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Why the Vienna Talks on Syria Are Doomed to Fail

The countries involved remain divided on the fate of Assad.

Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, center, and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov address the media after the meeting in Vienna, Austria, on November 14, 2015.

Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, center, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov address the media after meeting in Vienna on Saturday.

By Teresa Welsh Nov. 19, 2015 | 4:59 p.m. EST + More

The terrorist attacks in Paris and the global refugee crisis have heightened the sense of urgency amongst the global community to address the Syrian civil war. The nearly five-year conflict has allowed the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations to operate in Syria and neighboring Iraq. They aren't just a threat in the Middle East, but have proven they have the capacity to successfully kill in the West.

But while the leaders of the International Syria Support Group – 20 countries and international organizations participating in talks hosted in Vienna – want the war to end, they can't agree on how to it should happen. Given that the Syrian factions are unlikely to stop the war on their own, the fact that the international community assembled to help them is also divided presents a great challenge.

  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the United States Institute of Peace on Nov. 12, 2015 in Washington, D.C.


Kerry Outlines 3-Point Plan to End Syrian Civil War

Calls to escalate military attacks against the Islamic State group increased after the Nov. 11 attacks in Beirut and the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, and French, U.S. and Russian forces are all targeting the militants via airstrikes. No country is eager to send troops into the quagmire, but an increased air campaign against the extremists can be more successfully carried out without the distraction of the warring government and rebel forces.

The muddled mix of government forces, opposition groups and terrorist organizations makes the prospect of a timely, negotiated political solution complicated. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday during an unannounced trip to France that a ceasefire is "weeks away," a time frame some analysts call ambitious.

There are 20 members of the International Syria Support group, but five countries hold the key to success in the Vienna talks. Here's where they stand:

United States

The Obama administration has long maintained that Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot be involved in a successful political transition; Kerry has called the idea of a Syrian government that somehow includes Assad a "nonstarter." The U.S. hopes to use the International Syria Support Group to kick start a political process to form a national unity government, followed by the writing of a new constitution and elections within 18 months. But Kerry and his team are mindful of history: A major cause of the region's current instability was the U.S. war in Iraq that unseated Saddam Hussein, the vacuum from which allowed terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group to grow and expand.

Kerry, who has been tasked with leading the American negotiating team, said Wednesday the process will be difficult but the world must unite after the Paris attacks to defeat the Islamic State group.

"The departure of Assad is still essential, not because I say so or France says so or another country, but because you literally cannot stop the war if Assad is there," Kerry told French TV on Wednesday.

The U.S. leadsa 65-country coalition targeting the Islamic State group and President Barack Obama would prefer to stabilize Syria without having to commit American ground troops to another war.


Iran will not support a resolution to the conflict in Syria that does not include Assad; his regime, they say, ensures continued Iranian influence in the region. Syria is a key supply route between Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, so any subsequent Syrian government would need to allow Tehran to maintain this free flow of arms. Because of this, Iran will work hard to broker a political process that allows Assad to remain.

 A rebel fighter looks at smoke billowing in the background during clashes with pro-government forces south of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Oct. 19, 2015. Syrian regime forces edged forward in the northern province of Aleppo with air cover from Russian warplanes, but faced fierce resistance from rebel forces.


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