Russia wants Tehran at Syria conference
Russia will mount a diplomatic effort to secure Iran a seat at the table at a U.N.-brokered political conference on Syria, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said in an interview. Speaking at the Russian mission to the United Nations, Churkin said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov will make the case for Tehran’s participation ...
Speaking at the Russian mission to the United Nations, Churkin said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov will make the case for Tehran’s participation in a meeting Wednesday in Geneva with top U.S. officials, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. The United States has opposed Tehran’s presence in talks on an international political settlement in Syria, arguing that Iran has been arming the Syrian government and has no interest in a political transition.
The dispute over Iran’s participation in political talks has held up agreement on a U.S. and Russian proposal to bring Syrian government and opposition leaders together at an international conference to bring an end to the civil war. The U.S. and Russian delegation are aiming to overcome their differences in tomorrow’s talks, and will hopefully schedule a date for the peace conference, which was supposed to be set for this month.
"There are two immediate issues which need to be clarified: Who is going to represent the opposition? And then who is going to be invited" from outside the country," Churkin said. "We are arguing that Iran should be invited; some are saying Iran should not be invited."
Churkin said that Russia also favors the attendance of other key regional powers, including Egypt, which did not appear at a previous diplomatic summit on Syria hosted by former U.N.-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan, and Saudi Arabia, which has supplied arms to the opposition. "We are in favor of having all of those who can have influence."
For two years, the United States and Russia have been sharply divided over the approach to containing the Syrian crisis, with Washington calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and Moscow, which insists that Syria’s leader have a say in the country’s political future. Russia has cast its veto three times to block the Security Council from adopting a resolution compelling Assad to accept a political transition that would lead to his demise.
"If you go back and look at this whole saga of Syria and our vetoes in the Security Council, I think the problem was that really we felt that the United States and those who actively supported the United States were out to effect forcible regime change," Churkin said. "And we were, as a matter of principle and as a matter of geopolitics, if you will. Against that because we felt that would bring about a chain of events…which was going to be extremely dangerous to Syria and for the region."
Despite U.S. and Russian differences, Churkin said that the former Cold War adversaries have been working productively over Syria. While accusing Britain and France of seeking to continue to foment regime change, Churkin said the United States has been "more realistic in seeing the situation in Syria as less simplistic than some West European countries."
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russian diplomatic talks on Syria are unfolding amid fresh reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. A U.N. human rights panel issued a report indicating there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that forces loyal to Assad has used limited amounts of chemical weapons on at least four occasions in March and April. Separately, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that a French lab confirmed the "presence of sarin in the samples in our possession" and that it "now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way."
Britain’s U.N. envoy Mark Lyall-Grant said that his government believe there is evidence that small amounts of sarin have been used in Syria.
"The evidence that we have suggest that there is a use of a number of different variants of chemical agents, a combination of agents, in some cases sometimes including sarin, sometimes not," he told reporters a press conference at U.N. headquarters. "It is relatively small quantities but notheless repeated use."
"Our view is that there has been credible evidence that in small quantities chemical weapons have been used by the regime in Syria," he added. "We have no evidence that the opposition either possesses or has used chemical weapons."
In advance of the Geneva talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that Moscow may be reconsidering its plans to deliver advanced S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. "It is a very serious weapon," Putin said. "We do not want to upset the balance of power in the region."
Despite the increased U.S. and Russian cooperation on Syria, Moscow continues to block any action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council. Last month, Russia rejected a request by Jordan to send a Security Council delegation to Jordan to witness the refugee plight and to help Jordan cope with the overwhelming financial costs of tending to their needs.
Churkin said that "one of the problems" with approving the trip was that it would be unfair to the Palestinians, who have been seeking a Security Council visit for more than three years. But he said the "main problem" is that "we didn’t see that the Security Council should get involved in the refugee situations at this point." Russia was also concerned that some non-permanent members of the council made it clear that their interest in having that mission of the Security Council to Jordan was to build a bridge towards humanitarian corridors, no-fly zone…essentially dragging Jordan into the Syrian. If you want to deal with the actual refugee situation then let’s deal with the refugee situation. We can send experts. Or we can have a conference on refugees."
Churkin also said that he had rejected a proposal by Britain over the weekend to adopt a U.N. Security Council press statement condemning Syria for its brutal siege of the town of Qusayr. The Russian envoy complained that the statement was "not balanced."
Churkin also touched on the history of prickly relations with his American counterpart, Susan Rice. Despite their differences, Churkin said that they "do have a very good personal and working relationship. " But he said that "sometimes we have clashed, and sometimes we have clashed in a nasty way. Do I do it on purpose? Of course not."
But he sounded as though he may relish the jousts. Once, he recalled, at a Security Council retreat he quipped: "I regard my day as wasted if I don’t pick a fight with Ambassador Rice. But that was a joke."
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Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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