- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — It’s the regional heavyweight that few want at the table, but without it any attempt to end the Syria war may be futile. Iran’s backing is crucial for President Bashar Assad’s hold on power — and for the Iranians, Syria is key to their aspirations of regional power.

As an international conference on Syria kicked off Wednesday with the participation of more than 40 countries, Iran’s absence hung over the meeting, following a diplomatic debacle that saw the U.N. withdraw a last-minute invitation after an uproar from the United States and the Syrian opposition.

The absence of Damascus’ strongest regional ally stood out even more given that the biggest supporters of the opposition were all present: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The question of Iran’s participation underlines how the international powers that have lined up behind either Assad or the rebels trying to topple him are as crucial to a solution as Syria’s warring parties themselves.

Like any of the regional players, Iran can be a spoiler for a resolution it opposes or can be a force for pressuring its side to make concessions.

“The decision to exclude Iran from the Montreux talks is a huge diplomatic mistake,” said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

“As a major backer of the current regime, Iran has enormous potential leverage in Damascus,” he said.

As talks took a break Thursday — due to resume the following day — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Iran is “fully prepared” to engage with its neighbors on a range of regional issues — including the Syria conflict.

“The best solution is to organize free and fair elections inside Syria,” he said. “No outside party or power can decide for the Syrian people and Syria as a country.”

Syria’s 3-year-old conflict is locked into a brutal, bloody deadlock — which in many ways favors Assad’s government. Neither side has been able to militarily overwhelm the other, but Assad’s forces have gained some momentum, and his government and military have remained cohesive, while rebels have fallen into infighting between Islamic extremist and more moderate factions.

The military dynamic on the ground has given Assad little reason to allow the creation of a transitional government in which he is not a part — and which the U.S. and the opposition says is the peace conference’s goal.

But the fight is also a proxy war, with the influence of international powers enabling both sides to dig in.

Shiite-led Iran has poured money into keeping Assad’s government afloat financially, has supplied it with weapons and has backed the intervention of fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite guerrilla force Hezbollah and from Iraq’s Shiite militias on the side of the Syrian military. Tehran is adamant in ensuring the survival of its vital ally that gives it influence squarely in the center of the Arab world. Meanwhile, Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, has provided Damascus important diplomatic cover, blocking several resolutions against it at the U.N. Security Council.

On the other side, Sunni Arab nations in the Gulf — particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar — as well as the United States have thrown their backing behind the rebellion, trying to stem the influence of their rival Iran.

Given Tehran’s entrenched interest in Assad’s survival, it is unclear whether Iran’s presence at the conference would have helped in convincing him to bend on a transitional government. But backers of Iran’s participation say it would at least have brought engagement in these early stages. If the talks do lead to even small breakthroughs — like deals to create humanitarian corridors to besieged rebel-held areas — Iran couldn’t stand in their way by arguing it was not involved.

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