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US - SYRIA - IRAN

Iran to attend talks on Syria in sign of thawing relations

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures as he attends a joint news conference with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier (not seen) in Tehran October 17, 2015.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures as he attends a joint news conference with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier (not seen) in Tehran October 17, 2015. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA

Representatives of the international community will be seeking common ground over a political transition in Syria. It will be the first time all the major players in the conflict are gathered in the same room, with Iran, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, invited for the first time, a move that reveals a crucial shift in talks.

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"Surely we can find a place where one man does not stand in the way of the possibilities of peace," that's the mindset in which US Secretary of State John Kerry approaches the talks in Vienna.

It's the very first time that Iran has been invited to the table to talk about the crisis. Why is it a first? Mainly because of strong opposition from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The major issue of the talks is whether Bashar al-Assad should step down or not. A question that has already been discussed between Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey last week, with no breakthrough.

"The biggest challenge is ultimately that Iran remains firmly committed to supporting the regime of Assad. In fact, so supportive that it has thousands of troops on the ground supporting his offensives... It's lost several key Iranian generals in the last few weeks alone... and it firmly believes that he is the most important counter weight to the Islamic State," Shashank Joshi, a political analyst from the Royal United Services Institute in London told RFI.

"Iran shows very little interest in any kind of transition in the short or the long term, away from Assad... So how do you persuade them or cajole them to accepting one? That's the biggest challenge of these talks."

The crisis in Syria has been going on for four years, and we have seen a significant increase in air strikes in recent months.

Iran was needed at the table and finally got an invitation "probably because the conflict has just escalated to an unsustainable level in the past months. With the Russian entry on the ground, things are really getting dangerous," Jessica Ashooh, the Deputy Director of the Middle East Strategy Task Force of the Atlantic Council told RFI.

"Of course they were always dangerous but the internationalisation of the conflict is just unsustainable and I think that a lot of people have decided that it was time to get to another round of talks. It is a major turnover because at previous peace talks, such as the Geneva 2 peace talks, Iran wasn't there because the Syrian opposition refused to come to the talks if Iran was there. They viewed Iran as a party to the conflict and not a constructive player."

Regarding the future of Assad himself, she said it was really hard to speculate. "The one thing that is certain though, is that men like Bashar al-Assad don't really die quietly in their sleep..."

None of the Syrian opposition groups were invited to attend the talks.

On one side, Russia and Iran 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, the US and its key regional allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are supporting groups fighting Assad and insist he must go.

So getting all the players around the table proves tricky.

"One of the reasons is that their supporters from the outside are present at the talks. The United States have a large program alongside Turkey. And then Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar have their own programs to support rebels... So if you have the people who give the arms to the rebels, you may have less need for the rebels themselves," said Shashank Joshi.

"And I think another reason is, and it's a very difficult question, who do you invite? Some of the most powerful rebel groups, that include Al Qaeda allies, and you obviously would not be able to have a serious diplomatic discussion with Al Qaeda at the table. But even if you put that aside, there are still major divisions between different types of rebel groups, even the less extreme ones... So it would be easier in a way to just avoid that debate altogether and discuss things with their sponsors instead."

The only solution for finding an end to the Syrian crisis is to put as many parties as possible around the table and the opening of negotiations with the key players is a good start.

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