Iran could help push ally Syrian President Bashar Assad to cooperate with upcoming peace talks, the EU's foreign policy chief has suggested, as the embattled leader's position looks increasingly precarious and reliant on foreign support.
Federica Mogherini said on Tuesday that a framework agreement on nuclear power reached this month by Iran and five world powers would allow Tehran to take on a different "major, but positive" regional role. In Syria this could be to "encourage the regime to participate in a Syrian-led transition," she added, according to remarks quoted by AFP.
Mogherini, who is facilitating the nuclear negotiations in Switzerland, made the comments prior to a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. She added that upcoming talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the four-year-old Syrian conflict should include all influential parties. Iran has played a major role in propping up Assad's government, through both military support and its regional proxies, including Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The new round of Syrian peace talks is scheduled to begin in Geneva next month, organized by UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura. Unlike previous attempts, Mistura will be meeting separately with a number of different parties first, with a view to full negotiations beginning later in the year. Iran was excluded from previous sessions, but officials have said that it would now be taking part.
Previous discussions in early 2014 fell apart after opposition parties insisted that Assad step down, a condition he refused. The Syrian president's position is now looking somewhat shaky, however. Rebel groups have inflicted a series of defeats on government forces over the past month, dislodging them from a number of strongholds in the northwest. Idlib city was seized at the end of March, while the nearby town if Jisr al-Shughur fell last week followed by Qarmeed army base on Monday. The gains moved rebels closer to coastal Latakia, Assad's homeland.
Assad had appeared to be growing in confidence in recent months, seemingly stronger as a result of the rise of Islamic State (IS), which derailed rebel groups and led some international observers to suggest that the autocrat might be the "least worst" option in Syria. The opposition, meanwhile, was seemingly crippled by infighting and rivalries. But the rebels have recently gained strength via a well-armed coalition of different factions estimated at a total strength of around 10,000. The bulk of the force was made up by Islamist or extremist groups, including local al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, but more secular brigades once affiliated with the Free Syrian Army were also involved.
Meanwhile, government troops are facing increasing difficult in obtaining new recruits, forcing an ever-greater reliance on Iran and Iranian-backed militias. However, this support likely only extends as far as Tehran's interests. But while rebels are likely to make further attempts to push towards Damascus and Latakia, there is no guarantee of meeting with similar success in areas more important to Assad and his backers.
The rapid rise of IS might also affect Iranian willingness to participate in peace talks. Its emergence has made odd bedfellows across the region. The US wishes to see Assad step down and has provided rebel groups battling him with weapons and training. However, it is now leading a coalition that has been launching airstrikes on the jihadi rebels in both Iraq and Syria since last year and providing military assistance to Baghdad. Iran has been doing the same and has trained and equipped many of the Shia militias which have played a major part in the Iraqi fight against IS.
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