Frosty atmosphere as four parties discuss how to end Syrian conflict

VIENNA • Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey held talks in a frosty atmosphere yesterday on how to end the Syrian conflict, with the sides sharply at odds over the future of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Vienna meeting took place three weeks after Moscow thrust itself into the heart of the crisis by launching a bombing campaign in support of the Syrian President that has drawn sharp condemnation from the West.

The crunch talks at a Vienna hotel brought together Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry, together with their Saudi counterpart, Mr Adel al-Jubeir, and Turkey's Mr Feridun Sinirlioglu.

Washington, Riyadh and Ankara - which all back groups battling against Mr Assad - were sounding out Mr Lavrov after the embattled Syrian strongman made a surprise visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin this week.

But the atmosphere appeared chilly, and there was scant hope for progress on resolving almost five years of war, with the sides at loggerheads over the future of Mr Assad.

At an impromptu press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh before the four-way talks began, Mr Lavrov reiterated the need to ramp up the fight against "terrorism" in Syria and the need for a political solution. He made no mention of his bilateral talks with Mr Kerry earlier in the morning.

"Our common position is that we need to boost efforts for the political process in the Syrian settlement," Mr Lavrov said. "This foresees the start of full-scale talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the full spectrum of the Syrian opposition, both domestic and external - with the support of outside players."

On Sept 30, Russia launched a bombing campaign in Syria which has shifted the dynamics of the brutal 41/2- year war - allowing Mr Assad's battle-weary forces to go on the offensive and overshadowing a US-led coalition bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

The US and its regional allies have decried Russia's strikes, insisting that Moscow is not focusing on ISIS as it claims, but on other groups fighting the regime in Damascus, and that the Kremlin's intervention will only prolong the bloodshed.

In a potential step forward, Mr Lavrov announced that Russia and Jordan - another member of the US-led coalition - had agreed to "coordinate" their military actions in Syria and set up a "mechanism" to facilitate that end.

While the scope of the coordination was not clear, it appears to outstrip the limited understanding Russia has with Israel and the US to avoid accidental air collisions over Syria.

"I hope this mechanism will be effective in fighting all terrorism in Syria and beyond," said Mr Judeh.

Mr Assad's fate remains a major stumbling block for ending the conflict in Syria.

Washington and its regional allies have long insisted that Mr Assad has to go for there to be any chance of a political solution to fighting that has cost more than 250,000 lives.

However, Moscow says it must first help him defeat ISIS and other "terrorists" before talks can start on any reforms.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Frosty atmosphere as four parties discuss how to end Syrian conflict'. Print Edition | Subscribe