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Why Don’t Syrian Peace Talks Include Any Syrians?

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov share a word prior to the start of the Syria talks at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL PHOTO VIA AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov share a word prior to the start of the Syria talks at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

Talks aimed at finding a solution to the four-year-old Syrian Civil War are underway in Vienna today, with at least one notable absence. There are no representatives from Syria involved in the talks, either from the regime or the opposition.

The peace talks have largely been driven by Russian President Vladimir Putin with recent visits to various nations influencing the Syrian war. A month ago, Putin’s forces intervened in Syria with the verbal intention of targeting ISIS. But ISIS wasn’t hit. Instead, a number of rebel groups who oppose ISIS and the Assad regime bore the brunt of the airstrikes.

“On Syria, the exclusion of groups implies that it is a multilayer conflict: international, regional, and local,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist and Middle Eastern Affairs expert based in Beirut, told ThinkProgress. “The assumptions in this approach is that an international and regional convergence can overwhelm and force local players to settle domestic disputes. This may also embed a large package of incentives for local parties to reconcile differences while feeling international and regional pressure.”

“Nobody is ready to talk to each other on the ground,” said Landis.

On Syrian soil, arms and funds continue to prop up both sides in the conflict with little chance of hostilities coming to an end. Syria has no representatives present, leading rebel factions to criticize the peace talks. But the countries in attendance arguably have more control over the state of play than any Syrian actors. Iran and Russia have bolstered the Syrian military’s efforts by supplying arms, military advice, and the assistance of proxy militias. On the other side, Gulf states, Turkey, and the United States have supported the opposition to varying levels with intelligence and military aid. On Friday, the U.S. announced it will put boots on the ground by sending a small special operations force to Syria.

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“Nobody is ready to talk to each other on the ground,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who writes the blog Syria Comment, told ThinkProgress. “To the extent that this is a proxy war, the Russians and the Americans need to sort this out first and then it can go down stream.”

“The mantra for both sides is that there has to be a political solution,” Landis said. “The trouble is that they mean something completely different by that.”

The U.S. and their allies have so far rejected any idea that Bashar al-Assad would remain in charge of Syria. They feel that Assad must step down in order for Syria to rebuild. “For the sake of the Syrian people,” Obama said in August, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

The regime’s supporters envision a different political solution. “The Russians and Syrians mean Assad wins, the jihadists [mainly ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front] are destroyed, and the [Free Syrian Army] and moderate militias negotiate how they’re going to come back and be accepted by the regime,” Landis said.

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Iranian representatives in Vienna said on Friday that they would support elections in Syria six months from now. The elections would determine if Assad would remain in power or be forced to concede the role of president to an opponent.

“Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of the Iranian delegation, said, according to Reuters. Some officials cited this proposal as a significant shift in Iranian policy.

But critics say they’ve seen this tactic before. Syria held a controversial election just last year where voting was only permitted in government-controlled areas. Thus, Assad strolled to an easy victory.

“Who is mad enough to believe that under these circumstances in Syria, anybody can hold elections?” George Sabra, a member of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition, told Reuters. “Bashar al-Assad and his regime is the root of the terrorism in Syria.”