Iran to join Syria talks as diplomatic push gains pace
Iran confirmed Wednesday that it will take part in international talks aimed at resolving the Syria conflict for the first time as a diplomatic push to end the war gains momentum.
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will join his counterparts from Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna on Friday for negotiations it is hoped could help staunch almost five years of bloodshed.
The inclusion of Iran -- a key backer of President Bashar al-Assad -- marks a crucial shift after Tehran was excluded from earlier talks mainly because of opposition from Washington and Riyadh.
"We have reviewed the invitation, and it was decided that the foreign minister would attend the talks," Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said.
The Friday talks will follow a meeting between the top diplomats of Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Thursday evening, the second in less than a week of the quartet.
Egypt, Lebanon and the European Union have also confirmed they will attend Friday's talks, while Russia said Iraq has also been invited.
- 'Continue momentum' -
After years of international failure to stem the violence in Syria, the talks in Vienna will be the first time all major international players in the conflict will be in the same room as they seek to find a political solution by setting up an interim unity government.
But serious divisions remain over when or whether Assad should step down -- and the four-way Russia-US-Saudi-Turkey meeting last Friday in the Austrian capital failed to make a major breakthrough.
On one side are Russia and Iran, which both are backing Assad's forces on the ground and say Damascus must be helped to defeat "terrorism" before a political process can start.
On the other are the United States and its key regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are backing groups fighting Assad and insist he must go if there is to be any hope of peace.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that he doubted the upcoming round of talks in Vienna would be "the last chapter".
But Secretary of State John Kerry said he felt "progress was being made towards laying down the foundation of what a political transition could look like" after the last talks and wanted to "continue momentum", Kirby said.
The dynamic in the protracted conflict shifted after Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad's forces on September 30 -- allowing Damascus to go on the offensive and overshadowing a US-led coalition bombing Islamic State jihadists.
Assad then made a surprise visit to Moscow last week -- his first known foreign trip outside Syria since the start of the conflict.
Russia says that its bombing campaign is targeting IS fighters and other "terrorist" groups but Washington and its allies insist that Moscow is hitting more moderate groups battling Assad.
Iran is believed to have sent fighters to back up Assad on the ground, and is estimated to have several thousand men -- including from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia -- under its command in the country.
More than 250,000 people have been killed since Syria's brutal conflict broke out in March 2011, sparked by a bloody crackdown on protests against Assad's rule.
The Pentagon on Wednesday said it may step up its air strikes and even direct ground attacks by special forces against jihadists seeking to carve out an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
© 2015 AFP