The United States is open to Iranian participation in diplomatic meetings Friday in Vienna to discuss the conflict in Syria, the State Department said.
“In looking for different multilateral settings and for the right key partners to be present, we do expect in this case that Iran will be invited to participate,” spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday in Washington.
Iran is a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been fighting Islamist militants and other rebel groups in a four-year civil war. An estimated 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and more than half the pre-war population displaced.
Kirby said that whether Iran attends on Friday was “up to Iranian leaders.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who in recent weeks has met repeatedly in European capitals with envoys from Middle Eastern countries, European powers and Russia in pursuit of a political solution to the Syrian crisis, is due Friday in Vienna for another round of talks.
“There’s a series of bilateral discussions that are going on; some involve the United States, many don’t. As well as multilateral meetings that continue to occur; some involve the United States, some don’t,” Kirby said.
He refused to discuss what other countries would be participating Friday, saying that details were still being worked out.
Kerry “wants to encourage these kinds of conversations and discussions – as we continue to look for solutions to what is a difficult political situation in Syria, and a transition that can be enduring and lasting and lead to a better government for the Syrian people,” Kirby said.
The US and Iran have lacked formal diplomatic relations since 1980, though there has been some thawing in the last few years, leading up to the nuclear agreement in July between Tehran and six world powers including Washington. Major US-Iranian differences remain across the Middle East, including Tehran’s support for the al-Assad regime.
Reporters pressed Kirby if an invitation to Friday’s talks meant Iran was among the United States’ “key partners” on the Syria crisis.
“I would not describe, based on their activities now, that they are certainly acting in partnership with the international community with respect to Syria,” Kirby said. “But they could be. These are decisions that Iranian leaders have to decide to make.”
Russia, al-Assad’s other major international ally, last month launched an air campaign inside Syria in support of the regime.
Kerry has engaged in frequent talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, including meetings last week in Vienna with foreign ministers from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia “absolutely” could become a “key partner” to achieve a political transition in Syria, Kirby said.
“That is why there will be another round in Vienna on Friday, and I suspect you’ll continue to see more such multilateral settings to discuss the situation in Syria,” he said.
“And the participants … will vary from time to time, and that’s OK – as long as the discussions are progressing and as long as some progress can be made towards achieving a political transition in Syria.”
Late Tuesday in Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and envoys from France’s other “main partners” in the Syria crisis, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Britain.
The French Foreign Ministry said the participants were seeking “the means of engaging in a political transition to a united, democratic Syria.”
Briefing the UN Security Council on Tuesday, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said that 13.5 million Syrians, including 6 million children, are currently in need of some form of aid or protection, which is an increase of 1.2 million since the beginning of the year.
He noted that 6.5 million Syrians had been internally displaced and 4.2 million people had fled the country.
In Syria, Islamic State militants cut off a key supply route to parts of Aleppo city under control of the Syrian government, completing an offensive launched last week. Government forces had been trying to relieve hundreds of troops besieged at the Kuweires air base in territory controlled by the jihadists east of Aleppo.
Control of Aleppo city, Syria’s largest before the war, is divided between the government in the west and rebels in the east.