The Cable

Foreign Ministers Agree to Kickstart Syrian Peace Talks

The United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries meeting in Vienna for the first time fell short Friday of reaching an agreement on a political transition in Syria. But they did agree to meet again, and offered broad support for a United Nations-led diplomatic process designed to set the conditions for ending the disastrous Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) listen while UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) speaks during a press conference at the Grand Hotel October 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that they had agreed that Syria must emerge from civil war as a unified secular state.    AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) listen while UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) speaks during a press conference at the Grand Hotel October 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that they had agreed that Syria must emerge from civil war as a unified secular state. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries meeting in Vienna for the first time fell short Friday of reaching an agreement on a political transition in Syria. But they did agree to meet again, and offered broad support for a United Nations-led diplomatic process designed to set the conditions for ending the disastrous Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year.

The most consequential dispute — determining when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might relinquish power — was left unresolved. It remains unclear if Assad or the various rebel groups in Syria that oppose him will take part in the next round of peace talks.

Speaking at a news conference after the talks concluded, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged their differences over the Syrian strongman’s fate, but said they would continue to work towards ending the conflict diplomatically. “We have no agreement on the destiny of Assad,” Lavrov said. “The Russian people believe it is up to the Syrian people to decide.”

Kerry stressed the need to jumpstart the peace talks, saying the “the answer is not to be found in a military alliance with Assad, but in a broad diplomatic solution.”

The Vienna agreement reflects the degree to which the international approach to the Syria crisis has evolved since the U.S., Russia, and other key powers signed the 2012 Geneva Communique, which stipulated the need for a transitional government with “full executive powers.”

Friday’s pact refers to the Geneva Communique but does not expressly endorse it, and it outlines a political roadmap leading to a constitution and, ultimately, elections. But it remains silent about the need for an empowered transitional government, and it is unclear whether Assad or members of his inner circle would be eligible to seek election. In fact, the Vienna communique doesn’t refer to a transition, instead citing the need for “a political process leading to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections.”

“This is a major cave by the United States,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It mentions the Geneva Communique but it doesn’t even mention the word transition. There is no transfer of anything. They are going to have elections, they are going to have a new constitution, but Assad has already done that before. This will lead to no fundamental change.”

The pact also places a priority on fighting the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, which both the Russians and Americans touted as an accomplishment. That represents something of an achievement for Moscow and Damascus, which have struggled for years to convince the U.S. and its key European and Arab allies that the fight against terrorism, not the removal of Assad, needed to be the international community’s primary goal.

Some observers said the diplomatic proceedings had a somewhat surreal aspect in that the key warring parties — the Syrian government and the armed opposition — were not invited. It is unclear whether either side will agree to the big powers’ terms.

Others noted more optimistically that getting the foreign ministers of arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same negotiating table amounted to a significant accomplishment. “This is the first time we’ve had all the protagonists around a table together, and that is quite a remarkable achievement in itself,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Claiming a sort of victory, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, tweeted on Friday that “as a result of our efforts, they agreed not to include a timetable for departure of Assad in the final statement.” These were the first such talks involving Iran, which the U.S. previously barred from the discussions due to its refusal to accept the 2012 communique.

The conclusion of the talks came hours after the White House announced plans to send about 50 special forces troops into northern Syria to train and advise rebel groups battling the Islamic State. President Barack Obama had previously refused to send American ground troops into the conflict.

“America is signaling to the Russians and Iranians that while it’s pursuing this diplomatic track, it’s not the only track,” said Tabler. “It’s also involved on the ground.”

“But I don’t think anyone sees the end-stage in Syria yet,” he added.

The nations agreed to meet again in two weeks to add more specifics to the framework agreed to on Friday.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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