The meeting, the first of its kind, includes Russia and Iran, two countries that have long backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“There will be no political settlement of the war in Syria without Iran,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “But that doesn’t mean there will be one with Iran either.”
The talks also include Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, a country more aligned with the U.S. position that Assad must not be part of any long-term political resolution to Syria’s 4 ½-year civil war. The conflict has caused thousands of deaths, a refugee crisis and a security vacuum that has allowed Islamic State militants to gain a foothold in the country.
“I am hopeful that we can find a way forward. It is very difficult,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday as he headed into talks with Egypt’s foreign minister.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters it would not be possible to resolve all of the problems and “tangible conflicting interests” overnight. But he said Friday’s meeting is an “important step forward.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said as a first step, the fight against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra militants in Syria had to be conducted more efficiently. “After that, the political transition has to be organized,” he said.
Notably absent from Friday’s talks on Syria’s political future were representatives from the Syrian government and the country’s moderate opposition groups.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said Moscow expects Syrian opposition groups to reach a consensus on their approach and then form a single delegation for talks with the Syrian government.
Negotiation strategy questioned
There are concerns that the broader talks on Syria, with the inclusion of Russia and Iran, may not produce the desired result.
“We have been trying different negotiating approaches in Syria for almost the entire four-year conflict and they have all failed,” said Brookings Institution national security analyst Michael O’Hanlon. “There is no viable way to persuade Assad to step down and allow the new government to take his spot.”
A more optimistic view came from Michele Dunne, Middle East program director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is good to have all of the parties at the table,” she said.
US goals outlined
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday the focus in Vienna is on reaching a framework for a political transition in Syria that can work.
“A framework of a government that doesn’t include Bashar al-Assad and can be enduring and stable. That’s what we’re going after,” Kirby said.
Officials have acknowledged there are unlikely to be any major breakthroughs Friday and the diplomats will need to hold future talks.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged participants in the Vienna talks to show “flexibility” and welcomed Iran’s first-time participation in the discussions.