Divisions apparent as UN urges Syrian talks

Ban Ki-moon’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister yesterday only highlighted the major obstacles that remain

Syrian refugees wait in line for a daily bread ration distributed by the World Food Program at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times

Syrian refugees wait in line for a daily bread ration distributed by the World Food Program at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times


United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has urged world powers to organise Syrian peace talks “as soon as possible”, to seek an end to a conflict that has killed about 80,000 people and forced more than 1.5 million others to flee the country.

But Mr Ban’s meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday only highlighted the major obstacles that stand in the way of the conference, and underscored the divisions between western powers and a Kremlin that continues to sell arms to Syria.

“There is a high expectation that this meeting should be held as soon as possible,” Mr Ban said in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“The sooner this conference is held, the better,” agreed Mr Lavrov, before admitting that it was still a matter of hot dispute which Syrians and which states would attend the talks.

It is not clear which members of the fractious Syrian opposition movement are willing to negotiate with the regime of president Bashar al-Assad, whom many rebel groups insist must step down before talks can start on the formation of a transitional government.

In the international sphere, meanwhile, Russia wants Mr Assad’s ally Iran to take part in the conference, but some western states – most vocally France – have opposed this suggestion.

International meeting
Moscow proceeds from the position that all the neighbouring countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the participants of the first Geneva conference, must be invited,” Mr Lavrov said, referring to an international meeting on Syria held last June.

At that gathering, it was agreed that a transitional government should be created, but no consensus was reached on the fate of Mr Assad, a longtime Russian ally and major buyer of Moscow’s weaponry.

Before meeting Mr Ban, Mr Lavrov complained that some western states wanted the talks to include only “a very small group of countries in a framework which, in essence, would pre-determine the negotiating teams, agenda, and maybe even the outcome of talks.

“One must not exclude a country like Iran from this process because of geopolitical preferences,” Mr Lavrov added. “It is a very important external player. But there is no agreement on this yet.”

Russia has blocked UN Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Mr Assad, but it insists it is not protecting him, saying it wants Syrians to decide their own future without western meddling.

Russian arms
Mr Lavrov also staunchly defended Russian arms sales to Damascus, which US media say include advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems that would make it hard to impose a no-fly zone or a sea blockade on Syria.

“I do not understand why the media is trying to create a sensation out of this,” said Mr Lavrov.

“We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements.

“We are first and foremost supplying defence weapons related to air defence . . . This does not in any way alter the balance of forces in this region or give any advantage in the fight against the opposition.”

More than 1.5 million Syrians have now fled the two-year conflict, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, with most seeking safety in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon.

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