Syria peace talks were in disarray on Tuesday before they began, buffeted by a botched UN invitation to Iran and an explosion in Beirut.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's unexpected, last-minute decision on Sunday to invite President Assad's main foreign backer Iran - only to withdraw the invitation a day later - proved a diplomatic fiasco, undermining talks that are already given little chance of success.
A suicide bomber killed four people in Beirut, capital of Lebanon, showing the urgent danger of sectarian violence spilling to Syria's neighbors, three years into a civil war that has already killed at least 130,000 people inside Syria.
It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.
The opposition says the talks, actually taking place in Montreux on Wednesday, must seek Assad's removal from power; he says the only subject to discuss should be fighting terrorists.
The main ethnic Kurdish faction, which controls a large swathe of the northwest, has not been invited.
The UN secretary-general arrived in Geneva on Tuesday ahead of the talks, having nearly torpedoed them with his botched invitation to Iran.
His aides shielded him from journalists' questions about the affair, which ended with a dispute over whether Iran had agreed to pre-conditions to attend.
A Western diplomat described the day as "a real mess" and said Ban had made a gaffe that had almost led to the entire conference being cancelled and replaced with a bilateral meeting between Russia and the United States.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi blamed Washington for the confusion. "We had repeatedly said that Iran would not accept any precondition," he told state television.
"We were willing to participate at the Geneva 2 conference, but because of America's illogical persistence on imposing preconditions on Iran, we will not take part."
Greek firm refuses to refuel Syrian peace envoys' plane
Meanwhile, a Syrian government delegation heading to peace talks was delayed in Athens on Tuesday when a Greek firm refused to refuel their plane, citing an EU trade embargo, the head of Greece's Civil Aviation Workers Union said, according to media reports.
Syrian state television issued a terse statement saying the plane was grounded in Greece and that the delay could cause Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to miss his meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
"The delegation's plane landed at Athens international airport and was prevented from refueling," Syrian state television said, adding that all airspace permissions had previously been granted for the flight.
Vassilis Alevizopoulos, head of Greece's Civil Aviation Workers Union, said the plane was allowed to land in Athens but the fuel company refused to refuel it because of European Union sanctions against Syria. He did not give the company's name.
The peace conference set to begin on Wednesday will include the first talks between Assad and his opponents. But hopes of a breakthrough are negligible at a time when fighting has escalated and neither side shows any sign of retreating from its demands or being able to end the war with a victory.
Around a third of Syria's 22 million people have been driven from their homes, many to refugee camps abroad; half are in desperate need of international aid. The country at the heart of the Middle East has been carved up on ethnic and sectarian lines, with neighbors and distant powers lining up to arm and fund rival factions.
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