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Kerry Promises Syrian Peace Talks Will Include Opposition, Eventually

Two days before diplomats gather in Vienna in an effort to end the civil war in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure skeptical members of the Syrian opposition that they would play an influential role in determining their country’s future. “I want to be clear: the Syrian people will be the validators ...

Kerry
Kerry

Two days before diplomats gather in Vienna in an effort to end the civil war in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure skeptical members of the Syrian opposition that they would play an influential role in determining their country’s future.

“I want to be clear: the Syrian people will be the validators of this whole effort,” Kerry said in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “This is not about imposing anything on anyone.” He added that Washington was looking to ensure “the participation of a broad range of Syrian parties, including both men and women, and the kind of political transition that will empower the center against the extremes.”

Kerry’s vow came despite the fact that neither the Syrian opposition nor the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were invited to attend the Saturday meeting, which will include the main countries providing lethal and nonlethal support to different parties in the conflict: the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Britain, Turkey, and other Gulf states. The Syrians were also excluded from the previous round of talks in the Austrian capital two weeks ago.

Two days before diplomats gather in Vienna in an effort to end the civil war in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure skeptical members of the Syrian opposition that they would play an influential role in determining their country’s future.

“I want to be clear: the Syrian people will be the validators of this whole effort,” Kerry said in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “This is not about imposing anything on anyone.” He added that Washington was looking to ensure “the participation of a broad range of Syrian parties, including both men and women, and the kind of political transition that will empower the center against the extremes.”

Kerry’s vow came despite the fact that neither the Syrian opposition nor the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were invited to attend the Saturday meeting, which will include the main countries providing lethal and nonlethal support to different parties in the conflict: the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Britain, Turkey, and other Gulf states. The Syrians were also excluded from the previous round of talks in the Austrian capital two weeks ago.

The United States hopes that an agreement between the warring parties’ chief backers will eventually pressure Assad and the rebels to make the necessary compromises to end the four-and-a-half-year civil war. But members of the Syrian opposition increasingly see the talks as an opportunity for Russia to dictate an end-game in Syria that preserves its influence over Damascus.

“My concern is that this is going to be heavily in favor of the regime and you’re going to have a war criminal and an absolute monster come out on top,” Muna Jondy, chair of government relations at United for a Free Syria, told Foreign Policy.

On Thursday, Kerry sought to reinforce the U.S. view that Assad must relinquish power, and detailed a litany of alleged atrocities committed by the Syrian strongman in a war that has killed some 250,000 people and has sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad’s leadership is simply not a reasonable request, and it is literally, therefore, a non-starter,” Kerry said. “That’s why we are pushing so hard for a real transition. Because without a real transition — no matter how much we want it — the fighting will continue and the war will never end.”

Still, Kerry acknowledged that getting the Russians and Iranians to agree to a transition away from Assad remained out of reach, raising doubts about the prospects for progress at this weekend’s talks.

“On this point, I acknowledge that we are still working through with Russia and Iran the question of Assad and his role,” Kerry said.

He defended the decision to continue with the negotiations, however, saying that all sides could table the Assad issue while making progress on other issues, such as a timetable for a political transition or a negotiated ceasefire.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and critic of the Assad regime, doubted this weekend’s talks would succeed, noting a lack of will on all sides.

“Both the U.S. and Russia are buying time,” he told FP. “Russia hopes to achieve some military gains on the ground and the U.S. is waiting for Russia to fail. In the meantime, they’ll keep talking diplomatically.”

Others were less pessimistic about current U.S. efforts. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted Kerry’s repeated emphasis on achieving a “transition” in Syria, a word that was explicitly left out of the previous communique agreed to two week ago in Vienna. “The Iranians stripped the word ‘transition’ out in Vienna or they would walk,” he said. “It’s important to put it back in to avoid a Potemkin transition that divides Syria permanently.”

Another major sticking point is deciding which members of the Syrian opposition will have a role in Syria’s political future. Many of the armed militias operating in the country are not considered “moderate” by American standards, but are supported by key U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Washington and its Gulf allies are expected to debate whether Islamist organizations such as Ahrar al-Sham should be considered the viable opposition this weekend in Vienna.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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