- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

Secretary of State John F. Kerry says the Obama administration will not step back from its demand that the Assad regime relinquish power in Syria, but he simply does not know whether Russia and Iran — the regime’s top backers — will accept the mandate.

“We do not know for certain whether the kind of political transition we seek in that country can be achieved,” Mr. Kerry said Thursday, ahead of the next round of international talks on Syria’s war slated to take place this weekend in Vienna.

“The walls of mistrust within Syria, within the region, and within the international community, are thick and high,” he told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, before traveling to the Austrian capital to engage in the talks.

But Mr. Kerry also said that while division over Mr. Assad’s fate runs deep, the U.S., Russia and others “have decided not to let that disagreement prevent us from trying to build on the common ground we have established.”

In prepared remarks Thursday, the secretary of state stressed that progress was made in a previous round of talks last month, where all parties agreed that — regardless of the dispute over Mr. Assad — the extremist Islamic State terrorist group “must be defeated.”

The late-October summit was the first time that a delegation from Iran was included in the Syria talks, and Mr. Kerry said the meeting “showed that the agreed basis for action is much wider than many had supposed.”

His remarks come as President Obama’s approach in Syria continues to face mounting scrutiny from critics, who say the administration has neither articulated, nor implemented a clear strategy for defeating the Islamic State and ending the conflict that has left more than a half-million Syrians dead and spawned a refugee crisis stretching into the heart of Europe.

It remains to be seen what that action that Iran, Russia and the U.S. can agree on in Syria — particularly since Moscow and Tehran are seen to be standing behind Assad, and demanding that his ouster not be a precondition of international cooperation against the Islamic State.

Mr. Kerry suggested such cooperation must be rooted in the collective pursuit of a political transition in Damascus that sees Mr. Assad relinquish power to Syrian opposition groups deemed acceptable by Washington.

“Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad’s leadership is simply not a reasonable request — it’s literally a nonstarter,” he said. “That’s why we are pushing so hard for a real transition, because without a real transition, the fighting is going to continue and the war will never end.”

At the same time, Mr. Kerry said: “We do not know for sure whether the right possibilities have yet come together in connection with Syria. We do not know for certain whether the kind of political transition we seek in that country can be achieved. We do not know for certain how long it will take before we can say that [the Islamic State] has been defeated.”

In addition to the U.S., Russia and Iran, other participants to this weekend’s talks in Vienna will include representatives from the Arab League, China, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the U.K. and the United Nations.

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