— -- On the eve of an international meeting with Arab and European leaders in Vienna, Austria, about Syria's future, Secretary of State John Kerry equated the need to defeat ISIS with the urgency to defeat America's enemies during the world wars.
“Their leaders represent everything we fought against in World Wars I and II and they oppose everything we have tried to build up that is right and good in our societies." Kerry said today during a speech on the U.S. policy toward Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. "In confronting them, we face a fight against medieval and modern fascism at the same time.”
Kerry, who is also scheduled to meet this weekend with leaders of the world's 20 economic powers in Antalya, Turkey, said that resolving Syria's brutal conflict and the humanitarian disaster that has flowed from it will be the major focus of these two upcoming meetings.
The next round talks on Syria's future begin in Vienna, Austria, this weekend. Like the last meeting two weeks ago, a wide range or European and regional leaders will participate, including representatives from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Noticeably absent, however, will be anyone from the Bashar al-Assad regime or the Syrian opposition groups.
British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond told reporters in Washington this week that they're not expecting a "Eureka moment," but the pressure will be on to achieve some progress.
Two weeks ago, the parties essentially agreed on an agenda for future discussions. They agreed on the importance of keeping Syria's independence and governmental institutions intact, reaching a ceasefire, finding a diplomatic resolution to the civil war, ensuring humanitarian access, defeating ISIS, and the need for a political transition of power through an election.
The Russians, who are over a month into their aerial bombing campaign designed to empower the Assad regime, are reluctant to negotiate a future without the Syrian leader. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been saying emphatically since 2011 that Assad must go. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, agreed two weeks ago to put those differences aside and try to move on with the talks, knowing that eventually the issue will have to be addressed.
Yet, ahead of this weekend's meetings, Kerry seemed unwavering in his position on Assad.
"It’s simply not possible to go back to the situation that existed before this conflict began -- not after month upon month upon month of indiscriminate violence, torture, and bloodshed, not after 40 years of dictatorship," Kerry said. "Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad’s leadership is simply not a reasonable request. It’s literally a non-starter."
Kerry also acknowledged the divides with Russia on Assad, saying the two parties are still "working through ... his role."
According to State Department officials, the Americans are hopeful Assad could be voted out through a future election process. Hammond said he doesn’t think the Russians are “wedded to Assad," but that Syria's need for a strong and stable government is the most important thing for them. Russia operates a large Naval base in the Mediterranean port of Latakia in agreement with the current Syrian government. Whatever happens, the Russian priority is to maintain that port to the west.
The primary goal this weekend, according to a number of participating countries, will be to establish who is and who is not a terrorist inside Syria so the Russians and U.S. can better agree upon who to target militarily. The U.S. has accused Russia of reaching beyond ISIS targets and hitting other other moderate opposition groups that the U.S. supports.
Beyond that, the other goal is to keep the negotiations process alive.