Future of Assad Set Aside for Now as Syria Talks Begin

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, meets with Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/EPA)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, meets with Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/EPA)

New international negotiations on Syria that will start Friday follow weeks of intensive diplomacy, a significant amount of arm-twisting on all sides, and agreement between the United States and Russia that the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be on the table for now.

In the lead-up to the talks, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart have stipulated in near-daily conversations that their ongoing disagreement about where a Syrian political transition must end — with the United States insisting Assad must go, and Russia demanding the opposite — should not prevent the process from starting.

At least a dozen countries, including Assad-backer Iran as well as U.S. allies in Europe and the region, will attend the talks in Vienna. “This is the most promising opportunity for a political opening we’ve seen in years,” Kerry said in a speech Wednesday.

His optimism was in stark contrast to the backdrop of growing civil war carnage that will benefit only the Islamic State; a rising flood of Syrian refugees in Europe; and what some have described as a new Cold War after Russia’s entrance into the Syrian conflict.

The Russian bombing campaign, focused on Assad’s opponents, is neither “smart nor moral,” Kerry said. But now that Moscow has intervened, he indicated, it was time for all sides to concentrate on their shared concerns.

“We agree that the status quo is untenable and we must find a way to end the conflict,” Kerry said of Washington and Moscow. “We agree that a victory by [the Islamic State] or any other terrorist group has to be prevented. We agree that it is imperative to save . . . state institutions and preserve a united, secular Syria.

“We agree that we must create the conditions for the return of displaced persons and refugees. We agree on the right of the Syrian people to choose their leadership through transparent, free and fair elections with a new constitution and protections for all minorities.”

Few of the participants in the upcoming talks, which follow more than three years of inconclusive international meetings and global hand-wringing while the situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate, believe there is much chance of success.

“We want to be team players,” said a senior official of one U.S. ally in the Middle East. “I’m skeptical this will actually lead anywhere.” Noting Kerry’s description of areas of U.S.-Russia convergence, the official said that “we all agreed on that before” in previous discussions. It’s “when we get to specifics,” such as what happens to Assad, the official said, that “it all falls apart.”

A top European diplomat noted that his government is still in the dark about how the meeting and an anticipated series of follow-on sessions, driven largely by Kerry, will be structured. Foreign officials and Obama administration officials agreed to discuss the diplomacy and agreements leading up to the talks on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials said that many of the details are to be determined and that at this point Kerry is primarily focused on having all those with competing interests sit in the same room and acknowledge how bad the situation has gotten.

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SOURCE: Karen DeYoung
The Washington Post