Iran and Saudi Arabia were among 17 countries meeting for the first time to discuss Syria’s crisis
America and Russia agreed to work towards a “nationwide ceasefire” between Syria’s regime and opposition groups on Friday when every foreign power with any involvement in the civil war met for the first time.
The talks in Vienna drew together implacable enemies on opposing sides of Syria’s conflict, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. The 17 countries represented around the table included allies of Bashar al-Assad – and supporters of the rebels fighting to bring him down.
Once, these two blocs would hold rival meetings. America, Britain and France would convene a group of countries known as the “Friends of Syria”, deliberately excluding Russia and Iran.
But that approach has quietly been abandoned. On Friday, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was positioned at the head of the negotiating table alongside Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
After eight hours of talks – four more than scheduled – all the parties agreed to ask the United Nations to “explore modalities for, and implementation of, a nationwide ceasefire”. Any truce would happen in “parallel” with a “renewed political process” designed to allow free elections “under UN supervision” to choose the next leader of Syria.
Mr Kerry hailed the “beginning of a new diplomatic process”.
But there was no agreement over the future of Assad. The Arab powers, along with America and Britain, believe that Assad’s departure is the essential condition for peace in Syria; Russia and Iran, by contrast, insist that he must stay in power, at least for a transitional period.
How long such a transition would last is a key point of disagreement. America and its Western allies no longer demand that Assad must go immediately; instead they are willing to allow him to stay for an interval measured in months.
Yet Russia is carrying out daily air strikes in Assad’s support and Iran has deployed thousands of Hizbollah fighters and members of the Revolutionary Guard to prop up his regime. So far, neither is willing to agree a timetable for Assad’s departure.
After the talks, Mr Lavrov made clear there was “no agreement on the destiny of Assad”.
The countries also agreed that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) «must be defeated». How this would be compatible with a «nationwide ceasefire» was left unexplained.
There was, however, enough progress to justify the ministers agreeing to meet again within two weeks. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, described the talks as “difficult but constructive”, adding: “We have enough common ground to start a UN-led political process.”
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, named the “future of Bashar al-Assad” as the main sticking point, saying: «We have agreed that we will try to narrow those differences.”
Privately, officials say that bringing together every outside power with interests in Syria was progress in itself. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were bitterly opposed to negotiating with Iran. They believe that Iran’s support for Assad inflames the war and amounts to interference in the Arab world.
America and Britain once shared this view, but they have since decided that Iran’s direct influence in Syria means that it must be part of any settlement. Under pressure from the West, Saudi Arabia reluctantly agreed to attend the talks along with Iran.
But Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, argued that nothing should distract from the imperative for Assad to go. “At the beginning of the process, it has to be very clear to the Syrian people that Bashar al-Assad will leave at a certain date,” he told the BBC. “It can’t be a probability, it can’t be a possibility – it has to be certain.”
Saudi Arabia has armed and funded a rebel coalition fighting Assad’s regime. Mr Jubeir made clear this support would continue “as if there are no peace talks”. Meanwhile, America announced its first deployment of ground troops inside Syria, saying that “up to 50” special forces soldiers would offer advice and support in a Kurdish-held area of the north
As the talks took place in the Imperial Hotel in Vienna, Assad’s regime carried out one of its bloodiest attacks for a month, firing 12 rockets into a market in Douma, an urban area north of Damascus. At least 57 people were killed, leaving bodies strewn among blackened wreckage.
Elsewhere, Assad’s jets bombed the city of Aleppo, killing another 32 people, including 12 children.
Human rights group believe that Assad is deliberately trying to drive civilians from rebel-held areas by targeting markets and hospitals.
This strategy has been most evident in Douma and other towns along the industrial belt north of Damascus, which have suffered poison gas attacks as well as barrel bombs. In August, 117 people were killed in one day of air strikes in Douma.