Russia denies ‘hidden agenda’ in Syria, Iran diplomacy
Russia denied Thursday harbouring a "hidden agenda" on Syria as it launched a fresh round of crisis diplomacy with top Syrian and Iranian diplomats ahead of historic peace talks.
The three allies’ foreign ministers huddled in a mansion in Moscow to devise a joint stance that would ease the pressure off President Bashar al-Assad to step down when the Syrian peace talks open next week in Switzerland after months of delays.
“This does not mean that we have some tri-party (peace) draft,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters at a joint press appearance with Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“We have nothing to hide. We have no hidden agenda,” said Lavrov before he and Zarif joined Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for more discussions.
Zarif also visited President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin to discuss curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme and the possible purchase of missiles that could fend off airstrikes by its arch-foe Israel.
“I am very happy to note that thanks to your efforts… we have managed to make progress on one of the most pressing modern problems — the Iranian nuclear problem,” Putin told Zarif in brief opening remarks.
The whirlwind diplomacy came amid continued violence both in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon — base of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia whose bastion in the Bekaa Valley was struck Thursday by a likely suicide car bomb that left three dead.
It was the fifth major assault on a Hezbollah base in Lebanon since the Shiite movement admitted it was fighting alongside Assad’s forces in a campaign that helped put a halt to rebel advances last summer.
The British-based Observatory for Human Rights also reported “fierce” new clashes between mainstream rebels and Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the northwestern edge of Syria near the Turkish border.
The group added that two weeks of battles between the rival anti-regime camps have killed at least 1,069 people. These included 608 Islamist and moderate rebels and 312 jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Iran rejects ‘preconditions’
Russia’s role in seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis was heightened in September when Putin managed to avert seemingly inevitable US strikes against Russia’s closest Middle East ally by forcing Assad to renounce his chemical weapons and plans to destroy the arsenal are under way.
Italy on Thursday announced that the port of Gioia Tauro in the Calabria region would receive some 500 tonnes of Syrian chemical agents — including mustard gas — despite fierce opposition from local officials who slammed the move as undemocratic.
As the so-called Geneva II conference is set to open on Wednesday, Moscow wants to convince Washington to accept Tehran’s presence at the peace talks in order to bolster its efforts to keep Assad in power and curb the future influence of his foes. After 34 months of fighting the Syrian conflict has killed around 130,000 people and displaced millions more.
“We expect (Geneva II) to include all parties that are capable of making a positive contribution to settling the conflict,” Putin told a Kremlin awards ceremony prior to his meeting with the Iranian diplomat.
Zarif said only that Iran would attend the Swiss meetings “if we are invited”.
But the Russian foreign ministry also stressed that the talks should be “based on the provisions of the (June 2012) Geneva Communique” — a document Iran rejected because it paved the way for a transitional government that could potentially replace Assad.
The United States says Iran must sign up to the accord before it can formally join the talks, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said no final decision had been reached on the Islamic republic’s involvement.
But Zarif said Iran would only attend the Swiss conference “without preconditions”.
Russian missile purchases
Analysts said Moscow and Tehran are now trying to draw up their own post-war plan that is based on Washington’s growing anxiety about the presence of Al-Qaeda sympathisers in Syrian rebel ranks.
“A large part of these negotiations are focused on what happens after Geneva II,” said Alexander Konovalov of Moscow’s Institute for Strategic Assessment.
The Kremlin appears to hold strong leverage over the Islamic republic because of Iran’s desire to purchase Russian missiles and other high-tech arms.
This can help Moscow wrest concessions sought by the West over both Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and its contested nuclear drive.
Iran has agreed to curb its nuclear programme starting January 20 in exchange for about $7 billion in sanctions relief.
Moscow in 2010 bowed to US and Israeli pressure by aborting an $800-million deal to supply Tehran with an S-300 surface-to-air missile system that would have imperiled any Israeli jets targeting Iranian nuclear sites.
But Iran’s Fars news agency said a new Tehran delegation will shortly try to purchase missiles that could be an even more lucrative deal and include the more powerful Antey-2500 system.