First Vienna meeting yields little progress

Friday 30/10/2015
Little sign of agreement

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.