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Saudi minister 'questioned new push for Syria talks'

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says Bashar al-Assad is still the elephant in the room, in apparent leaked recording from talks in Vienna
Adel al-Jubeir questioned consensus on the announcement made on Saturday for peace negotiations and elections (Wikipedia)

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has questioned a new drive for peace in Syria at international talks in Vienna, saying it does not address the future of President Bashar al-Assad nor the militias who support him, according to a recording of comments purportedly made to other delegates.

Spurred on by the horrors of Paris, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday announced in Vienna a consensus to start talks between the warring sides by January, with the goal of elections and a new constitution within 18 months.

However, the plan by the International Syria Support Group did not address the role of the Syrian president in any negotiations - a sticking point in all attempts so far to strike a peace deal, nor who else would be present. 

In a recording published on YouTube, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Assad and the foreign militias fighting for him were the "elephant in the room".

"We keep avoiding the elephant in the room: Bashar al-Assad and his fate," says Jubeir. "It seems that we keep repeating ourselves to avoid the other white elephant in the room: the foreign militias in Syria. It seems that we try to be vague in order to create the impression that there is consensus when there may not be consensus. 

"We have talked about al-Nusra and Daesh, we haven't talked about the Quds force, we haven't talked about the Badr Bridage, we haven't talked about Hezbollah, we haven't talked about the two dozen other militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

"We have talked about a political transition in a document that is three pages, and we are missing a [five] letter word - A.s.s.a.d. - I think that's just not right."

The recording was posted on Youtube on 17 November.

Jubeir's comments are in line with Saudi policy on Syria. Saudi Arabia has supported the armed opposition to Assad, who is supported by Iran and Russia, and is opposed to him being part of any future in Syria.

The internationally recognised Syrian opposition, the exiled Syrian National Council, has rejected any talks with the government until Assad is removed from the presidency. The government has, in turn, rejected any talks with preconditions.

Kerry said that the UN special representative to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, would by January draw up a list of parties who should be present at talks, with negotiations taking place soon after.

Kerry said those negotiations would be followed by a new constitution and "free and fair" elections.

Ceasefires would be set up between the various warring parties, although Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate, and the Islamic State would not be included in any negotiations.