Iran to join Syria talks as diplomatic push gains pace
Iran confirmed Wednesday that it will take part for the first time in international talks aimed at resolving the Syria conflict as a diplomatic push to end the war gains momentum.
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will join his counterparts from key players in the Syria crisis -- including Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia -- 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 talks Friday will follow a meeting between the top diplomats of Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Thursday evening, the second time the quartet will have met in less than a week.
Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon and the European Union all confirmed they would take part, with Britain's Foreign Office saying the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Italy would also attend.
There was no mention of either the Syrian government or the opposition attending.
- 'Progress towards transition' -
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.
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 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 supporting groups fighting Assad and insist he must go if there is to be any hope of peace.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that France and its allies had agreed on the need for a "precise timetable" for Assad's departure.
"We worked on the details of a political transition guaranteeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad within a precise timetable," he said after talks late Tuesday in Paris with officials from the US, Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that he doubted the upcoming round of talks in Vienna would be "the last chapter".
But Kirby said Secretary of State John Kerry felt "progress was being made towards laying down the foundation of what a political transition could look like".
At the same time the Pentagon announced plans to step up attacks on Islamic State jihadists operating in both Syria and Iraq, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying he expected more airstrikes and even possible "direct action on the ground".
The dynamic in the Syrian conflict shifted after Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad's forces on September 30 -- allowing Syrian troops to go back 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 conflict began.
- Russia intensifying bombing -
Russia says 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.
Russian warplanes have struck 118 "terrorist" targets in Syria over the past 24 hours -- the highest total yet -- the defence ministry said Wednesday, attributing the rise to new surveillance data.
Russian jets hit targets in the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia, a spokesman said.
Iran meanwhile is believed to have sent fighters to back up Assad on the ground. Several thousand Iranians and allied fighters from Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia are believed to be fighting alongside Assad's forces.
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.
Assad on Wednesday renewed his accusation that Western states including France were supporting "terrorist" groups in his country.
"Several countries in the region and the West, including France, are continuing up until now to support terrorism by giving political cover to terrorist groups in Syria and the region," he told three visiting French right-wing legislators, according to state news agency SANA.
Assad said terrorism was "the main cause of the suffering of the Syrian people" and warned it was "an international phenomenon which no border can prevent from spreading".
© 2015 AFP