Assad in the cold as Iran courts Syrian opposition

Richard Spencer – SMH November 16, 2011

Iranian officials have held talks with Syrian opposition leaders, in a further sign of the growing isolation of the regime of the President, Bashar al-Assad.

This latest blow to the Assad regime comes after King Abdullah of Jordan publicly called for Dr Assad to step down, becoming the first Arab leader to intervene in the bloodiest theatre of the Arab spring.

Several opposition sources have confirmed that Iran opened a channel to a ”moderate” opposition group about a month ago.

Officials met Haytham Manna, an activist from the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, and other members of the group. The body is strongly opposed to foreign intervention and is likely to be seen as more acceptable to Iran than the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which has argued for ”international protection” for civilians.

”Iran used Haytham Manna to prepare for an opposition conference,” one opposition source said. But the attempt failed as ”no one trusted Iran”.

Iran’s leaders have publicly backed Dr Assad, an important ally in the face of criticism from some of their own followers.

Syrian opposition figures claimed early in the uprising that members of the Iranian al-Quds force, part of the Revolutionary Guard, were working with the Syrian army to quell protests. However, even the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has shown signs of frustration with Dr Assad. In August, he called for the government to sit down with the opposition but by last month he was demanding Dr Assad implement reform.

Mr Manna did not reply to requests for comment, but it is likely Iran is trying to mould the wider views of the opposition on Israel and relations with the West rather than offering any real support.

Pressure on Dr Assad continues to increase. The comments of Jordan’s king came after Syria was suspended from the Arab League on Saturday. ”If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” King Abdullah told the BBC on Monday.

Turkey, which until the uprising had forged an alliance with Syria, threatened retaliation for attacks on its missions by pro-Assad mobs on Saturday night and raised the prospect of international action.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, met members of the Syrian National Council on Sunday night.

One council member, Khaled Khoja, said he considered it the ”first step to recognition” and reported that Mr Davutoglu was committed to supporting the council ”as it continues to provide a legitimate alternative to Assad’s regime”.

The Syrian National Council is modelling itself on Libya’s Transitional National Council, which went from being a rebel group to government in a few months. Iran’s overture to the rival group may also have been an attempt to widen fractures in the opposition.

According to the Saudi-backed Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, Turkey has also revived the idea of establishing a buffer zone on Syria’s border as a haven for refugees.
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