First Vienna meeting yields little progress
LONDON - There was little sign of agreement in Vienna after the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia met to discuss the conflict in Syria.
The October 23rd meeting, part of a renewed international push to secure a political transition in Syria brought together US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir and Turkey’s Feridun Sinirlioglu.
This was the first major meeting on Syria since Russia launched an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad on September 30th. The Russian air strikes have targeted Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as Islamic State (ISIS) positions.
“The meeting was constructive and productive and succeeded in surfacing some ideas which I am not going to share today but which I hope have a possibility of changing the dynamic,” Kerry said.
The parties agreed to expanded talks on Syria.
The talks would “explore whether there is sufficient common ground to advance a meaningful political process”, Kerry said.
The fate of Assad remains the biggest stumbling block to an agreement, with Moscow and Tehran showing little inclination to stop supporting him.
“Our partners have some obsession with the figure of the Syrian president but we reaffirm our position,” Lavrov said, adding that “the fate of the president of Syria must be decided by the Syrian people”.
Russian media quoted Assad, following an October 25th meeting with a Russian delegation in Damascus, as saying he was open to holding parliamentary and presidential elections.
“Assad said that if the Syrian people consider it necessary, he would not be against taking part in presidential elections,” Russian MP Alexander Yushchenko said.
Syrian state media, however, made no mention of elections, instead focusing on comments made by Assad highlighting the fight against terrorism.
“The first aim [of Assad] is the struggle with and victory over… terrorism and after that the elections,” Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov told Reuters. The Assad regime designates all rebel groups, including those backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States, as terrorists.
Both Washington and Riyadh have made it clear that they would not countenance any deal that sees Assad remaining in power.
“Dozens of countries, if not hundreds, understand that Assad creates an impossible dynamic for peace,” Kerry said. Saudi Arabia reiterated there is no future for Assad in Syria.
Syria had presidential elections in 2014 with Assad winning close to 90% of a vote that did not encompass the whole country. Few countries accepted the results as legitimate.
Kerry met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh one day after the Vienna meeting.
“They [the Saudis] pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued,” a US State Department statement said following that meeting.
There was also movement on the Russian side, with the announcement that Moscow had secured a deal with Jordan — part of the US-led coalition — to coordinate military operations in Syria.
While there is a basic level of coordination taking place in Syria between the two rival anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalitions — one led by the United States; the other by Russia — this does not go beyond working to prevent in-air collisions. Moscow’s coordination with Jordan is believed to go beyond this, raising questions as to the future of international engagement in Syria.
With a second meeting of US, Russian, Turkish and Saudi foreign ministers expected soon and a broader meeting after that that could include senior officials from Iran, Egypt and Lebanon, observers said they hope the diplomatic push will move international partners closer to a solution in Syria.
“There are going to be more of these discussions as there needs to be. While each one on its own is important, as the next one will be, there will be one after that, and probably one after that, and who knows how many more until we really reach the ultimate goal here,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.