The Cable

Should He Stay or Should He Go? Assad's Future Clouds Syria Talks

A bitter dispute over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is casting a pall over this week's international peace talks in Switzerland, triggering harsh public exchanges between key leaders and placing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to Syria's brutal civil war seemingly even further out of reach.

The talks in the Swiss city of Montreux have been snake bitten from the start, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon first asking Iran to attend the conference and then having to back track and rescind the invitation after the Obama administration bashed the move and the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the negotiations if Tehran took part.

The Syrian peace conference finally got underway Wednesday, but the first day was, if anything, even messier and angrier than the run-up to the meeting had been. The two sides insulted each other, and made clear that they weren't willing to compromise over Assad's role in Syria if a peace accord was reached.

The U.N.'s top negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, even admitted that he wasn't sure that representatives from the Syrian opposition and the Assad government would be willing to sit down together when a round of substantive negotiations are scheduled to get underway in Geneva Friday.

"I'm going to meet them separately and see how best we can move," Brahimi told reporters Wednesday night. "Do we go straight on Friday into one room and start discussion or do we talk a little bit more separately? I don't know yet."

The decidedly undiplomatic opening of an international conference ostensibly dedicated to high-level diplomacy raised real questions about whether the talks have any chance of succeeding - and about whether the session should even have been held given the yawning gap between the two sides in a conflict that has already left more than 100,000 people dead.

The biggest point of contention revolves around Assad's future. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing Damascus and its allies in Tehran to accept the terms of the so-called Geneva Communique, a U.N.-sanctioned plan for a transition from the Assad regime to a government of national unity "with full executive authority."

"We really need to deal with reality," Kerry said in his opening address to the gathering. "There is no way - no way possible in the imagination - that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern."

Kerry's remarks were echoed by Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba, who said the country's rebels would only accept a deal that would explicitly state that Assad would have to end his reign.

"Any talk about Assad remaining in power threatens to derail the Geneva 2 conference," he told the delegates.

Syrian officials immediately said that Assad wouldn't be going anywhere.

"There will be no transfer of power and President Bashar Assad is staying,"

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters.

International conferences are usually marked by seemingly endless speeches that don't really end up saying much of anything. Wednesday was very different. Syrian

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and sleeping in "five star hotels" while their countryman were being slaughtered.

Moualem portrayed the Syrian government as a vital partner in the international effort to prevent al Qaeda, which has emerged as a key belligerent in the Syrian conflict, from gaining a new safe haven to plot terror attacks against the West. Moualem

likened his country's own struggle to that of the U.S., which has been battling al-Qaeda since the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

"They have forgotten that terrorism was yesterday in the U.S.; today it is in Syria; as for tomorrow nobody knows," he said. "But what is sure is it shall not stop here."

As Moualem went well beyond his allotted speaking time, Ban, who was visibly frustrated, asked the Syrian to speed things up.  

"Can you wrap up?" Ban asked.

Moualem refused, saying "this is my right."

"You live in New York, I live in Syria" he continued. "I have the right to give the Syrian version in this forum...Let me finish my speech."

Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, tried to play down the seriousness of the exchange. "Let's not make a Swiss mountain out of a molehill," he told //link// reporters.

After the conference's opening session, Ban sought to dampen expectations, saying it was an "historic" achievement simply to get the parties together.

"We did not expect instant breakthroughs from today's conference," he told reporters at the end of the opening ceremonies, noting that the "hard work" will begin on Friday.

Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, is scheduled to lead open-ended negotiations talks between the two parties starting on Friday. The former Algerian foreign minister, who has served as a high-level trouble-shooter in Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged the talks would be tough.

U.N. based diplomats said they expected him to put off the question of Assad's fate for the time being and to focus on promoting a series of confidence building measures -- including a plan to permit U.N. aid workers access to besieged Syrian towns -- that stand a greater chance of success. Syria has already proposed that it is willing to consider an agreement to allow access to besieged communities in Aleppo.

"We have had some fairly clear indicators that the parties are willing to discuss issue of access to need people, liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," Brahimi said.

Opposition sources say that they would welcome a commitment by Syria to provide greater U.N. access to besieged towns, and they recognize that armed opposition forces need to halt aid blockages in some pro-regime neighborhoods.

Still, they made clear that they fear negotiations aimed at ending Assad's hold on power will be hijacked by talks on humanitarian relief that will reinforce the need of the international community to deal with the Syrian leader.

If Wednesday was any indication, the rebels have little to worry about on that front. The question of Assad's future doesn't appear to be going anyway anytime soon.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

AFP/Fabrice Coffini

National Security

How Iran Played the U.N. -- and Drove the U.S. Nuts

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently undertook one of the most sensitive diplomatic initiatives of his U.N. career: spearheading a plan to secure Iranian support for a political transition in Syria aimed at pushing Tehran's long time ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from power.

But that plan backfired, despite America's backing. And now, even Ban's own aides are admitting that their boss was played.

On the eve of Syria peace talks, Ban on Sunday triumphantly announced a major breakthrough, declaring that Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, had promised him for the first time that his government would back a power sharing agreement in Syria. 

But the deal began imploding almost immediately after Ban issued an invitation to Iran to attend the Syrian negotiations. Within 24 hours, the Syrian opposition had threatened to boycott the session, and Ban was pressed by the State Department to rescind the invitation after Iran failed to publicly commit to what it had told Ban. 

Ban's own aides acknowledged that he had mishandled the situation, raising uncomfortable questions about his handling of the affair. At a press briefing today, Ban's spokesman, Farhan Haq, said that an "oral understanding" Iran provided to the U.N. chief was to "be followed by a written understanding. That didn't happen."

A review of the events leading up to the diplomatic cockup reveals a series of missteps and misunderstandings, involving Ban and top American and Iranian officials, that threatened to upend one of the U.S.'s most important initiatives in the Middle East. While the talks are scheduled to proceed on track, the mix-up has left a trail of recriminations and suspicions among some of the key players, including Iran and Russia, who have protested Ban's decision to disinvite Tehran.

"Clearly the United Nations Secretary-General thought he had a green light to invite Iran," said Fred Hof, a former adviser on Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Clearly the United States felt outraged and double-crossed." Hof told The Cable that no single actor was to blame for the mishap, but instead, a series of high-stakes misinterpretations. "I have reason to believe it was a multifaceted, multilayered miscommunication involving several parties," he added.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the U.N. never appreciated the extent to which the Syrian opposition would oppose Iranian involvement in the talks. "The secretary-general miscalculated," he said. "The Syrian opposition freaked out much more ferociously than he expected." 

Parsi, a well-connected Tehran-watcher who supports U.S.-Iranian engagement, said the mishap damaged bilateral relations between countries regardless of who's to blame. "This ended up being a confidence depleting exercise between Iran and the secretary general, the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. and the secretary general," he said.

In the aftermath of the incident, efforts were made to smooth over the differences between the U.S. and U.N. On Tuesday, Kerry and Ban posed for a widely-circulated photo showing the two diplomats locked arm-to-arm and smiling alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.

Ban and Brahimi have long believed that any political settlement in Syria would be impossible without seating Iran, a chief political and military supporter of Syria, at the negotiating table.

Having worked well with Zarif on the nuclear deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed that Iran could prove helpful. According to U.N. officials, Kerry and other American officials strongly encouraged Ban in the weeks leading up to Sunday's diplomatic fiasco to try to secure a commitment from Zarif to endorse the transitional plan and to travel to Switzerland to participate in the peace process.

But Washington conditioned Tehran's participation in the Geneva talks on its willingness to endorse an internationally-agreed road map, known as the Geneva Communiqué, for a political transition from the current Assad regime to a new government.

As early as Thursday, Ban indicated to the Americans that he was moving close to a deal.

At that stage, Kerry and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, personally informed Ban that "prior to Iranian attendance and participation they would need to publicly state they agree to the Geneva 1 communiqué," according to a U.S. official. 

Ban thought he had cinched a deal.

In a series of conversations, Zarif assured Ban that Iran supported the peace talks and indicated that Iran would endorse the Geneva communiqué, according to U.N. officials.

Buoyed by those talks, Ban informed the U.S. on Sunday of his decision to invite Iran. "I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis," Ban said in a public statement. "I have spoken at length in recent days with Iran's Foreign Minister, Mr. Javad Zarif." 

Zarif "has assured me that, like all the other countries invited to the opening day discussions in Montreux, Iran understands that the basis of the talks is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, including the Action Plan. Foreign Minister Zarif and I agree that the goal of the negotiations is to establish, by mutual consent, a transitional governing body with full executive powers. It was on that basis that Foreign Minister Zarif pledged that Iran would play a positive and constructive role in Montreux."

But neither Zarif nor any other Iranian official was willing to make such a commitment in public.

In a terse statement issued Monday, Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammed Khazee said that "the Islamic Republic of Iran does not accept any preconditions for its participation in Geneva II conference. If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communiqué, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference."

Ban, meanwhile, citing "disappointment" with Iran's refusal to publicly endorse the communique rescinded the invitation, triggering protests from Iran and Russia. 

"I made it clear in numerous phone conversations with the secretary general that Iran does not accept any preconditions to attend the talks," Zarif said Tuesday in a statement to State run ISNA News Agency. "It is also regrettable that Mr. Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons for the withdrawal," Zarif added, saying his government was never "too keen on attending in the first place."

The fallout from the diplomatic dispute has raised questions about how closely the U.S. and U.N. coordinated, and who was responsible for the cockup.

U.S. officials have indicated that they were blindsided by Ban's decision to issue an invitation to Iran before it had committed to endorsing the Geneva communique.

U.N. officials, however, maintain that while Ban never sought American "approval" for his decision, he consulted with the United States intensively. "The U.S. made its concerns known," said one diplomatic source. Ban "made his own decision, with input from a number of sources."

"I know for a fact that this could not have been a surprise to the U.S. authorities," Ban's chief spokesman, Martin Nesirky said Monday. "It was not hasty and they were fully aware of the timing of the announcement."

A week ago, Kerry hinted that it would be wrong to invite Iran because of its military support for Assad. "Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria," he said. "No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are."

But one U.N. official suggested that the U.S. had actively promoted the arrangement, saying the U.S. had even urged the U.N. chief to step up his announcement to invite Iran by a day out of concern that the news could leak.

A U.S. official disputed the claim that it had prodded Ban to step up his announcement. "No we didn't ask them to move their press conference from Monday to Sunday," the official said.

Other U.N.-based diplomats said it was hard to imagine that Ban had undertaken the decision to invite Iran without believing he at least had Washington's implicit support. "I have never seen Ban act without a green light from the United States," said one U.N. diplomat. "There were conversations and there must have been a misunderstanding."