Foreign ministers from around world, including Iran and Russia, have met in the Austrian capital to discuss the war in Syria. With signs of flexibility towards President Assad, diplomats have expressed hope for progress.
Speaking in Vienna on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "hopeful that we can find a way forward" in the Syria talks.
"I don't call it optimism," Kerry said, adding that the process was "very difficult."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that talks could succeed "if we all come with a willingness to negotiate and to really contribute something to defuse the Syrian conflict."
The US, Russia and other regional and world powers were considering a new plan Friday to set up a ceasefire in Syria within the next four to six months, followed by the formation of a transition government featuring President Bashar Assad and opposition members, officials told The Associated Press.
The Friday talks include diplomats from 18 different countries, including Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif (photo) for the first time. The negotiations could continue as early as next week, a senior US official told Reuters.
US to deploy special forces
While the talks were underway, senior US officials in Washington announced plans to deploy a small number of US special operations forces to Syria to bolster efforts to fight "Islamic State" (IS).
The officials said US President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of fewer than 50 commandos to help local forces. The move would mark the first time US troops will be working openly on the ground in Syria.
IS has seized large parts of the country, exploiting the chaos since the civil war broke out there in 2011. Over the past four years, the conflict has escalated into a multi-sided war involving Assad's troops, opposition rebels, Kurdish fighters, IS militants and other groups.
The most divisive issue for diplomats meeting in Vienna has been the fate of the Syrian strongman President Bashar Assad. Russia and Iran support Assad both diplomatically and militarily, opposing the US and other Western powers' calls for his immediate resignation.
In recent weeks, however, the rhetoric has been scaled back. Tehran and Moscow have signaled they might consider Assad stepping down under certain conditions.
According to an agency report, a senior official from the Middle East told Reuters that "Iran is ready to make a compromise by accepting Assad remaining for six months."
"Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country's fate," the unnamed source added.
Last week, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said that Iran was "not working for Assad to stay in power forever," according to media reports.
However, there was no immediate confirmation, and none of the diplomats provided any details on the possible transition process.
'Sign of hope'
The meeting in the Austrian capital also marked the first time archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia were meeting to discuss the crisis. Steinmeier went on to describe the feat as a "sign of hope for Syria and for the region."
The Vienna talks might lead to the archrivals talking about other regional conflicts, including those in Yemen and Iraq, UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said on Friday.
"They are neighbors and they have every reason to agree," he told the AFP news agency.
There was no immediate news of any direct exchanges between Tehran and Riyadh representatives on Friday in Vienna.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said that Russia and Saudi Arabia had exchanged lists of rebel groups that should be involved in eventual peace talks in the future.
dj/jm (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)