Saudi Arabia, Iran to discuss Syria war face-to-face

Published October 29, 2015
Saudi FM says the kingdom and its allies would hold a separate meeting to seek  “the time and means of Bashar al-Assad’s exit”.—AFP/File
Saudi FM says the kingdom and its allies would hold a separate meeting to seek “the time and means of Bashar al-Assad’s exit”.—AFP/File

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they would attend international talks in Vienna on Friday on the civil war in Syria, in the first meeting between the regional adversaries aimed at ending the four-year-long conflict in the country.

Saudi Arabia’s participation in the talks was aimed at gauging the willingness of Russia and Iran, the Syrian government’s main backers, for a peace deal, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Wednesday.

“The view of our partners... was that we should test the intentions of the Iranians and the Russians in arriving at a political solution in Syria, which we all prefer,” Al-Jubeir told a news conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and three of his deputies would attend the multilateral talks, Iranian state news agencies said earlier on Wednesday.

It will be the first time that Tehran attends international negotiations on Syria’s war. Other participants, notably the United States, say President Bashar al-Assad can play no part in Syria’s future.

The Saudi foreign minister added that the kingdom and its allies would hold a separate meeting on Friday to seek “the time and means of Bashar al-Assad’s exit”.

Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, the European Union and France also said they would attend Friday’s talks, which come a day after a smaller round of negotiations between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Around a dozen participants are expected in total.

It was not clear whether any invitation had been sent to either the Syrian government or the opposition. Neither side was present at the last talks in Vienna.

Speaking at a news conference alongside his Saudi counterpart, British foreign minister Philip Hammond said he hoped the meeting would encourage dialogue between the regional rivals, who back opposing sides in conflicts across the Arab world.

“Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most important and powerful countries in this region. It is very much in the long-term interests of the region that eventually these two countries are able to talk to each other, are able to discuss differences, are able to seek solutions peacefully,” Hammond said.

A senior Western diplomat in New York said: “We have got to start from a fairly low base given that you’ve got Russia and Iran on one side and everyone else on the other.” “It would be successful if (the meeting) came off and didn’t completely fall apart,” he added.

Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, has no objection to Iranian participation in the Syria talks, a diplomatic source in Ankara said.

“Iran was always saying that without it the talks on the Syrian crisis would not succeed. What has changed is that Russia and the United States have come to the same conclusion,” said Ali Sadrzadeh, an Iranian political analyst in Frankfurt.

He said the summer’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers had paved the way for Tehran’s participation in the international arena, adding: “The Vienna talks will be Iran’s first test.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who will take part in the talks, welcomed Iran’s participation. After a phone call with the Iranian foreign minister, she tweeted: “Important to have all relevant regional actors at the table on Friday in Vienna.”

Fighters from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are taking part in ground offensives being waged by the Syrian army and its allies with Russian air support, senior regional officials say.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2015

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