World and regional powers set immediate, modest Syria goals

VIENNA: World and regional powers agreed Tuesday to try and turn Syria's shaky pause in fighting into a comprehensive cease-fire as a step toward ending the five-year war that left hundreds of thousands dead and fueled the rise of Islamic extremists.

Outlining other results, US Secretary of State John Kerry said participants set a June 1 deadline for the resumption of humanitarian aid to areas cut off from the outside world.

If land routes remain blocked, food aid will be air dropped and international pressure will be increased on those blocking such relief, he said. Such pressure will also be applied to stop indiscriminate use of force by the Syrian military, Kerry added, without specifying what pressure the powers could apply.

But beyond such pledges the meeting did not devise any concrete ways to resolve the main problem standing in the way of peace  factional divisions. Without that, progress in ending the violence and reducing Syria's human misery can only be marginal and temporary.

Kerry said as much to reporters, declaring that to end the conflict "a variety of competing interests are going to have to be reconciled."

"Those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to prioritize peace," he said.

One key division continues to be the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Going into the talks, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier repeated the position held by the West and the Saudi-backed opposition that a peace agreement should outline steps leading to the end of his rule.

"This is necessary because there can be no lasting future for this country with Assad," he told reporters. "This is why we must start negotiations here in Vienna ... about what a transition government could look like."

Kerry did not directly mention Washington's public position that any comprehensive peace agreement must set a timetable for Assad's removal, saying only that "without a negotiated solution, Assad and his supporters will never end the war."

And he questioned suggestions that Assad was immune from international pressure to agree to a settlement. Any such conclusion by the Syrian leader is "without any foundation whatsoever, and it's very dangerous."

In a nod to Moscow, Assad's key international backer, Kerry said Russia "has made it very clear" that Assad has signed on to commitments that include participation in peace talks, constitutional change and elections.

"But he has yet to live up to the first one, which is to participate fully in the Geneva talks on a political transition," he said.

The diplomats also called on all parties to dissociate themselves from the Islamic State and the al-Qaida affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, Kerry said.

Those comments reflect international concerns about attempts by Islamic radicals to form alliances with Syrian rebels, a worry Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said all participants at the talks share.

"In particular, we have the problem of al-Nusra," he said. "It is changing, it makes alliances with groups in the cessation of hostilities."

The talks, which include foreign ministers or other senior officials from more than 20 countries and organizations were convened after discussions meant to reduce differences between rival factions sputtered last month in Geneva as fighting flared.

The current effort to end the five-year Syria conflict was largely spearheaded by Kerry and Lavrov, backed by major global and regional powers that formed the International Syria Support Group.

A truce brokered by the US and Russia sharply reduced violence in March, but that truce has been steadily eroding. The Vienna conference was called after UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura appealed last month to Washington and Moscow to directly intervene in putting the Syria dialogue back on track.

The Geneva talks foundered after the Western- and Saudi-backed opposition suspended formal participation in the indirect talks with Assad's envoys to protest alleged government cease-fire violations, a drop in humanitarian aid deliveries and no progress in winning the release of detainees in Syria.

Reflecting the lack of substantive progress in Vienna, de Mistura did not say when the Geneva talks would reconvene but warned of further delay.

"We cannot wait too long," he said. "We want to maintain momentum."