By MICHAEL R. GORDON, ANNE BARNARD and ALAN COWELLJAN
Allies of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Tuesday assailed a decision by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, to withdraw an invitation to Iran to attend the long-awaited peace conference on Syria, which had seemed on the verge of unraveling before it even began.
Less than 24 hours after issuing a surprise invitation to Iran, Mr. Ban rescinded it on Monday in the face of protests from the United States, from Syria’s exiled opposition, which threatened to boycott the talks, and from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional archrival.
On Tuesday, the outcry came from the opposite quarters. Russia, Mr. Assad’s main international backer, called the reversal by Mr. Ban a “mistake” but “not a catastrophe.” Nonetheless, he said, it had damaged the authority of the United Nations. The talks are set to open in the Swiss city of Montreux on Wednesday.
A hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, was ready for talks on Syria.
American officials said that Secretary of State John Kerry had told Mr. Ban before his announcement that Iran needed to publicly endorse the 2012 communiqué that laid the basis for the conference, which stipulates that the goal of the meeting is the establishment of a transitional administration by “mutual consent” of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition. Mr. Kerry was described by an American official as having been furious after Mr. Ban’s invitation to Iran.
Mr. Ban said on Sunday that the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had agreed to the mandate for the conference.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Zarif challenged Mr. Ban’s account of their discussions, echoing similar Iranian disavowals on Monday. “I made it clear in numerous phone conversations with the secretary general that Iran does not accept any preconditions to attend the talks,” Mr. Zarif said, according to the ISNA news agency.
“It is also regrettable that Mr. Ban does not have the courage to provide the real reasons for the withdrawal,” Mr. Zarif said, adding that “Iran was not too keen on attending in the first place.”
The run-up to the gathering was marked, moreover, by new reminders that Syria’s civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives, has been characterized by what Human Rights Watch in an annual report published in Berlin on Tuesday called ruthless and indiscriminate attacks on civilians."The international community’s response to this slaughter has been painfully narrow,” said Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch.
Separately, a dossier of images compiled by a self-styled Syrian defector was said to provide “direct evidence” of torture and execution on a mass scale.
A six-person panel of experts, assembled by a law firm working for the government of Qatar, a main sponsor of the Syrian opposition, said the 26,948 images appeared to be evidence of the killing of as many as 11,000 prisoners, provided by “a truthful and credible witness.”
The 24-hour controversy over Iran’s attendance, while a diversion from the main issues about Syria’s future that will be on the table there, seemed a fitting prelude for what even the most optimistic American diplomats say will be prolonged, grinding and uncertain negotiations in which the combatants in the Syrian civil war are scheduled to meet face to face for the first time.
“I don’t think that anyone who’s dealt with Syrian officials has any false expectations of rapid progress,” a senior official at the State Department said on Monday, in one of the day’s more optimistic assessments. “This is the beginning of a process. It is not going to be fast.”
It is, in fact, hard to imagine a peace conference that has been convened under less propitious circumstances.
Mr. Kerry announced during a trip to Moscow in May that the United States, along with Russia, wanted to convene the peace conference, an idea first discussed the year before in Geneva. But since that announcement, President Assad has strengthened his military position, the fractious opposition has become more divided, and Russia and the United States have differed on how to interpret the mandate for the meeting.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said Mr. Ban’s withdrawal of his invitation to Iran was “of course a mistake.” But, signaling that Moscow did not see the affair as a deal-breaker, he said it was “no catastrophe” and Russia would continue to “push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions,” The Associated Press reported.
The United States’ leverage over the Assad government, meanwhile, has declined. Mr. Kerry arrived at the State Department last year declaring his intention to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to hold on to power. But the Obama administration withdrew the threat of force last fall in return for an agreement that requires Syria to eliminate its chemical arsenal, while the American effort to train and equip Syrian rebels, by all accounts, remained very limited.
“For any political conference to succeed in trying to defuse, much less settle, an intense conflict, the ground has to be laid,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former Middle East envoy. “An agenda needs to be agreed, the parties have to want some minimal achievement, the convening co-sponsors have to share some basic goals, and there has to be sufficient leverage on those doing the fighting to permit some compromises to be made. Most of these conditions are lacking.”
A Western diplomat involved in preparations for the talks added: “We don’t have a Plan B.”
Unlike the Middle East talks, in which Mr. Kerry set a nine-month goal for completing a peace treaty, there is no target date for completing the Syria peace talks or establishing a transitional administration that could take over if Mr. Assad agreed to relinquish power. In a closed-door meeting with the Syrian opposition last year, Mr. Kerry noted that the Vietnam peace negotiations had gone on for years.
Despite the enormous obstacles, the State Department asserts that the talks are worth holding because the push to establish a transitional body to govern Syria, a main goal of the conference, might encourage defections among Mr. Assad’s traditional supporters, including the Alawite sect, of which he is a member.
“There are elements inside the regime itself, among its supporters, that are anxious to find a peaceful solution, and we’ve gotten plenty of messages from people inside; they want a way out,” the State Department official said.
“That’s the whole point of their going to Geneva,” the official added, referring to officials of the Syrian opposition. “To promote the alternative, the alternative vision.”
But if that is the goal, Mr. Assad has sought to redefine the purpose of the talks before they have even begun. In comments published on Monday by Agence France-Presse, Mr. Assad said that the purpose of the meeting should be to discuss ways to fight terrorism and that it was “totally unrealistic” to think that he would ever share power with the opposition that is living in exile.
At the same time, American officials say, Syrian forces have carried out a display of force by stepping up their attacks in Syria and have continued to bomb Aleppo, its largest city.
A recent announcement by the Syrian government that it was prepared to accept a cease-fire in the bitter battle for Aleppo, American officials reported, contained an enormous catch: It requires rebel fighters to vacate the city, where many of their families reside, so it could be controlled by Syrian government forces.
For the Syrian opposition, the invitation to Iran was a major insult. Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force has been helping Syrian forces in their campaign in Aleppo, opposition officials said, and training Mr. Assad’s militias. Now a belligerent in the conflict would be attending a peace conference that the opposition already feared might be unproductive.
The controversy played out on the same day that a temporary agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program went into effect. But American officials said the United States had received no communications from Iran complaining about the withdrawal of the invitation or linking the Syria issue to the nuclear negotiations.
The Syria conference will begin with a round of addresses by Mr. Kerry and his counterparts in Montreux. On Friday, the conference will shift to Geneva, where a delegation of Syrian opposition officials will sit down with a team sent to represent Mr. Assad.
Attending the meeting carries risks for both sides. For the government delegation, a hotel lobby teeming with foreign journalists, Western diplomats and Syrian opposition members is an opportunity to sell its message, but anyone suspected of talking about possible participation in a transitional body could face repercussions at home.
The opposition coalition, for its part, risks a further erosion of influence with fighters inside Syria for sitting down to talk with Mr. Assad’s delegation.
An immediate question is whether the talks will lead to the opening of aid corridors, prisoner exchanges or local cease-fires. The matter is important to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in which the Assad government has imposed blockades on the delivery of food, medicine and aid to try to drive its opponents into submission. But such measures would also be intended to create an environment for an eventual political accommodation.
Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, announced last week that the Syrian government was making a significant gesture by opening aid channels to two besieged towns, Al Ghezlaniya and Jdaidet al-Shibani. But the State Department official said the towns had long been under the control of the government and had not been blockaded.
On Saturday, a convoy was allowed to deliver aid — a tiny fraction of what is needed — to the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees. But East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb of 160,000 people, remains cut off from food, medicine and other supplies.
A Western diplomat who follows Syria said he was exasperated with both the opposition and the government for placing new conditions and making aggressive statements at the last minute — possibly squandering a chance to ease the suffering of Syrian civilians.
“We’re headed this way: By the end of summer we’ll be talking about 150,000 to 200,000 dead,” the diplomat said.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/world/middleeast/syria.html?hp