Brendan Smialowski / AP

US, Russia agree to restart Syrian peace process

Announcement gives no sign of convergence over future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations have directed the United Nations to begin a new diplomatic process with Syria's government and opposition, with the ambitious goal of reaching a nationwide cease-fire and, ultimately, a political transition. But there was no sign of convergence on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would leave power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the move Friday at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, shortly after talks in Vienna aimed at restarting the stagnant diplomatic effort to end Syria's bloodshed.

“Four-and-a-half years of war in Syria, we all believe, has been far too long,” Kerry said after the meeting, which marked the first time every major foreign power backing a side in the war — including Iran — had sat down together to talk peace on Syria.

Kerry said the countries at the talks, which included fierce regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, all pledged to support an independent and secular Syria, to maintain the country's institutions and to strive to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is ostensibly those nations’ only shared enemy in Syria.

But Kerry made no declarations about the future of Assad, whom Russia and Iran ardently back and whose role in a future Syria remains at the center of the political negotiations. Kerry reiterated that the U.S. and its Gulf allies, who back Syria’s opposition, still want Assad ousted — although analysts say Washington has grown willing in recent months to consider delaying Assad’s departure.

“Make no mistake, the solution is not a military alliance with Assad. I am convinced it can be found with diplomatic initiative consistent with the Geneva communiqué,” Kerry said, referring to a 2012 agreement between the conflict's stakeholders that called for a transitional government in Syria, but that has never been implemented.

The new diplomatic push coincided with a U.S. announcement that a small number of American special operations forces will be sent to northern Syria to work with local ground forces in the fight against ISIL. It would be the first time American troops would be deployed openly on the ground in the country, and the latest incremental escalation of the Washington’s anti-ISIL campaign.

Kerry said the U.S. was intensifying a "two-pronged" effort: Diplomatically, it wants to see peace between the Syrian government and rebels as quickly as possible, and militarily, it is determined to defeat ISIL.

The Vienna talks took place exactly one month into Russia’s bold military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime, which had been losing ground to the rebels in previous months. The Russian intervention was widely seen as a bid to improve its bargaining position in the event of peace talks, but Moscow has indicated it would consider transitioning Assad from power.

"I did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to say," Lavrov said Friday through an interpreter.

Officials said the 19 governments at the Vienna talks were considering a plan that would establish a cease-fire within four to six months, followed by the formation of a transitional government featuring both Assad and opposition members. Conscious of the deep divide over Assad's fate, they left undefined how long he could remain in power under that transition. The officials describing the plan were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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