November 9, 2015 Special Dispatch No. 6214

Pro-Assad Press On Vienna Conference: Kerry Acted As A Mediator, Blocked Discussion Of Assad's Removal; Iranian FM Zarif Was Conference's Dominant Player

November 9, 2015
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 6214

The October 30, 2015 Vienna conference dedicated to finding a solution to the Syria crisis was attended by 17 countries, including the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and culminated in the issuing of a joint declaration. Following the conference, the official regime Syrian press, as well as the pro-Syrian Lebanese press, published reports and articles presenting their perspective on what had transpired at the talks and the disagreements that had surfaced in them. These articles contend that Russia and the US presented similar positions at the conference, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acted as a mediator rather than siding with the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers, his presumed allies, and even silenced them on more than one occasion. They also claim that Kerry made efforts to "smooth the rough edges" and bridge the differences between the parties, and prevented a discussion of Assad's removal and of military action to achieve this purpose.

According to the reports, the Saudi and Turkish representatives were left frustrated by the talks and by Kerry's position; conversely, the Iranians seemed pleased and Iran's representative was ÔÇ£the dominant playerÔÇØ at the conference.

The articles claim that the main point of contention at the conference was the issue of Assad's future. According to them, there were bitter exchanges between the Saudi and Iranian representatives on this matter, and the Iranian foreign minister blocked any attempt to set a timetable for Assad's departure from office and even stung his Saudi counterpart by remarking that Assad, unlike the Saudi king, had been elected by his people.

Below are excerpts from some of the accounts of the conference in the official Syrian and the pro-Syrian Lebanese press.

The Vienna Conference (image: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, October 31, 2015)

Kerry Acted As A Mediator And Silenced The Turkish And Saudi Representatives; The Turkish Representative Went Berserk

In his October 31, 2015 column in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, journalist Jean 'Aziz stressed that the American side had acted as a mediator in the conference rather than as a side in the debate: "The American Secretary of State John Kerry was careful throughout the day to play the role of mediator and nothing more. Not for a minute did he appear to side with the hawkish opponents of the Damascus regime. Thus Saudi Arabia and Turkey were left almost alone in their inflexibility...While Kerry smoothed out the rough edges and bridged [differences in] opinion..."

'Aziz claimed that, on several occasions Kerry even silenced his Saudi and Turkish counterparts and prevented them from initiating a discussion on Assad's ouster. For example, when discussions reached the problematic issue of the transition stage and the elections, Kerry "seemed to supervise the position of his allies [Saudi Arabia and Turkey]. On the issue of Assad's fate, he sufficed with a simple summary [remark, saying:]  This is an issue that we have agreed to disagree on, so let's move on to another issue!"

'Aziz added that, when the discussion turned to the military developments and the situation on the ground, the gap between Kerry and "his presumed allies," the Saudi and Turkish FMs, widened even further. In fact, the Turkish representative seemed on edge and even "partly lost his mind" as he tried to persuade the others that military activity in Syria must also be directed against the Assad regime. However, "Kerry's position was clear: ÔÇÿWe are fighting in Syria only against ISIS'..."

'Aziz assessed that the Turkish representative appeared to be the biggest loser of the conference, followed by the Saudi representative, "whose program, limited to Assad's ouster, appeared isolated and sterile And thus for hours the Saudi [foreign minister] sufficed with a constant repetition of the boring and tiresome refrain about Assad's ouster..."

The Iranians Sat Smiling And Calm

'Aziz added: "Facing the American mediator and the edgy Turkish and Saudi representatives [sat] the Iranian [foreign minister], smiling and calm, as though saying to everyone: 'There is no substitute for my presence at this table'...The Iranian [representative] was attending [the talks on Syria] for the first time, yet he appeared to be the strongest player [there] When the [various] options [for a solution in Syria] were raised, he was prepared for each of them, and even challenged them [by saying]: You want a transition stage? Let us proceed immediately to the transition stage culminating in free, fair and just elections according to any Western or international democratic logic. He appeared confident in his ally's [i.e., Assad's] victory. You want war against terror? We are ready for this as well, so let us all collaborate in this matter, for the issue of terror and terrorists is known and familiar: there is one side that fights [terror], and a number of parties that are financing and arming [it] You want war only against Assad? We are prepared for this as well, as we were four and a half years ago [when the Syrian crisis began]. Let each party [shoulder] its own responsibility and let the strongest one win!"[1]

The daily Al-Safir reported, citing Western diplomatic sources in Beirut, that at the Vienna conference "harmony prevailed between the American and Russian parties, to the extent that the Americans were compelled on more than one occasion to cut off one of the representatives of the Arab states opposed to Damascus, urging them not to go back to the outdated terms of 2011."[2]

Iranian FM To His Saudi Counterpart: 'President Assad Was Elected By A Majority Of The Syrian People. Who Elected Your King?'

The papers also reported sharp exchanges between the Saudi and Iranian representatives. An article in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the Assad regime, stated that "the direct verbal confrontation between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir during the Vienna conference constituted the climax of the acute political tension between the sides." Describing this confrontation, the article claimed that, in response to the Saudi FM's assertion that it was necessary to set a definite timetable for a transition stage culminating in Assad's departure, the Iranian FM said that the conference was not intended lay down timetables or to determine Assad's future, because it was the exclusive right of the Syrian people to determine this via elections. Zarif even turned to his Saudi counterpart, saying: "President Assad was elected by a majority of the Syrian people. Who elected your king? [3]

Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian described this tense exchange between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers, saying: "At the Vienna conference the Iranian delegation tried not to provoke Saudi Arabia and to concentrate on [finding] a way to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian issue, but Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir made unbalanced and baseless remarks and behaved in a way unbefitting a country's foreign minister, which caused Minister Zarif to respond sharply."[4]

The Conference Was Protracted Due To Lengthy Debates On Setting A Timetable For Assad's Departure And The Division Of Prerogatives

The daily Al-Safir reported that arguments over Assad's future caused the conference to last several hours longer than planned. The daily stated further that "attempts by Damascus' opponents to set a timetable for Assad's departure met with firm opposition from Damascus' allies." It quoted a senior official who attended the conference as saying that "Damascus' opponents suggested setting a six-month period for formulating a constitution and an 18-month period until the elections," but that Assad's allies rejected this outright because they viewed it as an unacceptable attempt to set out "a definite time limit for the [Assad] regime." According to the report, disagreements also arose regarding the proposed unity government and its prerogatives, vis-à-vis the prerogatives of President Assad.

In addition, Al-Safir noted that the Qatari delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Khalid Al-'Attiyah, "left the hotel during the deliberations, apparently to consult with Doha... and returned after half an hour.[5]




[1] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon) October 31, 2015.

[2] Al-Safir(Lebanon), November 4, 2015

[3] Al-Watan (Syria), November 3, 2015.

[4], November 1, 2015. The London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir sat as far as possible from his counterpart Zarif.  Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 30, 2015.

[5] Al-Safir (Syria), November 2, 2015.

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