By Somini Sengupta
NOV. 9, 2015
When world powers gather in Vienna this weekend to discuss a possible postwar political deal for Syria, one of the main points of contention will be to determine whom to include among opposition groups in future negotiations — and the West may back groups that are less than “moderate,” Britain’s top diplomat said on Monday.
“In my judgment, people we should be talking to will include people who have a vision for the future of Syria that is different from ours, a vision that we will not agree with,” the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said in an interview at The New York Times.
“But if those are people who are prepared to argue their case, who are prepared to test their vision at the ballot box and are prepared to accept the decision of the Syrian people and take part in a democratic debate, then my view is that we should include them,” he said.
Iran insists on defining which groups count as “terrorists” in Syria. Its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, announced at a news conference with his visiting Belgian counterpart in Tehran on Monday that talks in Vienna would have to draw up such a list. “First is determining which groups are terrorists, which is clear to us,” Mr. Zarif told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse. “And then agreeing on how to proceed from there.”
The diplomatic standoff over who is a terrorist and who counts as a legitimate opposition group comes on top of the significant differences that remain on the future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Russia and Iran want to leave open the possibility that Mr. Assad can stand for election once more. The United States, Britain and their Persian Gulf allies resolutely oppose that idea.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, during a visit to Armenia on Monday, said that the talks should concern themselves with who should represent the Syrian opposition and who should be considered extremists, instead of whether to replace Mr. Assad, The Associated Press reported. As for which opposition group is legitimate, Mr. Assad has dismissed all his armed rivals as terrorists, and Russia, his most powerful backer, has largely supported his assertion. Indeed, over the last five weeks, Russian airstrikes have repeatedly attacked positions of several Western-backed groups.
Mr. Hammond also said that his government suspected that the Islamic State or operatives “inspired” by the organization were behind the destruction of a Russian airliner in Egypt on Oct. 31. He added that he hoped that would persuade President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to take a more flexible posture in the Syria talks.
“We’ll see whether the Russians now double down or whether they decide that they never wanted to be too deeply engaged anyway in Syria and that this is a warning shot to them and we’ll sense a greater willingness to engage in the talks in Vienna this coming Saturday,” he said.
While Mr. Hammond declined to offer any details on which groups could eventually take part in political negotiations, his comments suggested that the West might be prepared to back Sunni Islamist groups with close ties to allies, including Saudi Arabia. “What we mean by a secular constitution, and what people in the Muslim world will understand by secular will be two different things,” Mr. Hammond said.