Iran to join Syria talks as diplomatic push gains pace
Iran said Wednesday it will take part for the first time in international talks aimed at resolving the brutal war in Syria as a diplomatic push to end the conflict gained momentum.
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will join key players in the Syria crisis -- including Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia -- in Vienna on Friday for a renewed effort to end almost five years of bloodshed.
The inclusion of Iran -- a key ally 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.
It will be the first time all the major international players in the conflict are in the same room, but there has been no mention of either the Syrian government or the opposition attending.
Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will also meet beforehand on Thursday evening, the second time the quartet will have met in less than a week.
The following day will see them joined by Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and the European Union.
Britain's Foreign Office said the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Jordan will also be present.
- 'Progress towards transition' -
After months of failure, efforts to find a breakthrough have gained pace as hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their shattered country in recent months.
Serious divisions remain over when or whether Assad should step down -- and four-way Russia-US-Saudi-Turkey talks in Vienna last Friday failed to make a 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 take shape.
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.
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.
But US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken warned against high expectations.
"I don't think we should expect any grand or final conclusions from the meetings in Vienna," he told reporters in Paris.
"It's just part of a process to see if we can get to an agreement on what a political transition should look like."
At the same time as the diplomatic moves, the Pentagon announced plans to step up attacks on Islamic State jihadists operating in both Syria and Iraq, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying Tuesday he expected more airstrikes and even possible "direct action on the ground".
- 'Stuck in quagmire' -
Saudi Arabia, which supports anti-Assad rebels, said the talks would test whether Russia and Iran are "serious" about a political solution to the war in Syria.
"If they're serious we will know, and if they're not serious we will also know and stop wasting time with them," Foreign Minister Adel al-Juberi said.
The dynamic in the Syrian conflict shifted after Russia launched an air campaign on September 30, claiming it was targeting IS fighters.
But Washington and its allies say that in reality Moscow has primarily targeted moderate opponents of Assad with a view to propping up his regime.
Russian warplanes have struck 118 "terrorist" targets in Syria over the past 24 hours -- the highest total yet -- the defence ministry in Moscow said Wednesday, attributing the rise to new surveillance data.
Iran is believed to have sent thousands of troops and Hezbollah militia fighters to support Assad's forces.
But the US believes they will struggle to defend Assad for long, which is why they have been forced to engage diplomatically.
"There's a growing recognition in Russia of the risk of being stuck in a quagmire, that it risks alienating virtually the entire Sunni Muslim world," said Blinken.
"That explains Russia's efforts to engage in a more productive way on political transition."
More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria's brutal conflict since it began in March 2011 following 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... to support terrorism by giving political cover to terrorist groups in Syria and the region," he told three visiting French right-wing legislators.
© 2015 AFP