Major powers to hold first talks on Syria's fate

Refugees and migrants crossing the Slovenian-Austrian border on Oct 29, 2015.
Refugees and migrants crossing the Slovenian-Austrian border on Oct 29, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

VIENNA (AFP) - Major powers, including arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia who back opposing sides in Syria, meet for the first time on Friday (Oct 30) in search of a political solution to the devastating war.

Top diplomats from more than a dozen nations have gathered in Vienna to narrow differences over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, who has defied Western demands to step down.

In a sign of its growing diplomatic clout, Iran, a longtime sponsor of Assad's regime, is joining the talks for the first time, months after striking a landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

But there was no talk of representatives of the Syrian regime or the opposition attending the talks aimed at ending a four-year war that has claimed a quarter of a million lives.

In Washington, which along with its Arab and Turkish allies backs Syrian rebels, officials had expressed a cautious hope that the players would agree the outline of a transition that would eventually see Assad step aside.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, while warning against an immediate solution, has described the talks as "the most promising opportunity for a political opening we have seen".

He met separately with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Russia's Sergei Lavrov on the eve of Friday's meeting.

"Now it is the right time to bring Iran to the table," Kerry said.

Later, Kerry and Lavrov were joined by foreign ministers Feridun Sinirlioglu of Turkey and Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia.

Russia, which has waged a month of intense air strikes against Assad's armed opponents, has also urged preparations for parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria.

But the idea has been rejected by rebels who say a vote would be impossible in the current circumstances, with millions of Syrians displaced, cities standing in ruins and two-thirds of the country in the hands of militants and other armed groups.

There are also doubts about whether Teheran and Moscow are ready to push Assad to step aside, particularly at a time when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is seeking to tighten its grip on swathes of the country for its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Even so, mounting international concerns about the outpouring of Syrian refugees and the growing militant threat could set the scene for some kind of political compromise, experts say.

"Overall, we have for the very first time around the table all the major actors and we have a situation of fatigue on the ground, so it could lead to a potential breakthrough," said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

'REMOVED BY FORCE'

Even getting Iran and Saudi Arabia - the Middle East's foremost Shiite and Sunni powers which back opposing sides in conflicts across the Arab world - to sit at the same table would mark progress.

Jubeir, in an interview with the BBC, made it clear that Riyadh is sticking by its view that Assad must leave office quickly.

"He will go either through a political process or he will be removed by force," he warned.

Russia and Iran have made it equally clear that Assad has a right to play a role in an eventual transition towards a mooted transitional unity government and later elections.

"Apparently those who have tried to solve the Syrian crisis reached the conclusion that without Iran's presence there will be no possibility of reaching a rational solution," Zarif said, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.

The West has accused Russia of concentrating its air campaign in Syria on moderate opposition groups opposed to Assad's rule, although Moscow says it is focusing on defeating the Islamic State group and other "terrorist" organisations.

Iran and Lebanon's Shiite armed movement Hezbollah also have troops in Syria to advise or support Assad's forces.

Representatives from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, the European Union and possibly other Arab states, were also expected to attend Friday's talks.