Seeking an Opening on Syria

Officials from 17 countries are meeting in Vienna to discuss the country’s future, but the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will likely dominate.

Brendan Smialowski / AP

Officials are hoping global and regional rivalries will be kept in check as 17 nations meet in Vienna to discuss Syria’s future.

Iran, the closest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is attending the meeting for the first time over the until-recent objections of Saudi Arabia, its main regional rival, which wants Assad gone. The two countries are not only on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, but are also deeply involved—including through the contributions of weapons and fighters—on opposite sides of the unrest in Yemen and Bahrain. The New York Times adds:

It took considerable work just to get the Saudis and the Iranians into the same room. Mr. [Secretary of State John] Kerry went to Saudi Arabia last week and argued that the conflict would only further Syria’s destruction; add to the death toll, roughly a quarter-million already; and worsen the refugee crisis in Europe. President Obama followed up Tuesday with a call to King Salman of Saudi Arabia that White House officials described in vague terms. The two leaders, they said, “reaffirmed the need to cooperate closely to counter the shared threat from ISIL,” an acronym for the Islamic State militant group, “and to establish the conditions for a political transition in Syria.”

There was no mention of Iran in the statement.

Also in Vienna for the talks Friday: the U.S., which opposes Assad; Russia, which is conducting airstrikes on his behalf; and Turkey, which opposes him.

The nearly five-year-long Syrian civil war pits Assad against a range of rebel groups, from moderates that are backed by the West to the Islamic State, which both the West, some rebel groups, and the Syrian government are fighting. (My colleague Kathy Gilsinan breaks down the complex web of who supports whom in Syria in this excellent piece.) The conflict has created tens of thousands of civilian casualties and more than 4 million refugees, many of whom are now seeking refuge in Europe.

Perhaps recognizing the rivalries at play, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said in Madrid on Thursday: “My sincere hope is that they will really address this issue with a sense of flexibility, whatever differences they may have in their political views, in their approaches. They should be united.”

Still, the BBC reports that officials are underplaying expectations from the meeting with one official calling it, in the words of the BBC, “a tentative bid to seek common ground.”

But challenges to finding common ground remain.

At a news conference Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the talks would show whether Iran was “serious” about its role.

“If they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,”  Jubeir said.

In response, Omran al-Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, said: Jubeir “has no clue how diplomacy and politics work, should keep his mouth closed and keep his country out of a matter that is none of its business.”

The U.S. and Turkey have given some ground on the issue of Assad’s future, initially insisting that he must step down immediately, but now appearing more amenable to a political transition after which Assad would go. Saudi Arabia seemed less open to that idea, with Jubeir telling the BBC: “He will go either through a political process or he will be removed by force.”

Also attending the talks in Vienna are officials from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.