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Major powers meeting in Vienna for talks on Syria have found enough “common ground” to meet for a new round of talks in two weeks, even as the conflict enters a new phase with the deployment of US special forces in the country.
President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of fewer than 50 commandos to help coalition forces coordinate with local troops, Josh Earnest, the White House spokesperson, said on Friday.
The troop announcement came as diplomats in the Austrian capital representing 17 countries and the EU agreed to launch a broad new peace attempt to gradually end Syria’s long civil war – a declaration that avoided any decision on when President Bashar al-Assad might leave.
A Syrian member of parliament said the decision is an aggression because it does not involve the government’s agreement.
Sharif Shehadeh told AP news agency on Saturday that the troops will have no effect on the ground, but Washington wants to say that it is present in Syria.
It is not clear how many rebel groups would agree to a plan that does not result in Assad’s immediate departure.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said on Friday a US decision to deploy special forces in Syria would make cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries more important.
“I am sure that neither the United States nor Russia want [the conflict] to become a so-called proxy war,” Lavrov said after the talks in Vienna.
“But it is obvious for me that the situation makes the task of cooperation between the militaries more relevant.”
Friday’s talks included an Iranian delegation for the first time.
Representatives from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, the EU and other Arab states also attended.
The participation by Russia and Iran in the attempt could mark a new and promising phase in the diplomacy since those countries have staunchly backed Assad.
Any ceasefire agreement that may come as a result of the peace effort would not include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which controls large parts of northern Syria and has its capital there.
“There were tough conversations today,” John Kerry, US secretary of state, said on Friday. “This is the beginning of a new diplomatic process.”
Kerry acknowledged that those present have major differences regarding the Assad government.
“But we cannot allow the differences to get in the way of diplomacy to end the killing.”
Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, said there is “hope” for a political process to advance, saying that those involved in the talks “found common ground” for further discussion.
“It was a very long and very substantial meeting. This was not an easy one, but for sure a historical one,” she said while praising “those who took difficult decisions” in joining the talks.
Lavrov said those present in the meeting spent a “long time” pushing for an inclusive Syrian-led peace process.
Among the points agreed upon during the talks was that ISIL cannot be allowed to reign in Syria, he said.
In a rare hint of diplomatic progress, Iran indicated it would back a six-month political transition period in Syria followed by elections to decide Assad’s fate, although his opponents rejected the proposal as a trick to keep him in power.
In addition to Assad’s fate, on which delegates said no breakthrough had been expected, sticking points have long included the question of which rebel groups should be considered “terrorists” and who should be involved in the political process.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Vienna on Friday, said that there was a “mood of optimism” following the talks.
“There is a sense of hopefulness, which has been absent in these talks for quite a long time now,” he said.
The talks came as Syrian government air strikes continued in rebel-held territories, killing at least 61 people and wounding over 100 others in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Friday.
A further 80 people were killed in government and Russian air strikes in Aleppo province.