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Syria peace talks under way with Iran at table for first time

Bashar al-Assad's closest ally joins US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey at Vienna meeting but Syrian government and opposition remain absent
John Kerry, Foreign Minister of Turkey Feridun Sinirlioglu (R), Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov (L) and Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel al-Jubeir in Vienna (AA)

Talks to find a political solution to end the war in Syria got under way in Vienna on Friday morning with Iran joining the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the diplomatic table for the first time.

Iran, which is a firm ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had not been invited to previous rounds of negotiations between the main international powers who are all now militarily involved in the four-year civil war.

US Secretary of State John Kerry sat at the head of the meeting in a conference room at the Imperial Hotel in the Austrian capital with Saudi foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif at opposite ends of the table. 

But no representatives from either the Syrian government nor the Syrian opposition were present at the talks and the major powers, who have taken different sides in the conflict, appear to share little ground to find a settlement.

Saudi Arabia, which considers Iran its main regional rival, continues to insiste that Assad must be forced out immediately, although the US seems to have softened its stance, saying it would allow him to leave following a transitional period.

Russia meanwhile began carrying out airstrikes on opposition targets earlier this month, with the US accusing Russia of trying to prop up Assad militarily rather than root out the Islamic State (IS) group as it had initially suggested.

Iran, which also funnels military aid and financial assistance to Damascus, has not publically backtracked on its instance that Assad should stay.

Yet in Washington, officials expressed a cautious optimism that the main players would agree on a transitional outline that would eventually see Assad step aside.

Kerry, while warning against an immediate solution, has described the talks as "the most promising opportunity for a political opening we have seen".

Ahead of the talks, he met separately with Zarif and Russia's Sergei Lavrov on Thursday evening.

"Now it is the right time to bring Iran to the table," Kerry said.

Kerry and Lavrov were then joined by foreign ministers Feridun Sinirlioglu of Turkey and al-Jubeir, AFP reported.

"Overall, we have for the very first time around the table all the major actors and we have a situation of fatigue on the ground, so it could lead to a potential breakthrough," Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations, told the AFP news agency.

Russia has tabled ideas for parliamentary and presidential elections to take place although the Syrian opposition have firmly opposed the notion saying that it would be impossible under the circumstances, with millions of Syrians displaced, cities standing in ruins and two-thirds of the country in the hands of groups such as IS or fragmented opposition armed groups.

Representatives from Italy, the UK, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Germany, Qatar, France, the UAE, Oman and China are also attending the talks, as well as the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

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