VIENNA • Key players in the diplomatic push to end the Syrian war are to meet in Vienna today, seeking common ground over a political transition, as Iran joins international talks on the conflict for the first time.
Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were due to meet yesterday for their second round of talks on Syria in less than a week, ahead of the larger meeting of regional players, including Iran, today.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will join representatives from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and the European Union. It will be the first time all the major players in the conflict are in the same room.
The Syrian government in Damascus has yet to issue any official comment on the meeting, while the main political opposition body and representatives of the armed opposition said they have not been invited to the talks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that this week's talks would not secure an immediate political solution but, nevertheless, represented the best hope available. "While finding a way forward on Syria will not be easy - it's not going to be automatic - it is the most promising opportunity for a political opening we have seen," he said, just before he set off for Vienna. "The challenge that we face in Syria today is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell."
More than 250,000 people have been killed in the war since it began in March 2011 following a bloody crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule. Some 6.5 million more are displaced inside the country and another 4.2 million have fled abroad in one of the largest displacement crises of modern times.
In the second-largest Syrian city of Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of residents are stranded and prices of basic goods are soaring after an extremist advance cut off the sole route to regime-held areas of the city.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last week severed a road south of the city that formed part of the only remaining way out for residents of the government-held west of Aleppo.
With the route cut, the cost of everything, from tomatoes to petrol, has skyrocketed before the eyes of frustrated Aleppans.
"Within five days, it has gotten to the point of madness," Mr Salaheddin, 45, a real estate agent from the Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood, told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
"A kilogramme of tomatoes today goes for between 900 and 1,000 Syrian pounds (S$7 and S$7.40), seven times more than before," the father of four added.
"There are hardly any fruits and vegetables in the city, and there are no cars in the streets because the petrol stations are closed."
After months of failure, efforts to find a breakthrough to the four- year-old conflict have gained pace.
Serious divisions remain over when or whether Mr Assad should step down - and four-way Russia-US-Saudi-Turkey talks last Friday failed to make a breakthrough.
On one side, Russia and Iran are backing Mr Assad's forces on the ground and said Damascus must be helped to defeat "terrorism" before a political process can take shape.
On the other, the US and its key regional allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are supporting groups fighting Mr Assad and insist he must go.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday that France and its allies had agreed on the need for a "precise timetable" for Mr Assad's departure.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS