WASHINGTON – Accustomed to the puce and drab green halls of Vienna after two years of diplomacy there over Iran’s nuclear program, top envoys from the US, Russia, Britain, France, the European Union and Iran returned to the Austrian capital on Thursday for a new set of talks over the future of Syria.Hoping to build on their conclusion of the nuclear negotiations – which resulted in the deal concluded in July – their foreign secretaries were joined by counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar and Lebanon.Absent in Vienna is any representative of a Syrian party fighting for the future of its country. The effort, now in its third iteration after two failed attempts in Geneva, will now be among outside parties that have directed assets (military, training, financial, humanitarian aid, etc.) or otherwise found interest in the civil war there.Arriving in Austria, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he was not entering the talks bound by any preconditions.Tehran supports the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, seen by the West as the cause of and primary agitator in the war.But as the talks began, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian suggested a newfound flexibility: “Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever,” he told press in Tehran. Moscow also supports Assad, and considers all of his opponents terrorists.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Zarif on Thursday, ahead of a full day of meetings scheduled for Friday. Zarif also met privately with US Secretary of State John Kerry, but – according to the State Department – only discussed the Iranian nuclear deal.“The challenge that we face in Syria today is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell,” Kerry said in Washington shortly before his departure for Vienna.While many of the parties to these negotiations have grown used to the city’s regal Palais Coburg, where the talks will once again be held, and the Hotel Imperial, where Kerry has frequently stayed, a new element to these talks will be the presence of Arab nations.Several Arab governments were deeply skeptical of the nuclear deal, and are critical of Iran’s continuing role in the Syrian conflict.Thus, convincing Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit down at the same table was an accomplishment in and of itself, US officials say. Riyadh strongly opposes Assad, and Iran’s military efforts to maintain his rule.Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the press not to expect any major breakthroughs. But American officials hope to gauge whether Iran and Russia are willing to ultimately phase Assad out of power, allowing a transitional national unity government to form that would precede national elections.Iran’s support for Assad, however, is in part motivated by his identity as an Alawite: a sect of Shia Islam that allies his government with the Shia government in Tehran. The majority of Syria’s population are Sunnis.And Moscow’s support for Assad is, in part, loyalty-based: The Assad family has maintained an alliance with Russia since 1971, when the Soviet Union first built its naval military base in Tartus with the endorsement of Bashar’s father, Hafez. Since the civil war began in 2011, half of the Syrian population has been displaced and an estimated 300,000 have died.