Russia and Iran on Tuesday criticized the U.N. chief’s decision to withdraw Tehran’s invitation to join this week’s peace conference on Syria, as diplomats said a new report on Syrian regime atrocities underscored the urgent need to try to end the country’s brutal civil war.
The last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to participate in the so-called Geneva conference threw the entire meeting into doubt, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer late Monday under intense U.S. pressure after Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group threatened to boycott.
After Ban withdrew the invitation, the opposition Syrian National Coalition confirmed that it would attend the talks, stressing the goal should be to establish a transitional government with full executive powers “in which killers and criminals do not participate.”
That cleared the way for the conference to open Wednesday as planned in the Swiss resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents — the first of the uprising — are to start Friday in Geneva.
Expectations for a breakthrough at the conference are low. The front lines of the war have been largely locked in place since March, and despite suffering enormous losses, neither the government nor the opposition appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position.
It’s also unclear how the opposition coalition, a weak and fractured umbrella group with almost no sway over the most powerful rebel groups inside Syria, could enforce any agreement reached in Geneva.
The determination to hold the talks anyway is a reflection of the urgency felt by the international community to find a political resolution to end the civil war that activists say has killed more than 130,000 people and unleashed a humanitarian crisis.
For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, there is little hope that the peace conference can deliver a solution to the conflict, and scant interest in a settlement with President Bashar Assad’s government.
“We lost our faith in the international community. We don’t care about the Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not,” said Ibraheem Qaddah, a former rebel fighter now holed up in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari refugee camp.
“We have lost a lot of relatives and friends and family members in the fighting and we’ve lost Syria. We are not looking for reconciliation with Bashar Assad,” said Qaddah, whose left arm was amputated after he was severely wounded in the war.
In the latest report of atrocities, three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received tens of thousands photographs documenting what they called the systematic killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities. The images, which were smuggled out by a defector from Syria’s military police, showed victims’ bodies with signs of torture and maltreatment.
David Crane, one of the three experts who examined the newly revealed images of slain detainees, told The Associated Press that the cache provides strong evidence for charging Assad and others for crimes against humanity — “but what happens next will be a political and diplomatic decision.”
“These photographs, if they are real, they reconfirm what we already are thinking and so we hope that the talks in Montreux and further on will produce results,” said European Union President Herman Van Rompuy. “We don’t need more evidence. If there is other evidence, all the better, but we don’t need more evidence on the humanitarian tragedy that is happening there.”
Assad’s family has ruled since 1970, and Iran is Assad’s strongest regional ally. The Islamic Republic has supplied the Syrian government with advisers, money and weapons since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. Iran’s allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad’s forces.
Iran’s role has infuriated Syria’s opposition forces, which accuse Tehran of in essence invading their country.
The controversy over Iran’s participation in the talks highlighted the fundamental differences over Syria between the United States and Russia, which has shielded Assad’s regime from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the civil war.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Ban’s decision to rescind Iran’s invitation was a mistake, but that the Kremlin would try to make the Geneva negotiations work.
“There is no catastrophe, we will push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions,” Lavrov told reporters Tuesday.
At the same time, Russia’s top diplomat took a jab at Ban, saying his decision on Iran “hasn’t helped strengthen the U.N. authority,” and that recalling the offer looked “unseemly.”
Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s stance that the presence of Iran was essential for the success of the talks, saying Tehran’s absence “isn’t going to help strengthen the unity of the world’s Muslims.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry also sharply criticized Ban’s diplomatic about-face and called on him to explain the “real reasons” for withdrawing the invite.
“From our point of view, the withdrawal is deplorable,” ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, adding that the U.N. chief must have done so under immense pressure.
Syria’s civil war has unleashed sectarian hatreds that have rippled across the wider region. It also has developed into a proxy war between Iran, the region’s Shiite Muslim power, and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni heavy weight.
In the latest evidence that the unrest is spilling over Syria’s borders, a car bombing in the Lebanese capital’s southern suburbs early Tuesday. The explosion struck a Shiite area that is a bastion of support for Hezbollah, killing at least two people.
Lebanon is deeply divided by the war in Syria, and Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites have lined up behind their brethren in Syria on opposing sides of the war.
The last-minute flap over Iran’s participation set a chaotic tone for the run-up to the conference.
In another bizarre twist, Syrian state TV said the government delegation stopped in Athens but couldn’t leave because Greek authorities weren’t allowing them to refuel the plane. It said the delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, would be delayed several hours and could miss meetings.
Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Constantinos Koutras said the delay was caused by a procedural issue, and that the plane had been cleared to depart.