Vienna: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks on the war in Syria with US counterpart John Kerry on Friday after Moscow thrust itself into the heart of the crisis with its bombing campaign backing President Bashar Al Assad.
Lavrov shook hands with Kerry as they sat down at a Vienna hotel for a crunch meeting that will then see the duo joined by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir and Turkey’s Feridun Sinirlioglu.
Washington, Riyadh and Ankara — which all back groups battling against Al Assad — are looking to sound out Lavrov after the embattled Syrian strongman made a surprise visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin this week.
On September 30 Russia launched a bombing campaign in Syria, which has shifted the dynamics of the brutal four-and-a-half year war — allowing Al Assad’s battle-weary forces to go on the offensive and overshadowing a US-led coalition bombing Daesh.
The US and its regional allies have decried Russia’s strikes, insisting Moscow is not focusing on Daesh as it claims, but other groups fighting the regime in Damascus, and that the Kremlin’s intervention will only prolong the bloodshed.
Al Assad’s fate remains a major stumbling block for talks and after years of failure to stop the bloodshed in Syria there was scant hope of any major breakthrough in Vienna.
His surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday — his first known trip abroad since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 — has now placed the Kremlin as the key link to the strongman.
Washington and its regional allies have long insisted Al Assad has to go for there to be any chance of a political solution to fighting that has cost more than 250,000 lives, but Moscow says it must first help him defeat Daesh and other “terrorists” before talks can start on any reforms.
“The aim of the US is to get rid of Al Assad, probably that is so, our aim is to defeat terrorism, to battle terror, and to help President Al Assad claim victory over terror,” Putin said on Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“In this way, we can then create the conditions for the start and, I hope the successful reaching of a conclusion, of the political process to find a settlement.”
Meanwhile, Kerry said in Berlin that while all sides agreed on the need to find a political solution and battle Daesh only “one thing stands in the way... a person called Al Assad — Bashar Al Assad”.
However, analysts say some Al Assad opponents appear to be softening their line and conceding that he could remain in power temporarily, while Moscow does not seem wedded to the strongman long-term.
Putin — who has been isolated by the West for some 15 months over the Ukraine crisis — went on a diplomatic blitz in the wake of the visit by Moscow’s long-standing ally, calling the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.
Russia has been frantically trying to get the US and its coalition partners to cooperate with its bombing campaign in Syria, and Putin on Thursday stressed the need for “joint work” to defeat “terrorism” in Syria.
Moscow had called for other Middle East powers — particularly staunch Al Assad ally Iran, which is also backing his forces on the ground — to take part in the Syria talks but that was rejected due mainly to strong Saudi opposition.
Lavrov is also expected to meet his counterpart from Jordan Nasser Judeh separately in the Austrian capital to discuss the situation in Syria, Russia’s foreign ministry said.
While Syria is set to dominate in Vienna, Lavrov and Kerry will also hold talks with representatives from the European Union and United Nations on the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The talks — to include the EU’s foreign policy chief and UN head Ban Ki-moon via video-link — are part of a flurry of diplomatic activity seeking to end weeks of violence that has raised fears of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Kerry on Thursday expressed “cautious optimism” about defusing the crisis after a four-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin.