The Syria Talks in Vienna: The Beginning of the End?

This article first appeared on the Chatham House website.

Since the nuclear agreement in Lausanne, Russia has made an unprecedented military intervention in Syria, effectively acting as the air force for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in attacking the forces of ISIS, as well as those of the more moderate opposition. That intervention has bolstered the Syrian leader but at the same time left him seriously indebted to President Vladimir Putin. It was no surprise therefore to see the Syrian leader summoned to Moscow last week for talks with Putin which seemed to add an edge to the two leaders' discussions hitherto lacking.

A key outcome of the Moscow talks appears to have been to prepare the way for a major international meeting on the Syrian conflict in the Austrian capital. At first it was suggested that Russia and the United States would be joined by Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the Syrian parties, but this was soon expanded to include Turkey and Egypt.

By Thursday it was announced that Britain and France, together with Germany and Italy as well as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar would also attend the meeting. Such an international conference will be the first of its kind since the failed Geneva conference of January 2014.

That conference failed because of the U.S. and Saudi demands to exclude Iran. After the nuclear agreement with Iran that is no longer possible. Iran has come in from the cold.

Moreover President Obama, with little more than a year left in office, may well see the Vienna meeting as the best chance to push forward a peace agreement on the conflict that has most blighted his Administration's period in office. For Iran the meeting represents its first appearance in international discussions on Syria, confirming its rising regional power with a long sought diplomatic breakthrough. Its dynamic Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has built excellent relations with key counterparts like the German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier.

But change was necessary in another country, Saudi Arabia. The rise to the throne of King Salman following the death of King Abdullah also saw the retirement of the veteran Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal and his replacement by Adel al Jubeir. The new Saudi foreign minister was swiftly invited to Moscow in August, although the two countries positions on Syria remain very far apart. Such is Saudi loathing for the Syrian dictator it is difficult to imagine Riyadh countenancing Assad remaining in office for any meaningful period if a peace agreement was reached.

While Russian–Saudi relations have failed to make substantial progress, Moscow is not without friends in the Sunni world. Egypt's President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and Russia's Vladimir Putin enjoy a close personal relationship and share a deep mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood. While no admirer of President Assad, Egypt is far more cautious than other Arab states about its approach to change in Syria.

But of all the countries attending the Vienna meeting it is the United States which is perhaps the most critical. Energized by the success of the nuclear agreement with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry already appears to be preparing the ground for a follow-up to the Vienna meeting. If the participants on Friday avoid a breakdown, a peace process on Syria may well have commenced.

Lord Michael Williams of Baglan is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow for Chatham House.