Syria Talks Push Powers Together After Force Escalation

  • Vienna talks include EU, U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey
  • Russia seeking early presidential elections in Syria

Top diplomats from the U.S., Russia and Middle East convened in Vienna Friday in their latest attempt to find a solution to end more than four years of fighting in Syria that has left a quarter-million people dead and triggered waves of refugees fleeing to Europe.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet for the first time since Russia launched its military intervention in Syria last month. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, his Turkish and Jordanian counterparts, Feridun Sinirlioglu and Nasser Judeh, along with European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, were also in the Austrian capital for meetings.

Russia won some support from Jordan, which will now “coordinate air-force operations over Syrian territory” via a mechanism in Amman, Lavrov told reporters following his meeting with Judeh. “We think that other countries involved in the fight against anti-terrorism may join the mechanism.”

While the meetings at the Hotel Imperial were informal and unlikely to yield a resolution, they were called to allow sides to propose compromise resolutions. Russia is looking to work with moderate opposition groups in Syria, yet “unfortunately, there is no one central force with which we could cooperate,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters in Moscow Friday.

“Russia is ready for contacts with all those who aren’t terrorists,” Peskov said. “Neither our American or European colleagues are helping us” in identifying moderate forces to work with. 

Following talks with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this week in Moscow, Russian diplomats are expected to call for early elections in Syria. The Russian proposal, which would allow Assad to remain in power should he win a new vote, was almost certain to run into opposition at Friday’s Vienna round. The U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been adamant that Syria’s president is unfit to lead as civil war erupted under his watch.

Turkey’s Sinirlioglu met with Austrian President Heinz Fischer Thursday, when the two men spoke about the waves of Syrian refugees that have crossed into the European Union this year, the Austrian Press Agency reported. More than 2 million Syrian refugees remain in Turkey.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Syria’s future must be decided by its own people and that Assad is prepared to share power by inviting some of his opponents into government. Assad, 50, will probably call early elections both for parliament and for president, which he would run in and win, a person close to the government in Damascus said.

“Of course the Syrian leadership must establish working contacts with those opposition forces which are ready for dialog,” the Russian leader told the Valdai discussion club in Sochi on Thursday. “As far as I understood” from Assad, “he is ready for such dialog.”

Putin’s military intervention in Syria, Russia’s largest outside the former Soviet Union in decades, is posing a direct challenge to American power in the Middle East. The U.S. decried Putin’s “red-carpet welcome for Assad,” which White House spokesman Eric Schultz said was at odds with Russia’s stated goal of seeking a political change.

The Obama administration is still focused on “getting a political transition in Syria” at the Vienna talks between Kerry, Lavrov and their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

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