Kerry to hold new talks on post-Assad Syria this week

Story highlights

  • Secretary of State John Kerry is convening roughly a dozen Arab and European countries later this week on ending Syria's civil war
  • The meeting is a follow-on to talks Kerry held in the Austrian capital last week with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey

Washington (CNN)Secretary of State John Kerry is convening roughly a dozen Arab and European countries later this week to discuss ending the civil war in Syria and the future of President Bashar al-Assad, senior State Department officials told CNN.

It's a move likely seeking to capitalize on what U.S. officials see as traction following Russia's military intervention in Syria.
"The secretary believes the momentum is moving in the right direction, and that's why it's important, in his view, to continue to meet with partners in the effort," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.
    Kirby said details of the meeting were still being worked out, but officials said the talks are planned for Friday in Vienna.
    Iran has been invited to attend Friday's meeting, senior U.S. officials said.
    Saudi Arabia is balking at Iran's participation and, more importantly, Tehran has not yet agreed to attend.
    But Kerry has said Iran will eventually have to participate in talks on a political settlement in Syria, and European nations are pushing for Tehran to be included in Friday's session.
    The meeting builds on talks Kerry held in the Austrian capital last week with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where the countries put forward new ideas to revive efforts to find a political transition. At last Friday's meeting, Kerry said the foreign ministers agreed to meet again soon as part of an expanded group.
    Kerry said following the meeting in Vienna that any effort to end the Syrian civil war must need the backing of the Mideast's major powers to be successful.
    "The hard work of shaping that transition (in Syria) requires an international approach and a consistent approach," Kerry said Friday.
    While Russia and Iran are Syria's primary backers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the main supporters of insurgent groups battling the Syrian regime and ISIS. Officials said the goal is to get all of the players in the region to focus their efforts on fighting terrorism, particularly ISIS.
    Despite the apparent momentum toward finding a political solution in Syria, the major powers remain divided on Assad's future. The U.S., European and Arab nations have said Assad's ouster is critical for the civil war to end. Kerry said Friday the U.S. and its allies "understand that Assad creates an impossible dynamic for peace."
    Administration officials have expressed cautious optimism that Russia will support Assad's eventual transition from power, even if he is allowed to remain for a period of time.
    "There are wide disparities on how Assad goes, when he goes and what happens after," one senior State Department official said. "Because of those wide disparities, Kerry thinks it's important to get everyone in the same room."
    The Syrian opposition was not invited to the meeting, although Michael Ratney, the U.S. coordinator for Syria, flew this weekend to Turkey to meet with both the political opposition and rebel leaders to fill them in on the ongoing diplomacy.
    "The idea of having the opposition at the table would be counterproductive," another senior State Department official said. "Right now they have to get all of the stakeholder countries on board first, the ones that have an effect on Assad's decision-making."
    Moscow's military intervention in Syria has proven to be a catalyst for fresh political efforts. In recent weeks Russia and Iran have launched joint military operations aimed to rescue the Syrian army from defeat, and Assad's regime from possible collapse. Russian airstrikes against U.S.-backed rebels have seemed to strengthen the regime's position.
    The U.S. has predicted that Russia will get bogged down in Syria, like the Soviet Union did in the 1980s, and suspect Russian President Vladimir Putin could be looking to use his increased influence on the ground to end Russia's costly involvement there. Last week's Vienna talks followed a visit to Moscow by Assad, where Putin hinted that Assad could be willing to agree to a political solution.
    "There is a sense they may have been off more than they can chew and want to find a political way out of this," the first official said.
    Expectations for Friday's meeting are already being set low.
    "Getting closer to agreement on what a political agreement would look like" would be a demonstrable measure of success, one official said.
    "For now we are trying to get the relevant stakeholders to the table to see what they could agree upon and what basic formula could work," another senior State Department official said. "We are not get bogged down in the details right now because that is what sends everyone off the rails. Things are beginning to ripen. But it is extraordinarily fragile. "