Diplomats meet in Vienna over Syria crisis

Update: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks on the war in Syria with US counterpart John Kerry in Vienna on Friday after Moscow thrust itself into the heart of the crisis with its bombing campaign backing the Syrian president.

Diplomats meet in Vienna over Syria crisis
Homs in Syria. File photo: Marwa Al-Sabouni

Lavrov shook hands with Kerry as they sat down at a Vienna hotel for a crunch meeting that will then see the duo joined by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkey's Feridun Sinirlioglu.

Washington, Riyadh and Ankara — which all back groups battling against Assad — are looking to sound out Lavrov after the embattled Syrian strongman made a surprise visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin this week.

On September 30th Russia launched air strikes in Syria which have shifted the dynamics of the brutal four-and-a-half year war — allowing Assad's battle-weary forces to go on the offensive and overshadowing a US-led coalition bombing the Islamic State (IS) group.

The US and its regional allies have decried Russia's strikes, insisting Moscow is not mainly targeting Islamic State as it claims, but other groups battling the regime in Damascus, and that the Kremlin's intervention will only prolong the fighting.

Assad's fate

Washington and its regional allies have long insisted Assad has to go for there to be any chance of a political solution to fighting that has cost more than 250,000 lives, but Moscow says it must first help him defeat Isis and other “terrorists” before talks can start on any reforms.

“The aim of the US is to get rid of Assad, probably that is so, our aim is to defeat terrorism, to battle terror, and to help President Assad claim victory over terror,” Putin said on Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“In this way, we can then create the conditions for the start and, I hope the successful reaching of a conclusion, of the political process to find a settlement.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Berlin that while all sides agreed on the need to find a political solution and battle IS only “one thing stands in the way… a person called Assad — Bashar al-Assad”.

Assad's surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday — his first known trip abroad since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 — has now placed the Kremlin as the key link to the strongman.

Putin — who has been isolated by the West for some 15 months over the Ukraine crisis — went on a diplomatic blitz in the wake of the visit by Moscow's long-standing ally, calling the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.

While all sides seem entrenched in their positions, analysts say some Assad opponents seem to be softening their line and conceding that he could remain in power temporarily, while Moscow does not seem wedded to the strongman long-term.

Another staunch Assad ally that will not be at the table in Vienna — due to objections mainly from Saudi Arabia — is Iran, but even officials in Tehran say they would not work to keep him in power “forever”.

Before flying to Vienna Lavrov said that it was possible he would meet representatives from other regional players for parallel talks while in the Austrian capital.

Israel-Palestine also on agenda

While Syria is set to dominate in Vienna, Lavrov and Kerry will also hold talks with representatives from the European Union and United Nations on the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The talks — to include the EU's foreign policy chief and UN head Ban Ki-moon via video-link — are part of a flurry of diplomatic activity seeking to end weeks of violence that has raised fears of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Kerry on Thursday expressed “cautious optimism” about defusing the crisis after a four-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin.