MANAMA // An initial round of negotiations over ending the war in Syria – the first to include all foreign powers involved in the conflict – failed to reach agreement on the key issues of the time frame for Bashar Al Assad’s departure and the exit of foreign forces supporting Damascus, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has said.
“Until that is achieved the Syrian crisis will continue,” Adel Al Jubeir said on Saturday at a regional security conference in Manama.
The two days of talks in Vienna that ended on Friday were described by US secretary of state John Kerry as the “beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter”, according to US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken.
“There is a renewed sense that there is a diplomatic way forward,” he said in Manama, adding, however, that this “doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in a space of one or two or three meetings”.
Mr Blinken also announced nearly US$100 million (Dh367.3m) in new US aid for the Syrian opposition.
The talks were spurred by Russia’s direct military entry into the conflict last month, and marked the first time that Iran had been invited to the table. Iran’s involvement in the talks has been described by diplomats as a sign of the seriousness of the diplomatic efforts given Tehran’s deep involvement in the conflict and backing for the Syrian president.
The negotiations were led by the United States, and also attended by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France, Turkey and Britain. The sides agreed on a number of points that could form part of a framework deal for an eventual political transition. These included Syria’s territorial integrity, the writing of a new constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities, and presidential elections, Mr Al Jubeir said.
He added that Iran expressed commitment to a mechanism that would allow better access for humanitarian aid to reach civilians in the country’s conflict zones.
The regional countries backing Syrian rebels have demanded that Mr Al Assad depart at the beginning of a political transition and devolve his authority to a transitional body made up of representatives from all of the country’s groups. This would take four to six months, Mr Al Jubeir said. Western countries also maintain that the Syrian president must go, but are more flexible about when that would happen. Russia and Iran say they are not tied to Mr Al Assad, but that he can only go after extremists in Syria are defeated. It is not clear whether any progress was made in Vienna towards closing this gap. Officials familiar with the two sides’ positions in Vienna said the Russians support a plan that would see Mr Al Assad leave after 18 months.
Mr Al Jubeir responded to a question between the disparity in time frames by saying that “18-24 months has nothing to do with the departure of Assad”. He said that this longer time frame had only been discussed in relation to the drafting of a constitution and election laws, and the resettlement of displaced Syrians.
British foreign minister Philip Hammond implied on Saturday in Manama that the Iranian and Russian positions were even further from those of Western and Arab countries than Mr Al Jubeir had suggested. He said they maintain that Mr Al Assad should be allowed a role in the democratic process.
“There is still a huge gap,” he added.
However, he did not specify if Tehran and Moscow share the same position on Mr Al Assad’s departure, or if there are differences.
Another round of talks in Vienna will be held within two weeks, and Mr Al Jubeir said he expected the next talks to be “much more focused”.
Russia’s intervention to reinforce Mr Al Assad’s faltering military against rebels backed by Arab countries and the West appeared to many to have upended any remnants of a US strategy to push Mr Al Assad to the negotiating table.
But Mr Blinken said Russia had made a strategic mistake that would eventually work in the Syrian opposition’s favour.
“It will increase the conflict’s leverage over Russia and that in turn creates an internal incentive for Russia to work for, not against, a political transition,” he said.
“Russian cannot afford to sustain its military onslaught ... Costs will mount every day in economic, political and security terms.”
* With additional reporting by Associated Press