A barrage of missiles slammed into an overcrowded suburb of the Syrian capital, killing at least 40 people on Friday, activists said, as Iran joined world powers convening in Vienna for talks on how to resolve the country's conflict.
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The attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma — the latest on this rebel-held area that has seen hundreds of people killed over the past few years — was a stark reminder of the enormous civilian suffering inside Syria while negotiations over President Bashar Assad's future take place abroad.
There were conflicting reports about the attack, with local groups saying government forces fired more than 11 missiles at a market, killing at least 40 people, while the Syrian National Council, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, blamed Russian airstrikes for the "massacre", saying 55 civilians were killed.
With 19 foreign ministers attending the meeting in Vienna, including those from regional powerbrokers Iran and Saudi Arabia, there was cautious hope that a small breakthrough would be achieved. "I am hopeful that we can find a way forward," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, adding: "It is very difficult."
Assad's fate was at the center of discussions, and a new plan was discussed to set up a ceasefire within the next four to six months, followed by the formation of a transition government featuring Assad and opposition members, officials told The Associated Press.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia and others have tempered their earlier calls for Assad's immediate ouster and now say he can remain in office for months as part of a transition if he agrees to resign at the end of the process. Russia and Iran are both providing Assad military assistance and say Syria's leadership shouldn't be dictated by outside forces.
Offering some hope, however, both countries have suggested greater flexibility in recent weeks. Western diplomats have spoken of various conversations with their Russian counterparts indicating that the Kremlin is not "wedded" to Assad maintaining control of the country. And senior Iranian diplomat Hossein Amir Abdollahain told The Guardian last week, "We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president."
But no one has provided any clear indication of what the transition process might look like and how long it would take — or if either of the Syrian sides would be ready to support such a plan.
Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, won re-election last year in a vote that Western countries called a sham and his term ends in 2021. The Sunni-led opposition wants him out immediately.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius only said Assad should step aside "at one moment or another." Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said earlier this week that Assad must quit his post "within a specific timeframe."
The comments suggested the diplomats would be happy enough to agree on a shared strategy for getting the transition started.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said his country and Saudi Arabia had exchanged lists of opposition groups that should be involved in future peace talks — an important question as those fighting Assad range from Al-Qaeda-linked militants to self-styled moderates.
There was no immediate word on any direct exchanges between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, bitter regional rivals who have waged proxy battles for influence across the Middle East. As the full meeting of all countries began Friday, al-Jubeir was seated about as far apart from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as possible.
Since the start of Syria's unrest in 2011, Assad's future has been a stumbling block. President Barack Obama demanded that Assad leave power only months into the fighting. Russia resisted the push by blocking attempts at the United Nations to pressure the Syrian leader and insisting that any new government only be established by mutual consent of both the government and the opposition. That essentially gave Assad veto power over his would-be replacements.