On November 14, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Vienna for a new round of peace talks on Syria with representatives from 17 countries, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League. Secretary of State John Kerry noted that the talks had made "critical progress," which included a plan to hold U.N.-supervised elections in 18 months. But the parties differed on whether Syrian President Bashar al Assad should be allowed to participate. "Iran disagrees with those who say Bashar al Assad should not compete in the upcoming elections," said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
The talks were a continuation of discussions held in Vienna on October 30, which Iran also attended. The invitation for Iran to join the talks, which was backed by the United States, marks a major change after two earlier failed peace initiatives in 2012 and 2014. In January 2014, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon initially invited Iran to a conference in Geneva. But under U.S. pressure, he withdrew it one day later. His spokesperson cited Iranian public statements that were “not at all consistent” with oral assurances Tehran had given regarding the Geneva Communique, which calls for a transitional government to lead to free and fair elections.
The following is a statement released by the parties after the November 14 talks, followed by excerpted remarks from officials.
Statement of the International Syria Support Group
Meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015 as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States to discuss how to accelerate an end to the Syrian conflict. The participants began with a moment of silence for the victims of the heinous terrorist attacks of November 13 in Paris and the recent attacks in Beirut, Iraq, Ankara, and Egypt. The members unanimously condemned in the strongest terms these brutal attacks against innocent civilians and stood with the people of France.
Subsequently, the participants engaged in a constructive dialogue to build upon the progress made in the October 30 gathering. The members of the ISSG expressed a unanimous sense of urgency to end the suffering of the Syrian people, the physical destruction of Syria, the destabilization of the region, and the resulting increase in terrorists drawn to the fighting in Syria.
The ISSG acknowledged the close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process pursuant to the 2012 Geneva Communique, and that both initiatives should move ahead expeditiously. They stated their commitment to ensure a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition based on the Geneva Communique in its entirety. The group reached a common understanding on several key issues.
The group agreed to support and work to implement a nationwide ceasefire in Syria to come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards the transition under UN auspices on the basis of the Geneva Communique.
The five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council pledged to support a UNSC resolution to empower a UN-endorsed ceasefire monitoring mission in those parts of the country where monitors would not come under threat of attacks from terrorists, and to support a political transition process in accordance with the Geneva Communique. All members of the ISSG also pledged as individual countries and supporters of various belligerents to take all possible steps to require adherence to the ceasefire by these groups or individuals they support, supply or influence. The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh or Nusra or any other group the ISSG agrees to deem terrorist.
The participants welcomed UN Secretary General Ban’s statement that he has ordered the UN to accelerate planning for supporting the implementation of a nationwide ceasefire. The group agreed that the UN should lead the effort, in consultation with interested parties, to determine the requirements and modalities of a ceasefire.
The ISSG expressed willingness to take immediate steps to encourage confidence-building measures that would contribute to the viability of the political process and to pave the way for the nationwide ceasefire. In this context, and pursuant to clause 5 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG discussed the need to take steps to ensure expeditious humanitarian access throughout the territory of Syria pursuant to UNSCR 2165 and called for the granting of the UN’s pending requests for humanitarian deliveries. The ISSG expressed concern for the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons and the imperative of building conditions for their safe return in accordance with the norms of international humanitarian law and taking into account the interests of host countries. The resolution of the refugee issue is important to the final settlement of the Syrian conflict. The ISSG also reaffirmed the devastating effects of the use of indiscriminate weapons on the civilian population and humanitarian access, as stated in UNSCR 2139. The ISSG agreed to press the parties to end immediately any use of such indiscriminate weapons.
The ISSG reaffirmed the importance of abiding by all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, including UNSCR 2199 on stopping the illegal trade in oil, antiquities and hostages, from which terrorists benefit.
Pursuant to the 2012 Geneva Communique, incorporated by reference in the Vienna statement of October 30, and in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, the ISSG agreed on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices, as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1. The group welcomed efforts, working with United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and others, to bring together the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians, who will decide their negotiating representatives and define their negotiating positions, so as to enable the political process to begin. All the parties to the political process should adhere to the guiding principles identified at the October 30 meeting, including a commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character; to ensuring that State institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination. ISSG members agreed that these principles are fundamental.
The ISSG members reaffirmed their support for the transition process contained in the 2012 Geneva Communique. In this respect they affirmed their support for a ceasefire as described above and for a Syrian-led process that will, within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months. These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
Regarding the fight against terrorism, and pursuant to clause 6 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG reiterated that Da’esh, Nusra, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants and endorsed by the UN Security Council, must be defeated. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists, with a target of completion by the beginning of the political process under UN auspices.
The participants expect to meet in approximately one month in order to review progress towards implementation of a ceasefire and the beginning of the political process.
—Nov. 14, 2015, via the European Union External Action Service
—Nov. 14, 2015, via the European Union External Action Service
Secretary of State John Kerry
"Today, Sergey Lavrov and I and Staffan joined representatives from the Arab League, China, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the UK, and the United Nations. And we did so because we all recognize the urgency of this moment. There can be no doubt: This crisis is not Syria’s alone to bear. The impacts of this war bleed into all of our nations: from the flood of desperate migrants seeking refuge within the region or in Europe or beyond; to the foreign terrorist fighters making their way into Syria to join the ranks of groups like Daesh; to self-radicalized fighters, living among us, their minds poisoned by Daesh’s propaganda and lies.
"Now, obviously, those of us who met in Vienna today – the International Support Group on Syria – do not agree on all the issues when it comes to Syria. We still differ, obviously, on the issue of what happens with Bashar al-Assad. But we are relying on the political process itself – led by Syrians, which it will be, going forward, and with Syrians negotiating with Syrians – that that can help to bring a close to this terrible chapter. We do agree on this: It is time for the bleeding in Syria to stop. It is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide. It is time that we come together to help the Syrian people embark on the difficult but extraordinarily high imperative of rebuilding their country.
"I underscore: We did not come here to impose our collective will on the Syrian people. Exactly the opposite; the Syrian people will be – and must be – the validators of our efforts.
The Syrians will be the first to tell you that they need help from the international community, especially a consensus about how to achieve a political transition that will allow them to ultimately shape their own destiny.
"Building that consensus has been our goal here in Vienna; in fact, building the structure, the pathway to be able to achieve that. And while a lot of hard work obviously remains, we have made critical progress. Together, our nations have reached a common understanding, still beyond where we were two weeks ago, regarding a series of steps that we believe will accelerate an end to the Syrian conflict, certainly can accelerate it if people take advantage of this opportunity.
"Based on our shared belief in the necessity of a ceasefire and a parallel political process pursuant to the 2012 Geneva communique, we today discussed and laid out a path towards that political process and ceasefire and towards it on as rapid a path as possible.
We agreed on the need to begin formal negotiations between representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, under UN auspices, with a target date of the two sides actually sitting down negotiating with each other no later, hopefully, than a target date of around January 1st. That’s pushing. The group has agreed to work with Special Envoy de Mistura to assemble the broadest possible spectrum of the Syrian opposition – chosen by Syrians themselves – to define their negotiating positions and determine who their representatives to the talks will be.
"We agreed on the steps – that the steps outlined in the 2012 Geneva communique present the best path forward towards an actual political transition, and we support a Syrian-led transition process within a target of six months that will: establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance; set a schedule and a process for drafting a new constitution; and determine eligibility for voting and candidacy in elections.
"We also agreed that free and fair elections would then be held, pursuant to the new constitution, within 18 months. These elections, we believe, would take place – not we believe – we agreed would take place under UN supervision with an emphasis on transparency and accountability, and with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
"But, as we underscored, this political process has to be accompanied by a ceasefire that will help to end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, and I might add that will help rapidly to define who wants to be considered a terrorist and who is not, understanding that Daesh and Nusrah are clearly and inexorably in that category now.
"We agreed that the ceasefire would come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian Government and opposition have taken initial steps towards the UN-supervised transition. The five permanent members of the Security Council pledged to support a Security Council resolution to empower a UN-endorsed ceasefire monitoring mission. And in coordination with our talks today, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has ordered the UN to accelerate planning for supporting the implementation of that ceasefire, and the group agreed that the UN should lead the effort, in consultation with interested parties, in order to determine its requirements and its modalities.
"We also pledged to take all possible measures to ensure that all parties – including those currently supported by nations represented here in Vienna – that they will all firmly adhere to the ceasefire. In other words, each country that supports or has influence with or supplies anybody in the field will become an enforcer of the ceasefire. We also agreed to press the parties to immediately end the use of indiscriminate weapons.
"Now, let me be clear: the ceasefire, as I said a moment ago, does not apply either to Daesh or to Nusrah or to subsequently some group that in the days ahead may be determined by the support group as qualifying as a terrorist organization."
– Nov. 14, 2015, at a press conference in Vienna
– Nov. 14, 2015, at a press conference in Vienna
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Antony Blinken: First, all of the neighbors – Syria’s neighbors in this case – are invited to the meeting in Vienna on Friday, so that includes Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. And it’s evident that Iran, one way or another, is going to have to be part of the conversation on Syria’s future.
Marc Perelman (France 24): But it was not part of that conversation because of its supposedly destructive role in Syria, and that hasn’t changed.
Blinken: Well there are two things. President Obama has been very clear that he is willing to engage with anyone who is willing to try to work for a peaceful outcome in Syria. And as Secretary Kerry has said, Iran one way or another is going to be playing a role. Now unfortunately to date, it’s played a negative role in terms of its support for Bashar al-Assad, in terms of its proxy, Hezbollah, which is helping to prop up the regime. So one of the big questions will be whether Iran is prepared to play a positive role in supporting a political transition. We don’t know the answer to that.
Perelman: The political transition – you mentioned it. If you talk to Russia, if you talk to Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s two main backers, you’re effectively talking to or with him. This means there is no precondition that he must leave power to discuss. He will be part of a transition, he does not need to leave now.
Blinken: Our position, and I think the position of most of our partners, is pretty clear.
Perelman: No, it’s not.
Blinken: Well we’ll see. And Vienna will help to clarify that as well. There is no future for Syria as a stable, secular, democratic, peaceful country with Assad as president. So any political transition must result in his departure among other things. The question is how exactly to define that process. That’s exactly what we’re working on. But there’s something new here, and that is Russia’s role. …
Perelman: From your conversations with the Russians, are they telling you that they can convince Assad to an acceptable transition – that he would leave power in one year, two years – is this what they’re telling you and is this why you’re trusting them to hold those conversations?
Blinken: Well we’re at the beginning of this process.
Perelman: But you’ve had talks.
Blinken: We’ve had talks but the critical next step will be this meeting in Vienna. This is not going to be resolved in one meeting, or two meetings, or three meetings. But it is the beginning of an intensified process to see if we can get to a political transition process. That’s exactly what we’re working on. I can’t give you the answer now, we don’t know yet. But I think it’s fair to say that no one is wedded to Bashar al-Assad –
Perelman: Including the Russians?
Blinken: Well I think you’d have to ask them directly.
Perelman: And the Iranians?
Blinken: You’d have to ask them. But we’ll have an opportunity as a result of these conversations and discussions to test those propositions.
Perelman: Are the Saudis on board with the Iranians being part of that?
Perelman: You know there are serious tensions between the countries…?
Blinken: Yes. Yes. The answer’s yes.
Perelman: So you think now the stars are aligned to maybe really find a political solution in the not so distant future in Syria?
Blinken: Well they’re more aligned than they’ve been. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll get there. But it does mean that there’s a greater opportunity and I think it’s because there’s a growing recognition on the part of all sides that there is no military solution in Syria. And that’s a recognition that’s now growing on the Russians. We’ve known it for a long time. They’re now experiencing it. They cannot win in Syria. They can perhaps prevent Assad from losing, but they can’t win. And meanwhile, they will be bled and their influence will be eroded, and their reputation will be eroded.
—Oct. 28, 2015 in an interview with France 24
State Department Counselor Tom Shannon
“The secretary thought it was time to bring everybody together and effectively call their bluff, determine whether or not ... their public commitment to fighting [Islamic State] and terrorism is a meaningful one and the extent to which they are prepared to work broadly with international community to convince Mr. Assad that during a political transition process he will have to go.”
—Oct. 29, 2015, to the press
State Department Spokesman John Kirby
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that [Iran is a key partner], but I just mean that you need key – as I said yesterday, there are many stakeholders in Syria and what’s going on. Iran, though we do not certainly by any means approve of the destabilizing activities that they continue to pursue in Syria, recognize that and always have recognize, that at some point in the discussion moving towards a political transition we have to have a conversion and a dialogue with Iran. And so I wouldn’t call them a partner necessarily. But obviously, there are many stakeholders in this, and so we do anticipate that Iran will be asked to participate. Now, whether they come or not, that’s up – that’s up to Iranian leaders.
“[T]he goal is to come up with a framework – an agreed-upon, international, multilateral framework – for a successful political transition in Syria, which is – leads to a government not led by Bashar al-Assad and is – that is representative of and response to the Syrian people. That’s the overarching goal.
“And as I said yesterday, that’s a difficult task, certainly given the ongoing violence that we’re seeing in Syria and all the different perspectives that many partners and participants in these meetings have and espouse. We understand that. So I can’t tell you exactly what the outcome of the meetings on Friday are going to be or if they’re – it’s the last chapter. I rather doubt that. I think there will be – there’ll continue to be more such discussions with varying degrees of participation internationally. So we just have to see.
“But coming out of this last trip to Vienna, the Secretary felt optimistic that enough progress was being made towards laying down the foundation of what a political transition could look like that he felt it was really important to continue that momentum. And that’s what this next meeting in Vienna hopefully will do, will build on this momentum."
—Oct. 28, 2015 in a press briefing
White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest
"To exclude Iran and Russia from these conversations would be a missed opportunity."
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
“There has been no prerequisite for Iran's presence in the Vienna conference; if it were so we would never take part in the meeting.”
—Oct. 29, 2015 to the press in Vienna
"Those who tried to resolve the Syria crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present, there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis."
—Oct. 29, 2015 to the press in Vienna
Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian
"Iran disagrees with those who say Bashar Assad should not compete in the upcoming elections.”
– Nov. 16, 2015, according to the press
“It is the Syrian people that should make a decision whether to elect him [Assad] or not.”
– Nov. 16, 2015, according to the press
“Some participants insisted that if the envisaged trend goes well in a six-month period, Bashar Assad should not contest the upcoming elections.”
“In response, we stressed unequivocally that only Assad himself can decide on his participation or non-participation in the elections and [that] it is only the people of Syria who can say whether they will vote for him or not.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran did not allow a clause on the ouster of President Assad to be included in the final statement of the Vienna-III talks; we emphasized that only the Syrian people enjoy the right to decide about this matter.”
– Nov. 15, 2015, according to the press
"Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever."
—Oct. 30, 2015, according to the press
"There is no change in the Islamic Republic of Iran's supportive policy for Syria."
Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadi
"The Saudi regime with its all-out support for the ISIL and its terrorist acts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as numerous crimes, including its attacks on hospitals, schools and people's homes, is a war criminal and its presence in the Vienna multilateral talks is, thus, suspicious and illegitimate."
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
“Our discussions in Vienna have been constructive, and there is now momentum behind a process working towards peace for the people of Syria.
“We have agreed to work towards a ceasefire, and to chart a course that will see the Syrian people take charge of their own destiny. The UK remains opposed to Bashar al-Assad playing any part in the future of Syria.
“The terrible attacks in Paris have shown us that a united and strong response to solving the civil war in Syria is needed urgently, to ensure everyone is committed to combating the barbaric threat that ISIL and its followers pose.”
– Nov. 14, 2015, in a statement
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
"We have reiterated the principles that we have achieved on the 30th of October in Vienna, what the stakeholders see as the Syrian future. We have reiterated that Syrian future will be decided by Syrian people alone. This regards also the destiny of Mr. Assad and any other politician in this country.
"The last time when we met on the 30th of October in Vienna, we decided to do our homework on two areas. The first point is political process and acceleration of the beginning of this process. We have concluded some specific steps that we’re tasking our UN colleagues and Mr. de Mistura with, that is, to gather the opposition and the government no later than the 1st of January. The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has already informed Mr. de Mistura on the composition of their delegation. And today, Mr. de Mistura has the task to find the composition of the Syrian opposition delegation, which should be representative and reflect the whole spectrum of political forces.
"One and a half year ago, efforts were taken to unify the opposition by our Egyptian colleagues. We also conducted some meetings in Moscow. And today, other representatives of the Syrian Support Group made the initiative to help Mr. de Mistura gather around an opposition delegation. And we welcome the efforts and will help in every way possible to gather the opposition and the government around the negotiation table.
"As John has said, this will be a Syrian-led process and the Syrians will decide which country they will live in. At the same time, we have outlined as a timetable two occasions. The first point is that within six months the Syrian delegations should decide on the joint opposition, the so-called unity government. And then the Syrian people should decide on the – a new constitution, and according to this new constitution the elections will take place, and all this within 18 months.
"That falls within the logic of the Geneva communique of the 30th of June, 2012, where it is stated that Syrians should decide on all the political reforms according to the mutual consent principle. Right after the Geneva communique was adopted, we tried to launch such a political process, but there were a lot of opponents at that point who said that external players – who said that Syrian cannot – the Syrians cannot agree between themselves so the mutual consent is impossible. We used to retort that we should at least try; and today, today I am happy to say that we managed today to at least start launching this political process.
"And the second point of homework which we agreed upon on the 30th of October is trying to find a unified, common list of terrorist organizations. We have mutual agreements, as John has said, that ISIS and al-Nusrah Front are terrorist organizations, but other terrorist groups should also become the legitimate goal that we should fight together with.
"Since the 30th of October, many participants of this group have drafted their own terrorist lists. And today, we have asked Jordan to coordinate the common list of terrorist groups which would be agreed upon in the UN Security Council. Russia would actively participate in this process. In the capital of Jordan, Amman, we have launched an information center also to fight terrorism and will try to do that.
"We all want to stop violence in Syria and the majority of delegations today were for an immediate ceasefire; but unfortunately, not all of them were prepared for that. That is why today we reiterated our commitment to create conditions for a ceasefire and will continue to work in the political vein. And we have acquired information today from the UN secretary general that he has already tasked UN to plan the monitoring mission. We’re prepared to work on that.
"We decided to accelerate efforts on humanitarian assistance, to accelerate efforts on access to those in need, and all that within the context of political process and to find agreements between those in the field. I mean governments and the armed groups, opposition groups, which are not terrorists.
"Overall, I am satisfied that the International Group for Syrian Support has taken place. We are grateful to our colleagues for supporting our proposal to let the secretary general of the League of Arab States to take part in our group, and he has already done that today. And we also managed to make headway on our linked proposal to include the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also to take part in this group.
"I find this fundamentally important because many tried to speculate on the Syrian conflict and tried to incite hatred among the Muslims. That is why I am convinced that the participation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will provide consolidation efforts and to affect positively this conflict."
– Nov. 14, 2015, at a press conference in Vienna
“The [two] sides [Iranian and Russian foreign ministers] continued discussion of possible ways of settling the Syrian crisis with a focus on urgent steps towards establishing an intra-Syrian political dialogue.”
“The two diplomats stressed that there is no alternative to promoting this process by all key countries of the region.”
—Oct. 28, 2015 via Russia Today
Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
“There will be a meeting on Friday of a broad group of countries supporting the Syrian opposition as a broader group of countries from the region will meet to discuss the intentions of these countries in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, the most important element of which is the time and means of Bashar al Assad's exit.”
“If they're [Iranians] serious we will know, and if they're not serious we will also know and stop wasting time with them.”
—Oct. 28, 2015 in a press conference
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Martin Schaefer
“Iran's inclusion in the talks is the only and proper way to settle the Syrian crisis.”
—Oct. 29, 2015, to the press
Photo credit: US Dept of State via Flickr Commons