Syria Talks Make a Mark at the Start by Bringing Rivals Together

U.S. Special Ops Troops Head to Syria: Will It Be Enough?
  • Negotiations to resume within two weeks focusing on cease-fire
  • Talks conclude as U.S. announces special ops deployed to Syria

Diplomats meeting in Vienna to discuss ways to end Syria’s civil war agreed that the country must remain unified and independent, but remained at odds over whether President Bashar al-Assad or his opponents should lead a political transition.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters talks would resume within two weeks, at the same time warning that there would be no quick solution to a situation in Syria that is “beyond description.” The participants asked the United Nations to invite the Syrian government and opposition to talks, with the goal of establishing a cease-fire within a few months.

“None of us expected today to walk in and have one side or another say to the other, ‘Hey, Assad’s not an issue any more,’ ” Kerry said. “That was not ever in anybody’s contemplation. This is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter, but I can tell you all of us are convinced” of the need to get back to negotiations.

International attempts to broker an end to the four-year war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people have accelerated since Russia began its military intervention on behalf of Assad a month ago. Just prior to Kerry’s remarks in Vienna, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington the U.S. will intensify its military action in Syria, deploying fewer than 50 special operations forces inside the country for the first time to help coordinate the fight against Islamic State.

The timing of the troop deployment announcement was a coincidence and not related to the talks in Vienna, Kerry said.

Assad Division

While there was a broad consensus on the need to stem the bloodshed, Assad’s future continues to be a divisive issue, participants said.

The U.S. and its allies insist Assad must leave office as part of any accord, though they have in recent weeks signaled that they could countenance him staying during a short-term transitional administration. Syrian rebels haven’t bent on that point and continue to demand his removal.

“We think he has no place in the future of Syria,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Vienna. “Other people, other countries think differently -- particularly Iran."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hosted Assad at the Kremlin last week, is pushing a power-sharing plan that would allow the Syrian leader to stay in office, and even contest elections, while giving his opponents a role in government.

The people of Syria should lead the political process, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said at the same press conference as Kerry. Russia’s Syria goals are elections and a new constitution in an “inclusive system,” he said.

Expanded Talks

Last week’s talks between the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia were expanded this time to include Iran and other Middle Eastern and European nations, as well as China. Representatives of the Syrian government and opposition forces weren’t at the gathering.

“What makes it real this time,” Kerry said, is that “every stakeholder was represented there, in terms of all of the countries that are representing one side or another.”

Kerry said participants had agreed in a communique on the need for a cease-fire, and that Syria’s state institutions should remain intact. Other common points included the protection of minorities, increased humanitarian aid access across the country, and the defeat of Islamic State and other groups designated by the United Nations as terrorists, he said.

Text: Vienna Communique

“This is a process now that has some momentum and that in itself is extremely positive,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters. While “there is quite a lot we do agree on,” the future of Assad is a “significant difference” between the parties, he said.

The successful negotiations by world powers to resolve the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program could offer a model for ending the Syrian crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Hefei, China, Friday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s participation in Vienna was the first time the Islamic Republic has been represented in diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict. Iran has been a key backer of Assad since the 2011 uprising against his rule that started the war, and Iranian forces have played a prominent role in supporting Assad’s army in a renewed ground offensive in the country’s strategically vital west.

Zarif met with Kerry one-on-one for the first time since the nuclear talks. Their bilateral discussion was limited to following up “on the steps necessary” to implement that accord, according to Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman. He said in a statement that Kerry “also raised the cases of our detained and missing U.S. citizens” in Iran.

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