NEW YORK • Senior international envoys gathered in New York yesterday to seek the United Nations' backing for an ambitious United States and Russian plan to bring about a negotiated end to Syria's brutal civil war.
US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Moscow this week to assure Syrian President Bashar al- Assad's key ally that Washington is not seeking "regime change" in Syria. And on Thursday, he met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to reassure Mr Assad's most implacable foe that the US is not going soft on the Syrian strongman.
Mr Kerry's high-stakes diplomatic balancing act aims to keep both Moscow and Riyadh on board as the 17-nation International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) struggles to cobble together peace talks.
On the eve of the UN talks, Mr Assad warned in an interview with Dutch television that misguided efforts to bring about regime change would make the conflict "drag on" and that only backers Russia and Iran - not the West - were ready to resolve his country's nearly five- year conflict.
Washington and UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura want Mr Assad's regime and the armed groups ranged against him to send delegates to peace talks some time on or after Jan 1. If a ceasefire can be reached in Syria's 41/2-year-old civil war, then Syrian troops, Russia and a US-led coalition can focus their fire on terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Under a deal struck last month in Vienna, government and rebel negotiators would have six months to form a transitional government and 18 months to organise national elections in Syria.
But several questions still hang over the process. Will Mr Assad and his foreign backers Russia and Iran agree to sit down with rebel groups they routinely denounce as "terrorists"? And, will the rebels and their foreign backers countenance talks with a regime that has slaughtered thousands of its own citizens with barrel bombs and poison gas?
Yesterday, international envoys - including in particular Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - wanted to hear from Saudi Arabia how its efforts to mediate a rebel coalition were progressing.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Jordan would give an update on its role in the process - drawing up a list of which "terrorist" groups should be blacklisted from talks.
Even if a ceasefire is possible, who would monitor it? And who would lead the fight against ISIS and others left outside the peace process? To address these and other questions, the ISSG met at US invitation yesterday morning at a New York hotel. Diplomats will then travel to the UN to seek, and likely obtain, approval of the UN Security Council for the process.