Beyond US strikes, signs of intensifying UN diplomacy on Syria

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Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.

“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”

While “it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power,” Carney continued, “this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change.”

“We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,” Carney said.

Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference.

UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria.

“Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Feltman, in his meetings in Iran, discussed “the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the U.N.'s grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons and how the U.N. can work together with Iran and other states to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people,” Haq said.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meantime, is scheduled to give a news conference from Geneva on Wednesday. (Brahimi has reportedly reportedly moved his base to Geneva to prepare for the conference.)

Following Feltman's visit, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, notably, issued a strong call for the international community to uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

“Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account Tuesday, after noting, twice, that it is his only official English language Twitter feed, and that Iran has itself been the victim of chemical weapons attack, by Iraq in the 1980s.

“We completely & strongly condemn use of chemical weapons in Syria because Islamic Republic of Iran is itself victim of chemical weapons,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter, adding “Iran suffered chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.”

The emerging U.S. plan, then, seems to be limited strikes solely to uphold the universal prohibition on, and deter the use of chemical weapons; while simultaneously redoubling diplomatic efforts for Geneva2, likely in October.

Unclear as yet is if, in exchange for Iran not overreacting to any U.S. action in Syria, the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran attending Geneva2, or indeed, given Feltman's reported discussions in Iran, whether it had already done so. Both Russia and the UN’s Brahimi have repeatedly stated that Iran should be able to attend.

Meantime, the State Department said late Monday that the U.S. had decided to postpone a planned meeting Tuesday in The Hague between Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Syria envoy Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts on Geneva, because of the intensifying US consultations on how to respond to the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack.

(Photo: UN chemical weapons experts meet residents at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya on Monday. Credit: Stringer, for Reuters.)zp8497586rq