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:
- Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.
- State institutions will remain intact.
- The rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, must be protected.
- It is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.
- 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.
- Da'esh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.
- 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.
- This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.
- 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.
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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: