VIENNA — Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived here late Friday for the latest session of his initiative to forge a diplomatic solution to Syria’s lengthy civil war, amid hopes — but little confidence — that global stakeholders can at least settle some of the basic issues that have impeded progress for more than three years.
Preparations for the Saturday meeting were interrupted by news of the apparent terrorist attacks in Paris, and it was unclear how the gathering would be affected. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had been scheduled to hold a breakfast meeting for foreign ministers here in Vienna.
The 19 nations and international organizations attending agreed at an initial Vienna meeting two weeks ago that ending Syria’s internal chaos was essential to addressing the threat posed to all of them by the Islamic State militant group. Beyond that, they are broadly divided between Russia and Iran, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the rest, who are convinced that the civil war will not end until Assad relinquishes power.
The more immediate questions on the table are whether a cease-fire can be arranged while political questions are worked out; what, if any, groups beyond the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, are terrorists and should be exempt from attacks on the ground and from bombing by both Russia and the United States; and which of the many opposition groups are eligible to sit at the table to negotiate a new Syria?
Russia has tendered its own settlement plan, an eight-point proposal that calls for agreement on a list of terrorist groups, appointment of an opposition committee to negotiate with Assad’s government and eventual elections. It does not mention Assad’s departure.
U.S. allies are divided among themselves on what constitutes legitimate opposition to Assad. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are exasperated with the Obama administration’s long insistence that only vetted “moderates” should participate in transition negotiations. Those countries have long supported Islamist opposition groups that have not been designated terrorists.
Shortly after his arrival on the eve of the Saturday meeting, Kerry held a preliminary, closed-door session with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Asked by reporters whether agreement would be reached on a valid opposition, Jubeir said, “We will find out tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Turkey has long urged the United States to agree to a protected zone inside Syria along the Turkish border, a step that would require extensive U.S. air cover. Would that decision be made during this round of global talks?
“I don’t know,” Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu said late Friday as he entered his own private sit-down with Kerry. “We will see.”
On Saturday morning, Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before the larger session begins. Iran, whose inclusion in the Vienna talks is a first, is sending a deputy foreign minister.
Kerry began Friday on a much happier note, with a stop in Tunisia to offer support for the fragile democracy whose own 2011 revolution touched off the Arab Spring uprisings, including the Syrian civil war.
While Tunisia is often held out as a lonely success story, it faces deep economic and political challenges — with its vital tourist industry undercut by terrorist attacks, and crises emerging within the governing party last week amid charges of nepotism and corruption.
“The eyes of the world are on Tunisia, and America wants Tunisia to succeed,” Kerry said at a news conference in Tunis with Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche.
Tunisia’s ability to incorporate secularists and Islamists into the political structure, Kerry said, provides a model for what the United States and its partners are trying to establish in Syria.
“Tunisia is an example of Islamists engaging constructively in the political sphere,” Kerry said.
Kerry also met privately with members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group of prominent civil society, business and other private-sector leaders who combined their efforts to help preserve the country’s democracy.
The visit was capped by the announcement of plans for a $500 million U.S. loan guarantee to finance economic reforms — the third guarantee of that size over the past several years — and an announcement that the United States would contribute to a new police training academy, scheduled to open in 2019.
Direct U.S. assistance to Tunisia has totaled more than $700 million since 2011, including $250 million in security aid.
Standing at Kerry’s side, Baccouche said that increased U.S. security aid is necessary for Tunisia to control the infiltration of terrorists across the Libyan border and to deal with the return of Tunisian militants who have been fighting on the side of the Islamic State in Syria.
But Kerry pointed out that political stability and planned government reforms are equally important to encourage investment that will allow Tunisians to continue to support democracy.
Tunisia’s governing Nidaa Tounes party, a coalition of non-Islamist groups, won a plurality of legislative seats in the 217-seat parliament in the first election after the 2011 uprising. The party was shaken this week by the resignation of more than three dozen of its 86 members, who alleged cronyism and corruption by elites tied to the previous government.