Kerry pushes for progress in Syria talks with Russia and Iran

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both sounded notes of optimism as they entered meetings in Zurich.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Talks among world powers over the future of Syria resumed in Switzerland amid an aggressive push to bring both sides of the civil war there to the same table by the end of the month.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both sounded notes of optimism as they entered meetings in Zurich on Tuesday. The goal of both governments, the Russian minister said, is to push forward as planned with talks toward a political transition in the war-torn nation.
“The political process will begin, we hope, in the nearest future, during January,” Lavrov said. “We do not have any kind of thoughts about changing the beginning of the talks from January to February.”
A communiqué issued in October 2015 – agreed upon by Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other nations with vested interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war – lays out a time frame for an end to the conflict, which has taken the lives of an estimated 300,000 since it first began in 2011. That document proposes a cease-fire between the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting for his ouster, followed by a political transition and nationwide elections within 18 months.
Who precisely will represent rebel opposition has become a point of contention in the lead-up to talks planned to begin on January 25. Russian forces in Syria, conducting a robust air campaign in support of Assad, have chosen not to discriminate between Western-backed rebel forces and those of Islamic State and al-Qaida.
Asked whether he and Kerry thought they could agree on who would represent the opposition at the talks, Lavrov said that was mainly an issue for UN special envoy for the crisis Staffan de Mistura, not the two ministers.
Kerry did not comment and de Mistura’s spokeswoman said he also had no comment on Lavrov’s remarks.
The United Nations said on Monday it would not issue invitations to the talks until major powers pushing the peace process agree on which rebel representatives should attend.
A Syrian opposition council formed in Riyadh last month said on Wednesday it would not attend peace negotiations if a third party joins the talks, a reference to a Russian bid to include other groups in the process.
Kerry said last week that, despite Saudi Arabia formally ending diplomatic relations with Iran over the ransacking of its embassy in Tehran, both nations are still committed to attending the talks over Syria as they continue in Austria and Switzerland.
With the Iran nuclear deal fully implemented, Kerry said on Saturday, “the international community can finally work to address the other regional challenges without the looming threat of a nuclear- armed Iran – including the crisis in Syria, on which we have made important progress in recent months.”

Reuters contributed to this report.