Iran Conference: Setting the Stage for Dialogue in Syria
“Consultative Meeting on Syria” in Tehran aims to promote a Syrian political solution and establish a counterweight to the self-styled “Friends of Syria.”
Iran’s position on Syria is unchanged: the crisis can only have a Syrian solution, based on dialogue between the warring parties. It aims to persuade as many countries as possible to support that option, and establish an alternative to the coalition of states complicit in the bloodletting in Syria.
Iran is looking ahead to the aftermath of what it expects to be the Syrian regime’s “victory” in Aleppo. Once that is achieved, Tehran believes, the powers backing the rival sides in Syria will have no alternative but to negotiate.
Turkey’s position is crucial in this regard, as it would clearly have a major impact if it opted to intervene directly in the battle for Aleppo. This in turn explains the sudden and sharp deterioration in relations between Ankara and Tehran, with the latter threatening to freeze trade with the former.
The Iranians have been preparing for today’s “Consultative Meeting on Syria,” hosted by the Foreign Ministry, for around two weeks, according to Iranian sources. Their contacts focused on states that are “not directly complicit” in the Syrian crisis, in addition to Turkey, which was also invited.
The sources said outgoing UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was invited too, in the hope that he could be persuaded not to abandon his mission, but decided, apparently under pressure from various parties, not to attend.
On the eve of the conference, 20 countries were due to send delegates to the gathering, including Russia, China, Turkey, Pakistan and India, and seven Arab states (Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Kuwait, the UAE, and Oman). Eight countries were to be represented by their foreign ministers, the others at a less senior level.
Lebanon decided not to take part in line with its policy of non-involvement in Syrian affairs. Iraq was to send high-level delegates other than Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who “represents the American face of the Iraqi regime,” according to the sources. But Iraqi diplomatic efforts led to an agreement that would have Zebari attend along with the minister of national security. The sources added that many of the countries invited had – like Annan, who initially agreed to attend – come under heavy pressure to stay away, or at least to lower the level of their representation.
The Iranian sources said the principal objective of the conference is to “bring the Syrian opposition and regime together around the negotiating table, with the aim of arriving at a Syrian solution to the crisis in Syria.”
They said Iran had obtained undertakings from “a fair number” of Syrian opposition groups to support such talks, as well as the endorsement of President Bashar al-Assad, who conferred in Damascus earlier this week with the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Saeed Jalili.
“We want this conference to be a counter to the Enemies of Syria (Friends of Syria) group, which has been promoting militarization, violence and sectarianism,” they said. “The hope is to persuade the maximum number of states to encourage and take part in an intra-Syrian solution.”
The thinking in Tehran is that the Syrian regime is bound to prevail in the battle of Aleppo, and that “after that, the time will come for negotiations between the forces that wanted to destroy the Syrian state and bring down the regime, and the states that want to make a political solution succeed and find a Syrian way out of the crisis.” Thursday’s conference is part of a process of “preparing the ground for such negotiations.”
The sources pointed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent warnings that Syria could turn into an al-Qaeda stronghold as evidence that the US may be prepared to rethink its approach to the Syrian crisis. “This means that the Americans, despite their arming of the gunmen, are preparing under the table for the post-Aleppo phase,” they said.
It is significant that close US allies and supporters of the Syrian rebels – Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Tunisia – were to attend the Tehran conference. “That is the strongest evidence of the opposition front cracking, and of its willingness to enter into a dialogue once the dust has settled on the Battle of Aleppo,” they said. However, it seems that diplomatic pressure succeeded in the end in keeping Kuwait and UAE from participating.
The conference was to begin with an address by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, followed by statements from the delegation heads, in a session open to the media. This will be followed by talks behind closed doors, an iftar for the delegates, and a meeting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Not Standing By
The conference follows visits by Jalili to Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, during which he affirmed both Iran’s advocacy of intra-Syrian dialogue, and its position that Damascus is a key part of the axis of resistance which Tehran “will not allow to be broken.”
Informed Iranian sources said Assad thanked Jalili for Iran’s firm support, while affirming that Syria is capable of resisting the international onslaught it is facing with its own resources. Jalili replied that the crisis is a matter of “Iranian national security, and indeed regional and global security,” and that Iran would not stand idly by if matters developed. “We will prevent any intervention from outside Syria’s borders. Within the borders, we are confident that you are capable of controlling and overcoming the crisis,” he reportedly said.
While in Damascus, Jalili also met with the Syrian minister in charge of national dialogue, Ali Haidar, to discuss the Tehran conference. While Haidar has been to Moscow for talks on the issue of dialogue, this is the first time a high-level envoy from an influential country has exerted efforts to engage him in serious dialogue.
In Baghdad, which Jalili visited Wednesday, the sources said the Iranian official’s aim was to bolster the Iraqi leadership’s position of support for Syria, and offset pressure from the US and its regional allies aimed at undermining it. They cited Turkey’s attempted arm-twisting of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, evident during Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent visit to Erbil and Kirkuk, as an example of that pressure.
The Kurdish issue was a principal focus of Jalili’s tour. According to Iranian officials, he sought to encourage his hosts to reach out to all the region’s Kurds and show more understanding of their concerns. Other sources in Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus confirmed that agreement was reached in this regard.
This in turn led to an “operational decision” by all branches of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria loyal to the party’s jailed leader, Abdallah Ocalan, not to carry out any attacks on Iranian, Iraqi or Syrian territory, and to protect Syria’s northern border against any Turkish assault.”
Accordingly, PKK fighters have assumed control in four Syrian provinces, which they have undertaken to defend against Turkey.
Iranian sources say that Davutoglu and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyeb Erdogan have been trying in vain to get a cease-fire brokered with the PKK in Turkey, or even a brief Ramadan truce. They sought the intercession of Russia, and of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, but to no avail. PKK attacks, and threats of escalation, are continuing.
Barzani, meanwhile, according to an Iraqi Kurdish official, recently sent an envoy to Assad to assure him that Iraqi Kurdistan would not be used as a passageway or base for any attack on Syria.
Jalili’s tour coincided with a fleeting visit by Salehi to Ankara, where he had what Iranian sources described as a “very stormy meeting” with Davutoglu. This was underlined by the harshly-worded statement issued by the Turkish side before the Iranian chief diplomat had even left town.
Salehi served notice that Iran and its allies could not accept the overthrow of Assad or the destruction of Syria. He described this as a “red line,” and warned Turkey against taking any action that threatens the country or its regime. He accompanied this with a warning that Iran was seriously considering severing commercial ties with Turkey.
Iranian officials believe Syria is becoming an increasingly divisive issue in Turkish decision-making circles, and that Davutoglu’s political career may come to an end “after the battle of Aleppo.”
They also think Ankara is becoming more wary of the backlash its behavior could provoke in places like Iraq and Lebanon. Remarked one official: “What would Ankara do if someone in Lebanon decided to provide the Turkish UNIFIL brigade with the same kind of hospitality which Turkish-backed gunmen are providing to the Lebanese hostages in Syria?” The official said there was also “serious talk” in southern Iraq of expelling Turkish companies from the country.
While Salehi’s visit to Ankara was aimed at changing Turkey’s behavior toward the Syrian crisis as a whole, he also sought to secure the release of the 48 Iranians kidnapped by Syrian opposition fighters last week. Tehran has held Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar responsible for their abduction.
However, Iran is expected to refrain from publicly criticizing the Saudis for the time being. This is at the request of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is to attend the Islamic Conference Organization summit in Mecca on August 14-15, and hopes to persuade Saudi King Abdullah to take part in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit due to be held in Tehran at the end of the month.
The Iranians hope Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Abdallah Gul will be guests of honor at the summit, though neither country is a member of the NAM. It is clear why Putin was invited, given Russia’s support of the resistance axis. The invitation to Gul, however, seems to have a different purpose: a deliberate snub to Erdogan, who normally represents Turkey at such events.
Iran’s forceful position on Syria was also conveyed to Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi when Iranian Vice President Hamid Baqai called on him in Cairo to attend the NAM summit. Mursi – whose declared view is opposed to violence and in favor of a political solution in Syria, while blaming both sides for the crisis – promised to attend.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.