US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks to Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov before a meeting in New York on securing a ceasefire in Syria, on December 18, 2015
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks to Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov before a meeting in New York on securing a ceasefire in Syria, on December 18, 2015 © Jewel Samad - Pool/AFP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks to Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov before a meeting in New York on securing a ceasefire in Syria, on December 18, 2015
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AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

World powers meet on Syria conflict

The world powers most implicated in Syria's civil war met in New York on Friday to renew efforts to bind Bashar al-Assad's regime and its rebel foes into a ceasefire and peace talks.

Convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura along with 17 foreign ministers gathered at a hotel in the city.

Later, they were to head across the city to the United Nations and seek the support of the Security Council for their plan to achieve a political settlement to the almost five-year civil war.

The New York talks are the first meeting of the International Syria Support Group since Saudi Arabia gathered a coalition of Syria rebel groups to form an opposition negotiating team.

If the ministers give their support to Saudi Arabia's planned rebel delegation, pressure will mount on Russia to bring its ally Assad to the table for talks on a political transition.

"Here in New York we will be seeking to harmonize as much as possible the opposition position with what we discussed in Vienna," German Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier said.

Under the Vienna process agreed last month, there would be a six month political transition period once a ceasefire began -- but the rebels have demanded that Assad step down immediately.

Russia has dismissed this idea and Kerry admitted this week in Moscow that it was a "non-starter."

"The most important task is to move forward towards a real ceasefire," Steinmeier added, in a broadcast by his ministry.

Aside from the hosts, the ISSG meeting brought together Britain, the UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, China, Egypt, Germany, France, Iran, Iraq and Italy.

The European Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League were also represented.

Kerry traveled to Moscow this week to assure the Syrian leader's key ally Russian President Vladimir Putin that Washington is not seeking "regime change" in Syria.

And in New York, the top US diplomat has sought to reassure Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir that the United States is not going soft on the Syrian strongman.

The high-stakes diplomatic balancing act aims to keep both Moscow and Riyadh on board as the ISSG aims to build momentum for peace talks and a ceasefire to start as early as January 1.

On the eve of UN talks, Assad warned in an interview with Dutch television that misguided efforts to bring about regime change would make the conflict "drag on."

He argued that only backers Russia and Iran -- not the West -- were ready to resolve his country's nearly five-year conflict.

If a ceasefire can be reached in Syria's four-and-a-half-year-old civil war, then Syrian troops, Russia and a US-led coalition can focus their fire on the hardline jihadist Islamic State group.

Under a deal struck last month in Vienna, government and rebel negotiators would have six months to form a transitional government and 18 months to organize national elections.

- Questions remain -

But several questions still hang over the process.

Will Assad and his foreign backers Russia and Iran agree to sit down with rebel groups they routinely denounce as "terrorists"?

And, will the rebels and their foreign backers countenance talks with a regime that has slaughtered thousands of its own citizens with barrel bombs and poison gas?

Even if a ceasefire is possible, who would monitor it? And who would lead the fight against the IS group and others, such as Al-Qaeda's Al-Nusra Front, left outside of the peace process?

US diplomats concede that the plan is ambitious and that success is not certain, but they hope that Russia and Saudi Arabia will cajole their rival Syrian allies to the table.

President Vladimir Putin, they reason, will not want to see the Russian forces he sent to Syria to shore up Assad's beleaguered regime bogged down in an open-ended conflict.

Meanwhile, the threat of Islamic State group attacks and waves of Syrian war refugees spilling out from Syria into the Middle East and Europe has concentrated minds in other foreign capitals.

- 'I was packing' -

Assad, in his interview with Dutch television, turned sarcastic when asked whether he was comforted that Washington's stance on his departure was seemingly softening.

"I was packing my luggage, I had to leave, but now I can stay," he said.

More than 250,000 people have died since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011, and millions more have fled their homes.

On Friday, British-based watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleged that a Russian air strike in support of Assad's forces had killed 32 civilians in northern Syria.

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