At G-20 meeting, an ambitious timeline for political transition in Syria

Leaders from the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are meeting in Vienna this weekend to discuss ways to end the war in Syria and a post-war transitional government. Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times joins Hari Sreenivasan by phone from Vienna with more on the meetings and proposed timetable for action.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Leaders from the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are meeting in Vienna, Austria, this weekend to discuss ways to end the war in syria and a post-war transitional government.

    Though no delegation from Syria is at the negotiating table, Secretary of State John Kerry said today there could be new elections in Syria within 18 months. He referred to the terrorist group "ISIS" by its Arabic name, "Dash."

  • JOHN KERRY SOT:

    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 who make their way into Syria to join the ranks of groups like Daesh, to self-radicalized fighters living among us.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis is covering the Syria peace talks and joins me by phone from Vienna.

    How significantly has last night's attacks played into the conversation today?

  • JULIE DAVIS, THE NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone):

    Well, I think it really stiffens everyone's resolve, as John Kerry said, to really come out with something concrete from these meetings. Everyone, you know, took a moment of silence in the beginning of their ministerial.

    Everyone was very somber and, you know, very determined to make some headway here in light of — you know, the attacks that really underscored the challenge they're facing, trying to confront the Islamic State and, you know, its effects on the region, but also, obviously, well beyond the region.

    So, it did lend a sense of urgency, and they made some headway. But I would say they were looking for a lot more momentum than they maybe were able to get because there are still some pretty significant remaining issues that divide the key players.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    All right. So, let's talk a little bit about. What are they hoping to accomplish and what's standing in between today and that point?

  • DAVIS:

    Well, they did come up with a timetable for action on a political transition in Syria, which is important. It's a pretty optimistic timetable.

    They want to get opposition groups together by January 1, and get them talking with the government of Syria and the representatives of the president, Bashar al-Assad, in the next six months after that, to try to come up with a unity government and constitution and then hold elections in 18 months.

    So, that's a pretty ambitious timetable, and Secretary Kerry acknowledged that, and everyone at the table I think acknowledged that it's a long shot but that's a concrete timetable and that represents some real progress here.

    And they also, you know, agreed that they would, in parallel, seek a cease-fire. But again, for that to happen they're going to have to figure out what the fate of President Assad is going to be, what role he's going to play.

    And they have to identify who they're going to treat as a terrorist group and who they're going to treat as a legitimate opposition group that gets to have a seat at the table in those transition talks. And those are very big tasks that they accept for themselves in the next six months.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    And there isn't anybody from Assad's government at this table in these conversations. Is Russia supposed to be the proxy that takes the message back?

  • DAVIS:

    Well, that's right, they're not at the table and they haven't been at the table. The group is going to meet again next month, and it's not clear whether they'll be at the table at that point.

    They are — the U.N. envoy, special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was here, and he is going to be spearheading the process of trying to get the opposition groups and Assad to the table, to try to start talking. But until they're in a position to do that, they're not going to be a part of these talks and that's a big impediment.

    Now, Secretary Kerry talks about how we're not trying to impose a solution on anyone, but as long as they're not at the table and we have interests in Syria that we're trying to execute on – mainly that Assad must go — and the Russians have interests that they're trying to execute on and they say that Assad is not the main problem here and he can be part of a solution, it's hard to see them making a much more significant headway.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    Is there any part of this conversation that includes perhaps increased coordination of military activities between the Russian airstrikes happening and the U.S. airstrikes that are happening in Syria?

  • DAVIS:

    They did talk about that. It came up, and basically they have been involved, as you know in these talks to deconflict, so that they're basically not bombing at each other or flying at each other. But there still is a level of coordination I think that Russia is seeking that they're not getting for the United States.

    And, you know, I think that's also a key sticking point here, and a reason that they're not making as much progress as they want to on the other piece, on the diplomatic piece because there is a feeling there could be more coordination and Russia and Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, said here at the end of the talks that that would be in everyone's interest, if there was more coordination between them and the United States and the rest of the coalition.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    So, besides the military posture of all the countries involved, what about the humanitarian aid, and perhaps any agreement on what these countries are going to do to try to help the people of Syria that are still there?

  • DAVIS:

    Well, that's an element they talked a lot about, and a piece of really trying to figure out a way towards this political process. I think they acknowledge in order to get the opposition groups to the table and in order to have a legitimate process that everyone feels is in the interest of the Syrian people, they're going to have to do more of that.

    And they did actually agree in terms of the political process that the Diaspora, those who have left Syria, should be part of the ultimate elections that take place, which is — which is a major element here, and I think it speaks to their desire to have this not look like it's an outside solution being imposed from above, from outside of Syria.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    All right. New York Times reporter Julie Davis, joining us on the phone from Vienna today — thanks so much.

  • DAVIS:

    Thank you.

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