Jewel Samad / Reuters

Differences remain as key sides meet for Syria talks

Diplomats in New York talks divided over Syrian opposition, 'terror' groups; UN Security Council hoping for resolution

Some 20 foreign ministers gathered Friday for the latest conference on Syria's civil war, hopeful about arranging a cease-fire and launching peace negotiations in the new year.

But the diplomats remained divided over a resolution that the U.N. Security Council was expected to adopt just after the talks endorsing the process. And Syria's main opposition group said a Jan. 1 deadline for starting talks was "too ambitious."

Top diplomats from countries including Russia, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other European and Middle Eastern powers are attending Friday’s talks. The ministers were meeting for the third time to push forward an earlier agreement setting that deadline. 

"We need to make sure the political process is irreversible in the face of this severe threat posed by international terrorism," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said as he headed into the meeting at a New York hotel.

Serious differences remain between Russia and Iran, which support the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and backers of the Syrian opposition, including the United States, key European nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Russia and the West continue to be split on the central issue in any discussions on a political transition: the fate of Assad.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told reporters that the five veto-wielding council members did not yet have an agreed text endorsing the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) transitional plan. The council hopes to produce a resolution by the end of day Friday giving backing for a blueprint to end Syria’s nearly five-year conflict.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Al Jazeera there were still major sticking points, and as yet no agreement over which groups should comprise the Syrian “opposition” and which entities should be on a list of “terrorist” organizations.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow to assure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's key ally, Russia, that Washington is not seeking "regime change" in Syria.

And on Thursday, the top U.S. diplomat met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to reassure Assad's most implacable foe that the United States is not going soft on the Syrian strongman.

This diplomatic balancing act aims to keep both Moscow and Riyadh on board as the group struggles to cobble together peace talks.

On the eve of the U.N. talks, Assad warned in an interview with Dutch television that misguided efforts to bring about regime change would make the conflict "drag on" and that only his backers Russia and Iran — not the West — were ready to resolve his country's nearly five-year conflict.

Washington and the U.N.'s Syrian envoy, Staffan de Mistura, want Assad's government and the Syrian armed groups ranged against him to send delegates to peace talks some time on or after Jan. 1.

It is hoped that if a cease-fire can be reached in Syria's four-and-a-half-year-old civil war, then international efforts can prioritize defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls sizable parts of eastern Syria and over the border in neighboring Iraq.

Under a deal struck last month in Vienna, Syrian government and rebel negotiators would have six months to form a transitional government and 18 months to organize national elections.

But several questions still hang over the process.

It is unclear if Assad and his foreign backers Russia and Iran will agree to sit down with Syrian rebel groups that they routinely denounce as "terrorists.”

Similarly, it remains a tall order for Syrian rebels and their foreign backers to countenance talks with an Assad government that has slaughtered thousands of its own citizens with barrel bombs and poison gas.

On Friday, international envoys — including in particular Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — are hoping to hear from Saudi Arabia how its efforts to mediate a Syrian opposition coalition are progressing.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby added that Jordan would give an update on its role in the process — drawing up a list of which "terrorist" groups should be blacklisted from talks.

But Zarif on Thursday suggested that this question was still in dispute. 

"There has been no agreement on two important aspects; one is the opposition groups and the composition of the opposition groups and second is the list of terrorist organizations," Zarif told Al Jazeera.

He continued: "I believe the opposition should be serious and inclusive so that they can engage in serious talks. We suggested a national unity government a long time ago and we hope that this can in fact become a serious exercise, including various opposition groups, not just one inclination within the opposition.”

"At the same time we should exclude people with official affiliation with Daesh (an Arabic acronym for ISIL), the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, or other Al-Qaeda affiliates," Zarif said.

Even if a cease-fire were possible in Syria, other questions remain such as who would monitor it and who would lead the fight against the ISIL and other groups not part of the Syrian diplomatic process. The bulk of the anti-ISIL military campaign to date has been undertaken by an international coalition led by the U.S., but Russia’s campaign of airstrikes from September, which have bolstered the Assad government, have also intermittently targeted ISIL.

Diplomats will seek the approval of the U.N. Security Council for the process.

Originally, Western powers hoped the council would rubber-stamp a resolution endorsing a two-year road map for talks between Syria's government and opposition on a unity government, expected to begin in January, and eventual elections. Council diplomats said they hoped agreement on a text could be clinched.

But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested there were significant disagreements among the five powers.

"I'm not sure it's going to happen because there are some unfortunately deliberate, or not deliberate, attempts to undercut the Vienna documents, and we don't want to see that," he told reporters without elaborating.

When asked what the problems were, he said: "There are a few."

It was only after Tuesday's talks with Kerry that Russia — which had previously been cautious about convening another meeting of the ISSG — agreed to take part.

Assad, in his interview with Dutch television, turned sarcastic when asked whether he was comforted that the West's stances on his departure were seemingly softening.

"I was packing my luggage, I had to leave, but now I can stay," he said sardonically.

More than 250,000 people have died since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011, and millions more have fled their homes.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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