Also in Vienna for the talks Friday: the U.S., which opposes Assad; Russia, which is conducting airstrikes on his behalf; and Turkey, which opposes him.
The nearly five-year-long Syrian civil war pits Assad against a range of rebel groups, from moderates that are backed by the West to the Islamic State, which both the West, some rebel groups, and the Syrian government are fighting. (My colleague Kathy Gilsinan breaks down the complex web of who supports whom in Syria in this excellent piece.) The conflict has created tens of thousands of civilian casualties and more than 4 million refugees, many of whom are now seeking refuge in Europe.
Perhaps recognizing the rivalries at play, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said in Madrid on Thursday: “My sincere hope is that they will really address this issue with a sense of flexibility, whatever differences they may have in their political views, in their approaches. They should be united.”
Still, the BBC reports that officials are underplaying expectations from the meeting with one official calling it, in the words of the BBC, “a tentative bid to seek common ground.”
But challenges to finding common ground remain.
At a news conference Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the talks would show whether Iran was “serious” about its role.
“If they’re not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them,” Jubeir said.
In response, Omran al-Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, said: Jubeir “has no clue how diplomacy and politics work, should keep his mouth closed and keep his country out of a matter that is none of its business.”
The U.S. and Turkey have given some ground on the issue of Assad’s future, initially insisting that he must step down immediately, but now appearing more amenable to a political transition after which Assad would go. Saudi Arabia seemed less open to that idea, with Jubeir telling the BBC: “He will go either through a political process or he will be removed by force.”
Also attending the talks in Vienna are officials from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.