Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov share a word before the start of the Syria talks at a hotel in Vienna on Friday. Photo: Associated Press

Even as War Rages, Talks in Vienna Renew Peace Prospects for Syria

Major powers and regional rivals come together in Austria and find at least some common ground on the crisis. What that means for the Syria people, however, may be another matter entirely.

Jon Queally

Diplomatic talks between high-level delegations from the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other interested countries from across the Middle East and Europe concluded in Vienna on Friday with a resulting agreement that many are taking as a possible "breakthrough" in the effort to end the devastating civil war in Syria.

Though no representatives from either the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad or any of the rebel factions aligned against it were present, the talks—even as they coincide with both Russia and the U.S. expanding military operations in the region—represent the most promising political developments in years.

After approximately seven hours of talks, the participants did not say they agree on all matters, but did produce a joint statement in which they articulated a shared set of values and a consensus on next steps. In addition to agreeing to follow-up talks in two weeks time, the diplomats called for a new UN-sponsored effort for a cease fire in Syria and established that maintaining the country's territorial and institutional integrity was paramount for creating lasting stability both inside Syria and across the region.

Widely reported as notable at the talks was Iran's position that Tehran is not ultimately wedded to keeping Assad in power, though it did draw a firm line by saying only the Syrian people are entitled to make that decision.

"Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of Tehran's delegation, told Iranian media following conclusion of the talks.

In later statements to Iran state television, Abdollahian said that demands of a timetable for Assad's removal had been rejected by a majority of delegates and added: "The importance of the Syrian people deciding their country's fate was underlined."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed those sentiments, even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the best which could said about the gap between the U.S., Russian, and Iranian delegations on the fate of the Assad government was that they have "agreed to disagree" on the matter. "The United States position is there is no way that President Assad can unite and govern Syria," Kerry said. "We believe that Syrians deserve a different choice and our goal is to work with Syrians from many factions to develop that choice. We can’t allow that difference to get in the way of the possibility of diplomacy to end the killing and to find a solution."

During his remarks, Lavrov said one of the most significant developments achieved in Vienna was "asking the UN to gather representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition to begin the political process."

In terms of Assad, Lavrov added, "The Syrian people should define the future of their country — including Assad's fate."

The joint statement released by all participating nations contained the following nine points of mutual understanding:

  1. Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.
  2. State institutions will remain intact.
  3. The rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, must be protected.
  4. It is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.
  5. Humanitarian access will be ensured throughout the territory of Syria, and the participants will increase support for internally displaced persons, refugees, and their host countries. 
  6. Da'esh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.  
  7. Pursuant to the 2012 Geneva Communique and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, the participants invited the U.N. to convene representatives of the Government of Syria and the Syrian opposition for a political process leading to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections.  These elections must be administered under U.N. supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, free and fair, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
  8. This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.  
  9. The participants together with the United Nations will explore modalities for, and implementation of, a nationwide ceasefire to be initiated on a date certain and in parallel with this renewed political process.

 In the wake of the agreement's announcement, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said he was very satisfied with the progress made.

"Would you have imagined a few weeks ago that we would have been able to have what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been asking for months, that Russia and the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and many other countries are involved in this conflict in one form or the other, sitting on the same table?" de Mistura told reporters. "In the meeting of seven hours, no one left the room, no one disagreed fundamentally on major issues."

Speaking with the Real News Network, Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, responded by saying the most important thing to keep in my mind about these latest diplomatic developments, and the Vienna talks specifically, is that they were much more about the geopolitical implications—both regionally and globally—of the Syrian civil war than they were about the internal politics which created it more than four years and continue to sustain it now.

Noting that no Syrian factions were represented and that the talks follow closely on the dramatic Russian escalation over recent weeks, Prashad said, "This was a meeting that was to settle the geopolitics of the Syrian war. That is precisely why I've always believed the Russians intervened. It was to put pressure on the geopolitics."

Prashad did not say the talks were insignificant, but offerd reservations about the scale of their impact for the Syrian people in the short- and medium-term.

What demands attention, he argued, is that "you have to solve the political question with those who are not necessarily given to arms. You have to draw in sections of the people who are with remnants of the Free Syrian Army. You're going to have to draw in people who are with the Turkish and Saudi proxies. The Al-Qaeda groups, ISIS, et cetera, that's going to be a prolonged struggle."

And concluded, "I don't think there is any naive expectation that this agreement on a six-month timetable means that six months from now Syria is going to be absent any kind of war."

Which is why perhaps, in a moment presumed as a moment of diplomatic levity, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov concluded his remarks—in English and replicating the line made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 'Terminator' movies—by saying of the diplomats, "We'll be back."

Watch the full interview with Prashad here:


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Citing 'Unprecedented Crisis,' House Dems Push Biden to Protect Haitians From Deportation

Warning of "mortal danger," one advocacy group argues extending and redesignating Temporary Protected Status for Haitians "is a matter of life and death."

Jessica Corbett ·

The Pentagon Failed Another Audit, Yet Congress Is Poised to Approve $847 Billion Military Budget

"This isn't using our taxpayer dollars wisely," said the National Priorities Project. "It's robbing programs that we need, like the discontinued child tax credit that cut child poverty by half."

Kenny Stancil ·

Experts Warn 'Doomsday Scenario' for Colorado River Basin Possible in 2023

"The problem with massive projects like Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam," said one climate journalist, "is they were engineered for a climate that no longer exists."

Julia Conley ·

Starbucks Violated Law and Must Bargain With Union in Seattle: NLRB

The coffee giant, which plans to appeal, "is continuing its aggressive anti-union campaign against workers by delaying, confusing, and flat-out refusing to bargain with them," said Starbucks Workers United.

Jessica Corbett ·

Three UK Universities Ban Fossil Fuel Industry Recruiters From Campus

"It is vital that our universities show with actions, not words, that they are taking the side of climate justice, and not of the industries driving us deeper into a climate crisis," said one campaigner.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo