Foreign ministers from the United States, Britain and other countries meet in Vienna for talks aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s four-year civil war. (Reuters)

Diplomats called Friday for a cease-fire in the Syrian war and outlined what they hope will become a new peace process to end the fighting and encourage a political transition of power.

After a day of meetings in the Austrian capital, the foreign ministers from 17 countries and two groups — the United Nations and the European Union — laid out some basic principles and practical steps to end 4 1/2 years of fighting and knit Syria back together. They remain split, however, on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The diplomats asked the United Nations to invite the Syrian government and opposition groups to join peace negotiations leading to a new constitution and elections in which the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled the country would be entitled to vote. They also said peace talks would be accompanied by a cease-fire involving all sides, except for designated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Many details remain aspirational, and the diplomats agreed to meet again within two weeks to discuss practical steps to achieve their goals.

“The time has come to stop the bleeding and start the building,” said U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, appearing at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy on Syria.

The alliance between Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad goes back decades. Here's a bit of historical context that explains why Russia is fighting to prop up its closest ally in the Middle East. (Ishaan Tharoor and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Kerry said the Obama administration was intensifying its diplomatic efforts to end the conflict and its military campaign against the Islamic State and other extremist groups operating in Syria. He described it as “coincidence” that the Syria talks in Vienna took place on the same day the White House announced that it would be sending a small contingent of special forces into Syria to advise opposition groups. But he also characterized the military and political efforts as intertwined.

“At the end of the day, the United States and its coalition partners believe absolutely nothing will do more to fight Daesh than to achieve a political transition,” he said, using the Arab term for the Islamic State.

Both Kerry and Lavrov were frank in admitting the gap between the United States and its allies over Assad’s future. The United States and its allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf think that Assad must relinquish power because he has no credibility after using barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons on his own citizens. Russia and Iran are Assad’s biggest backers and contend that other countries cannot decide the future of Syria.

“I did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to stay,” Lavrov said through his interpreter. “I said Assad’s destiny should be decided by the Syrian people.”

But they said they had agreed to put their differences aside for the time being while they try to get negotiations started and turn their attention to the extremist groups.

“We have a common enemy,” Lavrov said. “We have to make sure this enemy does not come to power in Syria or any other country.”

The talks brought together regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in an effort to push for a resolution to the Syrian war.

A joint statement all the participants released supported an independent and secular Syria that protects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. It called for elections that live up to international standards, and an end to battles between the government and the rebels so they can focus all their efforts on defeating the Islamic State.

More than four years of warfare in Syria have claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced more than 3 million refugees to flee to neighboring countries or to Europe as part of a massive flow of migrants.

The chaos has also facilitated gains by the Islamic State, which continues to hold ground despite more than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes.

A senior State Department official, talking about the closed-door talks on the condition of anonymity, said the talks are infused with a sense of urgency driven by the refu­gee exodus.

“The secretary feels this can’t go on through another winter and continue to percolate,” the official said. “It’s got to move to a political transition that is not tied to Assad.”

Even as the envoys gathered at the Imperial Hotel, more than 50 Syrians died when government forces fired rockets and mortars into a market in suburban Damascus, activists said. The Douma district, a stronghold for some rebel factions, is a frequent target of government air attacks.

The meeting, arranged in less than a week, represented the broadest group yet to tackle the conflict in Syria. It included countries from Europe and the Middle East that are hosting a flood of Syrian refugees and countries that are engaged militarily in the war.

Though no representative from the Syrian government attended, its interests were represented by Iran and Russia, both of which have provided financial and military support to Assad.

State Department officials said it was unrealistic to expect the diplomats to emerge after just one day of talks with a clear solution.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it is premature for the diplomats to agree on a fundamental issue in which the parties are so far apart.

“You have to organize the political transition,” Fabius told reporters Friday, “and obviously Bashar al-Assad is responsible for a large part of the drama and cannot be considered in the future of Syria. Therefore, at one moment or another in this political transition, he should no longer be in power.”