(photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN – International powers will convene in Vienna next week to discuss ways of salvaging dilapidated peace talks regarding Syria’s civil war, the US State Department confirmed on Tuesday.
The talks, among members of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG), are scheduled as the five year-old conflict enters a “critical situation,” according to France’s foreign minister, who hosted a “friends of Syria” conference in Paris on Monday.
The Paris conference served as a working meeting for the Vienna summit next week – which, in turn, is meant to encourage both the government of nominal Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting for his overthrow to return to the negotiating table.
Indirect talks between the two parties, brokered by the United Nations, broke down last month as a cessation of hostilities began to fray. That truce, set in place by Russia and the United States, is now holding again in some parts of the country – including in parts of Aleppo, where the fighting has been most intense in recent weeks.
But in other parts of Aleppo, violence is still raging, and air strikes have continued on civilian targets – ostensibly perpetrated by one of the only two air forces operating in the area: those of Assad and Russia.
Moscow said it would pressure Assad to limit air strikes on heavily populated areas this week, and Russia and the US, on Monday, agreed to broaden their cooperation over enforcement of the truce.
The Obama administration suspects the Assad regime is intentionally targeting civilians and aid workers to create fear and panic among supporters of the opposition – and that Russia is supporting them in order to stoke a crippling refugee crisis for Europe.
Damascus denies intentionally targeting civilians, insisting it is only targeting terrorists of the state.
“I hope that through the mechanism which we put in place with our partners, specifically with the Americans, with our armed forces and their representatives and specialists taking an active part in the work – I hope that this will bring about positive and fundamental changes in that country,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, speaking to his generals before making a series of phone calls to world leaders to discuss the crisis.
Russia is considered one of the only influential parties over Assad, and has contributed substantially to ensure his survival in power.
So, too, has the government of Iran, which will send representation to the Vienna talks next week. Russia’s foreign minister corresponded with his Iranian counterpart on Tuesday over the ceasefire.
“It was stressed that during the planned meeting of the International Syria Support Group, the primary focus should be... the fight against Islamic State and al-Nusra and stopping their supply channels from abroad,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said of the call.
The two sides of the war – Assad, Russia and Iran in one axis, with much of the world on the other and opposed to Assad’s continued rule – continue to remain far apart on the man’s fate. In recent rounds of talks, Damascus has refused to broach the topic of the Syrian presidency, despite acknowledging the necessity of a new constitution, a political transition and national elections.
On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir repeated the kingdom’s commitment to Assad’s removal.
“The choice is Bashar Assad’s,” al-Jubeir told French media. “He will be removed, either through a political process or through military force.”