Russia risks being trapped in another quagmire like unless it helps orchestrate a political transition in Syria, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has warned.
Referencing the , Mogherini spoke on Wednesday on the eve of a new multilateral push to end the four-year Syrian conflict.
In the broadest peace talks since the war began, foreign ministers from western Europe and the US will meet counterparts from , Saudi Arabia and countries that border Syria – including, for the first time, Iran.
The Iranian foreign minister, accompanied by three of his deputies in response to a US invitation to take part. The invitation broke with previous American policy – strongly supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – of excluding Tehran.
Shortly before the Iranian announcement on Wednesday, Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, spoke with Zarif by phone, urging him to attend.
“To me the important thing is that we manage to involve the relevant actors,” Mogherini said in an interview in Strasbourg. “Because unless we do that, the leverage we have on the parties involved directly in the conflict inside is not sufficient to start the transition. And there are very concrete ideas on how this would look like, in terms of reforming the constitution, in terms of elections. I believe that if we create the political space with the relevant actors to start this, I am confident that this can move forward with a reasonable pace.”
She said the participation of Russia was also critical to progress. “I believe that Russia is aware that if they are not working equally hard for the beginning of a political process they risk being trapped in a sort of Afghanistan scenario in Syria, and they risk being perceived by a large part of the Arab community, and Muslim citizens of Russia, as taking part in the Sunni-Shia divide,” Mogherini told the Guardian.
She said the potential presence of Russian Muslim fighters among the jihadists in Syria would be a serious security concern if they returned home. “I think the Russians see very clearly that together with their military buildup ... their interest is to actively push for the beginning of the political process,” she added.
The US deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, agreed that Moscow was under pressure to deliver a political deal after having intervened militarily.
“Russia now has an incentive and more influence to move and the regime towards a transition,” . “There is a recognition on all sides that there is no military solution in Syria, that is a recognition that is now growing on the Russians.”
He said he hoped was prepared to play “a positive role in supporting a political transition in Syria”. But he added: “We don’t yet know the answer to that.”
Despite the breakthrough of bringing all the regional and global actors in Syria together for the first time, there are still substantial obstacles to a peace deal after more than four years of a and driven 12 million people from their homes.
Despite Iranian attendance, it is not known whether representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia, arch-rivals in the region, will actually sit at the same table. Nor is it clear whether Tehran has formally accepted the principles agreed by other powers in : that the road to peace was through the formation of a transitional government formed by mutual consent of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition. Acceptance of that UN-brokered formula has hitherto been a precondition for taking part in international negotiations on Syria.
The US and its allies have dropped their demand that Assad step aside at the start of a peace process but insist that his departure must be the outcome of a transition process measured in months rather than years.
On Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, hosted a meeting of ministers from the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to agree common positions.
“We discussed the terms of a political transition guaranteeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad under a precise timetable, as well as the need to continue our efforts to combat Daesh [Islamic State] in Syria while supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, whose role in future negotiations was emphasised,” Fabius said . He added that he had conveyed that stance to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
Russia agreed to the Geneva communique but denies it requires Assad to stand down. That can only be a decision for the Syrian people, . The west and its regional allies say any election conducted in current circumstances under a brutal regime could only be a travesty.
In preparation for the meeting in Vienna on Friday, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is convening a smaller group on Thursday including Lavrov and their opposite numbers from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in an effort to narrow some of the differences.
Mogherini said Friday’s negotiations should focus on the constitutional changes needed to ensure a fair transition.
She said: “We have to guarantee that the starting point is inclusive, and inclusive means also the regime representatives.” However, Mogherini added: “A transition by definition means you start in one place and finish in another. But how you define the steps that bring you from A to B ... is something we will be talking about with the relevant actors in the region and the international community.”