Is Iran pushing Assad into meaningful talks over new Syrian constitution and elections?


President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has called Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad to encourage his regime’s participation in political discussions with a reshaped opposition.

Rouhani’s call on Saturday came three days after he conferred with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the strategy for a political resolution of the 80-month conflict. The three leaders proclaimed a national congress to discuss issues such as a new constitution and elections.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia hosted a conference in which a reformed opposition High Negotiations Committee included factions preferred by Russia for the first time.

See Syria Daily, Nov 25: Russia — We Are Working With Saudi Arabia Over Syrian Opposition

Rouhani told Assad that the Sochi summit was “a right step at the right time” and said the congress would be “a step towards stability and security of Syria”.

Summaries of the discussion did not indicate if Rouhani discussed Assad’s future. Iran has held out so far against any transition in which the Syrian leader departed, but the reformed HNC, despite the inclusion of the Russian-backed groups, maintained its call for Assad’s removal at the start of the process.

Beyond the political question, Rouhani emphasized that “Tehran is ready to have an active role in reconstruction of Syria”.

The statement bolstered a Thursday declaration by Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, who said Iranian and Iranian-led forces would maintain a lasting presence in Syria for a “ceasefire” and reconstruction.

See Iran Daily, Nov 24: Revolutionary Guards — We Are Staying in Syria

Iran, which has taken the lead in propping up the Syrian military since 2012, has expanded its economic stake in the country with the de facto acquisition of phosphate mines, contracts for oil and gas terminals, and the seizure and redevelopment of property in southern Damascus, moving residents.

Syrian State news agency SANA said Assad “thanked President Rouhani and the leadership and people of Iran for their contribution to the victory of the Syrian people over terrorism, expressing confidence that the Iranian side will be a partner in reconstructing Syria, just as it was a partner in defeating terrorism”.

Reports: At Least 14 Killed in Latest Pro-Assad Attacks on Besieged East Ghouta

Pro-opposition outlets report that at least 14 people, including three children, have been killed in the latest pro-Assad attacks on the besieged East Ghouta area near Damascus.

Despite a Russian-declared de-escalation zone, pro-Assad forces are continuing to bombard civilian areas on a daily basis. There are an estimated 390,000 people in East Ghouta, besieged for more than four years.

See Starving and Dying in Besieged East Ghouta

The latest attacks were on the town of Misraba.

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Russia Indicates It Will Break Its “De-Escalation Zone” in Southwest

The Russian military has indicated that it will break the “de-escalation zone” which it has declared for southwest Syria.

As pro-Assad forces attack the town of Beit Jinn, the Russian Defense Ministry has rationalized the assault by creating the presence of “Jabhat al-Nusra” and claiming that rebels are not challenging the jihadists.

The pro-Assad propaganda site Al Masdar features the announcement by Russian spokesman Sergey Kuralenko:

As a result of monitoring of the Southern de-escalation zone, officers found out that the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists were operating near the locality of Beyjin [Beit Jinn]. The terrorists conducted offensives against the [Assad regime’s forces] periodically….So far, no measures have been taken by the opposition in the region to fight against the terrorists in the Southern de-escalation zone.

Beit Jinn, with a pre-war population of about 15,000, is in southwest Syria, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Despite the violation of the de-escalation zone, declared by Russia and the US this summer, and the possibility of an Israeli response, pro-Assad forces have been bombarding the town for the past week.

Despite Washington’s accession to the de-escalation zone, US officials have not mentioned the conflict in the area.