x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Iran admits to 'popular support' for Syrian uprising

Iran opened a hastily convened conference on Syria yesterday with the remarkable admission that the Syrian opposition has 'popular support' – yet it warned an abrupt end to president Bashar Al Assad's rule would have catastrophic consequences for the country.

Iran opened a hastily convened conference on Syria yesterday with the remarkable admission that the Syrian opposition has "popular support", yet warning an abrupt end to president Bashar Al Assad's rule would have catastrophic consequences for the country.

Tehran insisted it was opposed to "any foreign interference and military intervention" in Syria, its staunchest Arab ally through three often turbulent decades.

This sudden burst of diplomatic activity from Iranappears spurred by alarm that Mr Al Assad will lose power, dealing a huge blow to Iranian strategic interests in the region.

"The Iranian regime is increasingly concerned whether Assad will survive," said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Britain's Birmingham University.

Tehran said those attending yesterday's foreign ministers' conference were countries that have a "principled and realistic position" on the Syrian conflict. Excluded were western and leading Gulf Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that support the Syrian opposition. The UAE was also absent from the list of participants supplied by Iranian media.

Western nations, Iran's Gulf Arab rivals and the Syrian opposition insist Tehran is part of the problem and so cannot be part of the solution.

Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, yesterday repeated Iran's offer to host talks between the Syrian government and the rebels, calling for "national dialogue between the [Syrian] opposition, which has popular support, and the Syrian government to establish calm and security".

Mr Salehi's remarks appeared an attempt by Tehran to hedge its bets, in the hope that a post-Assad Syria would not be hostile to Iran's interests.

Previously, Iran's position was that Syrian rebels were "terrorists" acting at the behest of the "warmongering" United States to break an "axis of resistance" linking Iran, Syria and Hizbollah against "the Zionist regime" and America.

Tehran had long calculated that Mr Al Assad would crush the uprising, as Iran had violently snuffed out the huge street protests ignited by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. Now it seems far from sure.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post yesterday, Mr Salehi wrote: "Syrian society is a beautiful mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and cultures, and it will be smashed to pieces should President Bashar Al Assad abruptly fall."

Western nations are deeply sceptical of Iran's latest diplomatic foray. They suspect the Tehran meeting was an attempt to broaden the support base for the Syrian dictator and deflect attention away from the bloodletting, which continued in Aleppo yesterday.

Mr Salehi said Iran is trying to revive parts of a plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab envoy on Syria who resigned in despair earlier this month. The Iranian foreign minister highlighted three essential points: implementing a ceasefire, sending humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and laying the groundwork for a national dialogue in Syria.

Most of those who attended yesterday's supposed conference of foreign ministers did so at ambassadorial levels, among them Russia, which has offered its strong support for Mr Al Assad.

Only Iraq, Pakistan and Zimbabwe were reported to have been represented at foreign minister level.

Iranian media reported that China would also be present, among about 25 countries, including Iraq, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, India, and Zimbabwe.

The fractious Iranian regime has put out conflicting messages on Syria. A top aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Saeed Jalili, said in a meeting with Mr Assad on Tuesday that Iran would never allow the collapse of his regime, hailing it part of anti-Israeli axis in the Middle East led by Tehran.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae