World and regional powers met in Vienna on Tuesday to solve the deadlock between the tenaciously divided Syrian factions and turn Syria’s shaky pause in fighting into a comprehensive cease-fire as a step toward ending the five-year war that left hundreds of thousands dead and fueled the rise of extremists.
The talks included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, foreign ministers or other senior officials from more than 20 countries and organizations. They were convened after discussions meant to reduce differences between rival factions and world powers on the Syrian crisis.
Outlining other results, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said participants set a June 1 deadline for the resumption of humanitarian aid to areas cut off from the outside world.
If land routes remain blocked, food aid will be air dropped and international pressure will be increased on those blocking such relief, he said. Such pressure will also be applied to stop indiscriminate use of force by the Syrian military, Kerry added, without specifying what pressure the powers could apply.
The meeting was not expected to yield substantial results, and it truly did not devise any concrete ways to resolve the main problem standing in the way of peace — factional divisions. Without that, progress in ending the violence and reducing Syria’s human misery can only be marginal and temporary.
Kerry said as much to reporters, declaring that to end the conflict “a variety of competing interests are going to have to be reconciled.”
“Those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to prioritize peace,” he said.
One key division continues to be the fate of head of the Syrian regime Bashar Assad. Going into the talks, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated the position held by the West and the Saudi-backed opposition that a peace agreement should outline steps leading to the end of his rule.
“This is necessary because there can be no lasting future for this country with Assad,” he told reporters. “This is why we must start negotiations here in Vienna … about what a transition government could look like.”
Kerry did not directly mention Washington’s public position that any comprehensive peace agreement must set a timetable for Assad’s removal, saying only that “without a negotiated solution, Assad and his supporters will never end the war.”
And he questioned suggestions that Assad was immune from international pressure to agree to a settlement. Any such conclusion by Assad is “without any foundation whatsoever, and it’s very dangerous.”
The current effort to end the five-year Syria conflict was largely spearheaded by Kerry and Lavrov, backed by major global and regional powers that formed the International Syria Support Group.
Back in March, the U.S. and Russia engineered a truce that sharply reduced violence, but started to steadily erode. The Vienna conference was called after U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura appealed last month to Washington and Moscow to directly intervene in putting the Syria dialogue back on track.
The Geneva talks foundered after the Western- and Saudi-backed opposition suspended formal participation in the indirect talks with Assad’s envoys to protest alleged government cease-fire violations, a drop in humanitarian aid deliveries and no progress in winning the release of detainees in Syria.
Reflecting the lack of substantive progress in Vienna, de Mistura did not say when the Geneva talks would reconvene but warned of further delay.
“We cannot wait too long,” he said. “We want to maintain momentum.”