Syrian regime and opposition not invited to Vienna, with two regional powers yet to show any signs of wanting to compromise
The broadest peace talks since the start of the Syrian war are getting under way in Vienna, with Iran joining arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and the US to try to orchestrate an end to one of the most dangerous global conflicts in decades.
While all regional stakeholders appear set to take a seat at the table, neither the Syrian government nor opposition have been invited, with any hope of a solution riding mainly on their respective regional patrons: Iran for the Assad regime and Saudi Arabia for those who oppose him.
In the runup to the talks there was no discernible change to the intractable regional positions of either side and hopes of meaningful progress appear slim. In the past four years, Iran has not publicly shifted from its insistence that Assad remain as leader and more importantly, that its influence remain undiluted in Damascus, which is strategically vital to how the country projects its power, especially concerning Israel.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has insisted that Assad must go and that, in the first instance, a transitional government agreed to by the regime and the opposition should pave the way for peace. It has been flatly opposed to Iran’s inclusion, maintaining that Tehran has done more than any other actor to fan the flames of the war and, in doing so, impose itself on the Sunni Arab world.
After its dramatic entry into the war in late September, Russia also looms as a decisive player. Moscow has said it agrees with a communique drafted after two earlier summits in Geneva failed to get the warring Syrian sides to agree a deal. However, Vladimir Putin earlier this week flatly rejected the suggestion that Assad should step down and, after inviting the embattled Syrian leader to Moscow, instead encouraged him to call early elections.
US secretary of state John Kerry struck a cautious tone on Friday morning, telling reporters: “I am hopeful that we can find a way forward [but] it is very difficult.”
At every turn, there is a lack of common ground. Even where there has been an overriding cause – fighting Islamic State – there is disagreement on how to do so and even on who, and where, it is.
Regional military officials continue to insist that Russia has focused at least 85% of its bombing raids on the armed opposition to Assad, instead of Isis further east.
Meanwhile, US attempts to re-enfranchise Iran as a good faith neighbour after thesuccessfully negotiated nuclear deal have been roundly rebuffed by Riyadh, Qatar and the Gulf states, whose representatives are also travelling to Vienna. A senior Gulf diplomat said: “They are inviting the vultures to the banquet table. And they expect them to wear napkins and be nice to the waiters.”
Regional and global observers say the implacable positions have driven Syria to the point of disintegration. In the latest bloodshed, a conflict monitor and a local rescue group said on Friday that at least 40 people were killed and about 100 wounded after Syrian government forces fired missiles into a market place in a town near Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces fired 12 missiles at Douma, 10 miles north-east of Damascus.
More than half the country’s pre-war population of 20 million people has been displaced, with large numbers pushed outside its borders and more than 300,000 having joined a treacherous migration route to Europe since the summer.
Stopping the passage of refugees seems well beyond the capacity or will of officials to achieve. Even providing a safe haven for those who have yet to flee to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon seems to be out of the question, especially since Russia’s intervention, which led to it setting up a no-fly zone over north-western Syria to protect Russian military interests, not fleeing refugees.
Ahead of the summit, Kerry said he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had agreed on a number of steps that could be made to take the heat out of the conflict. Kerry’s initiative may be central to whether these talks succeed in doing anything other than getting all stakeholders into one room for the first time.
US diplomacy has repeatedly fumbled in Syria and central to its impotence, according to senior Saudi officials, has been the fundamentally different way Barack Obama has chosen to project US power, with a preference for partnering up and mentoring from the rear at odds with the more muscular and assertive stances of previous US presidents.
Senior Saudi ministers in particular say this new posture, after decades of Washington having assumed a frontline role in the region, has been an extraordinary variable at a remarkably volatile time, empowering foes and undermining allies.
“If they can turn it around with even a communique in Vienna, then it’s a good thing,” one senior Saudi said. “But it doesn’t end here. It doesn’t end any time soon.”