Syrian Transition Plan Reached by U.S., Russia in Vienna

Syria Talks In Vienna

United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, left, US Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chat before the meeting of the third round of Syria Talks.

Photographer: Thomas Trutschel /Photothek via Getty Images
  • Diplomats agree on UN-supervised elections within 18 months
  • Rebel leaders will be invited to negotiations by Jan. 1

Seventeen nations, spurred on by Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris, overcame their differences on how to end Syria’s civil war and adopted a timeline that will let opposition groups help draft a constitution and elect a new government by 2017.

As a first step, the United Nations agreed to convene Syria’s government with opposition representatives by Jan. 1, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday at a joint press conference in Vienna. A cease-fire between the government in Damascus and recognized opposition groups should be in place within six months, according to their statement.

The terrorist attacks in Paris galvanized the diplomats, who at previous talks had been unable to resolve the discord within their ranks. While Russia and Iran had sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. and its regional allies had insisted upon his removal. With diplomats bogged down over the question of Assad, terrorist groups like Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, grew and become more powerful inside Syria.

“It is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide,” Kerry said. “There can be no doubt that this crisis is not Syria’s alone to bear.”

Assad has “cut his own deal” with Islamic State, buying oil from the group and failing to attack militants, Kerry said. Assad’s allies have conveyed that he’s prepared to be serious and engage in talks, but the “proof will be in the pudding,” he said.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Islamic State said the Paris attacks that killed 129 people and injured 352 came in retribution for French involvement in the Syrian civil war. The conflict has so far cost about 250,000 lives, sent millions fleeing the region, and triggered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Terrorist List

Diplomats meeting in the Austrian capital also decided to place Islamic State, along with the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front terrorist group, on a list of those subject to military strikes even when a cease-fire is in place. The list, managed by the Kingdom of Jordan, may later be expanded to include other groups in Syria, Kerry and Lavrov said.

The Paris attacks “show that it doesn’t matter if you’re for Assad or against him,” said Lavrov, “ISIS is your enemy.”

The 18-month plan to establish a new Syrian government was called “very challenging but possible” by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who sat between Kerry and Lavrov at the news conference.

The foreign ministers met ahead of a Group of 20 summit of world leaders starting Sunday in the Turkish coastal resort of Antalya, where the war across the border in Syria is likely to dominate the discussion.

French President Francois Hollande, in a Saturday television address, called the Paris attacks an “act of war” committed “by a terrorist army.” The coordinated assault targeted cafes, a soccer match and concert hall.

Timeline for the peace plan:

  • 1 Month, or, by Dec. 14: Diplomats will reconvene to review progress  
  • Jan. 1: UN will seek to convene Syrian government and opposition in formal negotiations
  • 6 Months, or, by May 14, 2016: Cease-fire between Syrian government and opposition groups; process for drafting new constitution
  • 18 Months, or, by May 14, 2017: Free elections administered by the UN held under the new constitution
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