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Syria talks in Vienna hope to revive flagging peace process

Despite the high stakes, world powers seemed unable to reach a deal as to how to reinvigorate the Syrian peace process. Russia and the US did at least agree on terms for checking who is violating the truce and how.

Representatives from the US, Russia, Iran, and European and Middle Eastern countries met in Vienna on Tuesday with a focus on Syria's civil war. The last round of talks ended abruptly last month when a group representing several moderate rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad walked out, complaining that the regime was refusing to stop bombardments.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country was one of the 17 represented, said that the US and Russia had agreed to a deal that would monitor who was responsible for any ceasefire violations. The US and Russia, while both opposing the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) and other Islamist groups in Syria, have remained divided over Assad's future.

"The United States and Russia said they are ready to make progress on the technical level to be able to check who is breaking the ceasefire," said Steinmeier, according to news agency Reuters.

Steinmeier added that the group had authorized air drops - if necessary - to deliver much-needed

humanitarian aid

in areas cut off by fighting. The five-year conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions in Syria.

"We have to find a way back to the political process," Germany's top diplomat told reporters, saying that improvements in enforcing the ceasefire and providing aid might convince the so-called moderate opposition forces to stay at the negotiating table. "This political change is necessary, because there is no lasting possible future for Syria with Assad," he said.

Russia: We don't support Assad

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took exception to the idea that Moscow's backing of the Assad regime was behind the stalled talks, declaring "we don't support Assad, we support the fight against terrorism."

"On the ground we don't see any more real and efficient force than the Syrian army, even given all its weaknesses," he explained to the press after the meeting.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that participants had also agreed on one hard deadline, and one soft "target" in the stuttering peace process. They set a June 1 deadline for the resumption of aid deliveries to besieged areas currently cut off from outside assistance; should land routes remain blocked, then air drops would commence in June to provide key supplies.

Meanwhile, Kerry described as a "target date," not a deadline, the bid to make the warring factions agree to the framework for a political transition by August 1 of this year.

es/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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