World powers meet in Vienna to discuss embattled Syria

World and regional powers meet in Vienna to discuss extending the ceasefire in embattled Syria.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry attend the ministerial meeting on Syria in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016

Envoys of world's leading countries are meeting today in Vienna to save the Syrian peace talks from a total collapse. Although they differ on many global issues, US secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergie Lavrov will chair the meeting    

The 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG) will renew its call for a nationwide ceasefire and immediate humanitarian access to besieged areas.

The difference is prevailing over the call for Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad and the rebels to agree on a framework for a political transition. US officials, travelling with Kerry say Washington still insists Assad should go, with an August 1 deadline for settling on the framework under which he does so.

But the Syrian regime leader, bolstered by military support from Russia and Iran, has shown no sign he is prepared to leave.

"There is no lasting future for Syria with Assad," said German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier as he arrived for the Vienna talks.

"That's why we need to discuss, under the auspices of the UN, what a transition government could look like and put things on the right track," he added.

So far, UN mediated peace talks in Geneva under international envoy Staffan de Mistura have made little headway and now even Washington's allies privately doubt the August 1 date will be met.

"The target for August is to have a framework in place, a framework agreed, for a political transition," a senior State Department official told reporters in Vienna ahead of the meeting.

"We're talking to the Russians, trying to get a better environment for the political negotiations," he said. "Particularly on the regime side."

The official added that the opposition coalition had been more open about how they would like to see the deal negotiated but Assad's people, while publicly backing talks, have not engaged.

"The regime is just not there, and I think that's really the key to it," he said.

This is a key that can only be turned by Russia, if at all. Moscow, Assad's key foreign backer, supports the ISSG platform on paper but backs Syrian regime forces on the ground.

'Long way from finish line' 

Russia nevertheless endorsed the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined the ISSG peace plan into international law, and Lavrov says he supports it.

"Today we're a long way from the finish line," he said Monday, according to official Russian news agencies.

"But if everything decided under the auspices of the ISSG and the UN Security Council is put in place honestly, then there's every chance the situation won't stay as it is."

The situation on the ground as it stands is dire.

Washington and Moscow chivvied the warring parties into a shaky ceasefire in late February, but pockets of violence remain.

A regime air strike in key battleground city Aleppo left at least three civilians dead early Tuesday, among them a mother and her young daughter, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime forces continue to blockade several rebel held areas around Damascus, stopping all food and medical aid in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

Meanwhile, terrorist organisation DAESH still holds vast swathes of territory and carry out attacks in the country while Al Qaeda's branch in Syria, Nusra Front, is also involved in the fighting.

Bdama located in Idlib province in the northwest, where large swathes of territory is held by Al Nusra, regime strikes left eight civilians dead, including four women and three children.

Fighting has also broken out between Nusra Front and other opposition groups, killing more than 300 fighters in recent weeks.

The Syrian war erupted in early 2011 after regime forces launched a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests, and has since claimed more than 270,000 lives.

Millions have been driven from their homes and a huge flow of refugees struggling to escape to Europe have caused a humanitarian and a political crisis.