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World and regional powers set immediate, modest Syria goals

World and regional powers agreed Tuesday to try and turn Syria's shaky pause in fighting into a comprehensive ceasefire as a step toward ending the five-year war that left hundreds of thousands dead and fuelled the rise of Islamic extremists.

If land routes stay blocked past June 1, it will be air-dropped in

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are at the meeting in Vienna, along with foreign ministers and other officials from more than 20 countries and organizations. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

World and regional powers agreed Tuesday to try and turn Syria's shaky pause in fighting into a comprehensive ceasefire as a step toward ending the five-year war that left hundreds of thousands dead and fuelled the rise of Islamic extremists.

Outlining other results, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who along with his Russian counterpart has been leading the talks, said participants set a June 1 deadline for the resumption of humanitarian aid to areas cut off from the outside world.

If land routes remain blocked, food aid will be air-dropped and international pressure will be increased on those preventing such relief from getting through, he said. Such pressure will also be applied to stop indiscriminate use of force by the Syrian military, Kerry added, without specifying what pressure the powers could apply.

Those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to prioritize peace.- John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State

But beyond such pledges the meeting did not devise any concrete ways to resolve the main problem standing in the way of peace — factional divisions. Without that, progress in ending the violence and reducing Syria's human misery can only be marginal and temporary.

Kerry said as much to reporters, declaring that to end the conflict "a variety of competing interests are going to have to be reconciled.

A truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia in March has been steadily eroding. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

"Those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to prioritize peace," he said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of "difficult, in part controversial" talks. That, he said, is normal "when 20 nations with very different experiences and a different view of Syria sit at one table."

Assad remains key sticking point

One key division continues to be the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow opposes any attempt to forge a peace settlement that is conditional on his removal. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country's support of the Syrian government did not constitute backing for Assad.

Instead, he said Russia supports "the fight against terrorism, and we don't see a better alternative to doing that than the Syrian army."

There can be no lasting future for this country with Assad.- Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister

Going into the talks, Steinmeier repeated the position held by the West and the Saudi-backed opposition that an agreement should outline steps leading to the end of the Syrian leader's rule.

"This is necessary because there can be no lasting future for this country with Assad," he told reporters. "This is why we must start negotiations here in Vienna ... about what a transition government could look like."

Kerry did not directly repeat Steinmeier's demand, saying only that "without a negotiated solution, Assad and his supporters will never end the war."

And he questioned suggestions that Assad was immune from international pressure to agree to a settlement, implying that unspecified other means could be applied if the Syrian leader remains obstinate.

If Assad "has reached a conclusion that there is no Plan B, he has done so without any foundation whatsoever, and it's very dangerous, dangerous," Kerry said.

In a nod to Moscow, Assad's key international backer, Kerry said Russia "has made it very clear" that Assad has signed on to commitments that include participation in peace talks, constitutional change and elections.

People drive along a street in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria. The text on the wall reads in Arabic, "Revolution until victory". (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

'Problem of al-Nusra'

"But he has yet to live up to the first one, which is to participate fully in the Geneva talks on a political transition," he said.

The diplomats at the talks also called on all parties to dissociate themselves from ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, Kerry said.

Those comments reflect international concerns about attempts by Islamic radicals to form alliances with Syrian rebels, a worry Lavrov said all participants at the talks share.

"In particular, we have the problem of al-Nusra," he said. "It is changing, it makes alliances with groups in the cessation of hostilities."

The talks, which included foreign ministers or other senior officials from more than 20 countries and organizations, were convened after discussions meant to reduce differences between rival factions sputtered last month in Geneva as fighting flared.

The current effort to end the five-year Syria conflict was largely spearheaded by Kerry and Lavrov, backed by major global and regional powers that formed the International Syria Support Group.

A truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia sharply reduced violence in March, but that truce has been steadily eroding. The Vienna conference was called after UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura appealed last month to Washington and Moscow to directly intervene in putting the Syria dialogue back on track.

The Geneva talks foundered after the Western- and Saudi-backed opposition suspended formal participation in the indirect talks with Assad's envoys to protest alleged government ceasefire violations, a drop in humanitarian aid deliveries and no progress in winning the release of detainees in Syria.

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