Syria Friends agree Assad departure timetable, Iranian role questioned

Syria Friends agree Assad departure timetable, Iranian role questioned
A senior member of Syria's opposition warned Wednesday against Iranian participation in Syrian talks in Vienna, as French FM says an Assad departure timetable was agreed Tuesday in Paris
4 min read
28 October, 2015
Iran's attendance could be a game-changer [Getty]
France and its allies have agreed on the need for a "precise timetable" for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they met ahead of international talks, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday.

"We worked on the details of a political transition guaranteeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad within a precise timetable," Fabius said in a statement.

He was referring to a meeting late Tuesday in Paris that included officials from the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates It did not include Assad's main backers, Russia and Iran, although both are due to take part in major crisis talks in Vienna on Thursday and Friday.

Fabius said the group also discussed "the necessity of continuing its efforts to fight (the Islamic State group) in Syria while supporting the moderate opposition, whose role in future negotiations was emphasised."

Syrian opposition questions Iranian attendance

A senior member of Syria's Western-backed political opposition came out on Wednesday against Iranian participation in Syrian peace talks in Vienna, saying Terhan's presence would undermine the process.

The United States has said that Iran would be invited to Friday's talks and the semi-official Iranian news agency ISNA said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputies would attend.

About a dozen participants are expected including Russia and Saudi Arabia, which back Assad and his opponents, respectively.

Hisham Marwa, Vice-President of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, criticised any participation in the talks by Tehran but stopped short of saying it would refuse

Iran has only one project - to keep Assad in power. Hisham Marwa

participation itself if Iran was involved.

"Iran doesn't believe in the Geneva Communique. Involving it (Iran) in talks undermines the political process," he told Reuters, speaking of an internationally agreed document setting out guidelines for Syria's path to peace and a political transition.

Asked whether the Coalition would refuse to take part in talks, he said, "What's important now is not to refuse talks, it is important to express our concern. Iran has only one project - to keep Assad in power... they don't believe in the principle of the talks".

Tehran's attendance would also mean that traditional Iran-Saudi regional rivalries could surface at the negotiating table.

Egypt, Lebanon and the European Union have also confirmed they will attend Friday's talks, while Russia said Iraq has also been invited.

In January 2014 the opposition body refused to attend political talks in Switzerland unless the United Nations retracted its invitation to Iran.

The Turkey-based Coalition has little influence over rebels fighting to overthrow Assad in a conflict that has been complicated by the successes of rival hardline Islamist groups, many of whom have their own political networks.

Its critics say the exiled group fails to represent the Syrian people and its decisions are dictated by its two main backers - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - which compete for influence.

Growing momentum

The talks in Vienna will be the first time all major international players in the conflict will be in the same room as they seek to find a political solution by setting up an interim unity government.

The talks in Vienna will be the first time all major international players in the conflict will be in the same room

On one side are Russia and Iran, which both are backing Assad's forces on the ground and say Damascus must be helped to defeat "terrorism" before a political process can start.

But serious divisions remain over when or whether Assad should step down -- and the four-way Russia-US-Saudi-Turkey meeting last Friday in the Austrian capital failed to make a major breakthrough.

On the other, are the United States and its key regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are backing groups fighting Assad and insist he must go if there is to be any hope of peace.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that he doubted the upcoming round of talks in Vienna would be "the last chapter".

But Secretary of State John Kerry said he felt "progress was being made towards laying down the foundation of what a political transition could look like" after the last talks and wanted to "continue momentum", Kirby said.

A statement by the French Foreign Ministry said that the meeting "will discuss how to initiate a political transition toward a united and democratic Syria that will respect all communities, as well as the strengthening of our efforts to combat terrorism".

The fate of Assad and his role during the transitional period remains a contentious issue in discussions about a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

But, Iran's attendance could be a game-changer. Iran has backed Assad's government throughout the conflict and the Syrian opposition may balk at Iran's inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.