Iran defies unity deal by supporting Assad
Setback for UN political transition plan does not bode well for migrants
Iran broke the international unity over Syria yesterday by restating its support for Bashar al-Assad's regime and declaring that any rebels deemed "terrorists" should be excluded from peace talks.
The 15 members of the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2254 on Friday, setting out a plan for "political transition" in Syria.
The idea is that Mr Assad's regime will open talks with rebel groups next month with the aim of forming a "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian" government within six months. This new administration would then hold "free and fair elections" to decide the country's leadership by mid-2017.
Russia and the US supported the resolution in a rare moment of accord between the two international powers on Syria. But Iran, a key ally of Mr Assad, is not a member of the council and had no opportunity to vote.
Within hours of the resolution's passage, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, made clear his misgivings and resisted any suggestion of a political transition.
"Iran will continue to support" the Syrian regime, he said.
As for the proposed peace talks, Mr Abdollahian said that Iran was in favour of negotiations, but added: "Terrorist groups have no place in Syria's national dialogue."
The question of which rebel movements count as legitimate interlocutors and which are terrorists remains unresolved. Mr Assad routinely declares that all his armed opponents are "terrorists" and Iran appears to support his position.
But Resolution 2254 strongly implies that negotiations should include every rebel group except Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The resolution calls for the "broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians" to join the talks. It also commends the "usefulness" of a meeting convened by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh of every rebel force, except Jabhat al-Nusra and Isil. Mr Abdollahian's words suggest that Iran would oppose including such a broad definition of rebel groups in the talks.
The question of Mr Assad's future has also been left unresolved. The rebels may jointly insist on a timetable for his departure before they join any negotiations.
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said the resolution created "movement" and "momentum" towards peace talks.
"We are confident that the opposition will engage with the process, but they will expect that during the first six-month period we will have a clear road map for a transition away from the Assad regime," he said.
"Our challenge over the next two or three months will be to reconcile the different views of the different parties round the table on that issue."
As politicians bicker, the exodus continues.
On Friday, four Iraqi migrants - two of them children - drowned after the boat taking them to Greece sank off Turkey.
The boat was taking eight Iraqi migrants to Kos. It sank after leaving the Turkish Aegean resort of Bodrum.
Turkish coastguards rescued the four other migrants. Authorities in Bodrum detained a Turkish man suspected of organising the journey.
The EU has seen little evidence that Turkey has managed to reduce departures of migrants for Greece's islands in the two weeks since it signed an agreement to do so, an EU document showed on Thursday.
The report, by the Luxembourg government, in its current capacity as president of EU ministerial councils, said around 4,000 people a day arrived from Turkey since the accord was signed on November 29 - a "slight reduction" from the 5,000 to 6,000 seen earlier in that month. However, this was not necessarily due to Turkish action.
"This decrease may, however, also be attributed to other factors," said the report.
EU border agency Frontex has said arrivals in Greece in all of November were 108,000, roughly half the figure for October, largely because weather conditions had deteriorated.
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu has spoken with German chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders to discuss a possible scheme to bring Syrian refugees directly from Turkey to Europe.
But many EU leaders have stressed that any such move depends on seeing evidence that Turkey is working to prevent people smugglers putting people to sea to reach Europe.
That is also true of disbursement of the €3bn they pledged to Ankara on November 29 and other concessions, such as easing visa rules for Turks coming to the EU.