not from outside pressure or military intervention, as happened last year in Libya.
Saturday's meeting, which Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend, will have to agree on the details of the political transition and the mechanisms for implementing it, diplomats said.
Annan, a former UN secretary-general, also wants Saturday's meeting to revive his moribund six-point peace plan that has failed to end the fighting between Assad's forces and an increasingly militarized opposition. The conflict has escalated in recent weeks.
Annan said the aim of the one-day talks was to identify measures to secure full implementation of his stalled peace plan and Security Council resolutions, including an immediate halt to all violence.
Turkey deploys military on border
A convoy of about 30 military vehicles, including trucks loaded with missile batteries, set off from Turkey's coastal town of Iskenderun in Hatay province, headed for the Syrian border 50km away, Turkish media reported on Thursday.
State-run Anatolia news agency said armored military vehicles were also being transported to military installations in Sanliurfa, in the middle of Turkey's border with Syria and Hatay, a panhandle province that was once a disputed territory claimed by Syria.
Anatolia said there were reports the vehicles were to be deployed along the border. It said several military vehicles had traveled separately to a military garrison in the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay.
The reports come less than a week after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet it says entered its airspace, prompting a sharp rebuke from Ankara that fell short of concrete action.