World powers strategize to reinvigorate Syria talks

Efforts to end the war between Assad and Syrian rebels are a separate affair from the war against Islamic State and other terrorist organizations operating in Syria’s eastern provinces.

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May 17, 2016 06:00
2 minute read.
TURKISH SOLDIERS stand guard on the border with Syria.

TURKISH SOLDIERS stand guard on the border with Syria; the country faces threats from the Syrian Civil War.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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VIENNA – Top diplomats from 17 nations descended on Austria’s capital to attend a summit on the crisis in Syria on Tuesday, hoping to reinvigorate a peace effort that has effectively collapsed.

Powers represented here with the greatest stakes in the war– Russia and Iran on the one hand, supporting nominal Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the Unites States, Saudi Arabia and European states on the other, supporting the rebellion against him – arrived in Vienna with no meaningful changes to their positions, consistent throughout the five years of fighting that has led to the deaths of over 400,000 people.

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But in public, each of the governments represented in what is formally known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) endorses a cease-fire that has delicately held throughout much of the country over the past three months. In other regions – particularly in the strategically significant city of Aleppo – the truce has been repeatedly violated by at least one of the two air forces operating in the area, those of Syria and Russia.

Efforts to end the war between Assad and Syrian rebels are a separate affair from the war against Islamic State and other terrorist organizations operating in Syria’s eastern provinces.

The ISSG hopes that a “settlement” to the civil war will expedite the fight against those groups, which have metastasized in Syria’s power vacuum.

“One of the benefits and why it’s so important to have a cessation of hostilities in Syria is not only to deescalate the overall civil war so more people can survive,” said Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, on Monday, “but also, it frees up moderate opposition forces to fight Daesh [Islamic State], which is very much what they want to do.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Vienna on Monday for preparatory meetings, including one with his Jordanian counterpart. He flew in from Jeddah, where State Department officials said he discussed the Syrian crisis at length with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.

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The goal of the Vienna talks, Kerry told reporters there, is to get the US-Russia brokered cessation of hostilities “better footed.”

The Obama administration also hopes the ISSG summit will serve to reinvigorate efforts in Geneva toward a political transition in Syria – an effort currently stifled, with no movement by Assad on relinquishing the presidency, and no movement on the part of rebels insisting on his exit.

Riyadh has repeatedly stated that Assad will eventually be removed by either diplomatic or military means. The kingdom is one of the most aggressive supporters of Syria’s rebel groups, represented in negotiations by the High Negotiation Committee (HNC), which was organized by Saudi Arabia itself.

The UN-brokered talks in Switzerland stalled last month when, amid the second round of proximity talks, air strikes in and around Aleppo resumed and the HNC encouraged its militants to fight back. Rebel negotiators left the talks in protest; they also cited a lack of access for humanitarian aid workers, the targeting of markets and hospitals, and the unjust detention of civilians.

In previous talks in Vienna, the ISSG has posited ambitious goals for an end to the conflict, which has displaced half of Syria’s population and sparked the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

Accompanying Kerry to the Austria talks is Frank Lowenstein, the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In Vienna, Lowenstein will be attending a meeting of the Quartet to discuss its upcoming report on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

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