America, Russia and more than a dozen other countries have directed the United Nations to begin a new diplomatic process with Syria’s government and opposition with the goal of reaching a ceasefire and political transition.
US secretary of state John Kerry made the announcement at a joint news conference yesterday with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
Mr Kerry made no declarations about the future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Russia and Iran back Mr Assad, but the US and its allies want him ousted. Mr Kerry said the UN-led process should lead to a new constitution for Syria and internationally supervised elections.
The talks in Vienna came as missiles slammed into a crowded suburb of the Syrian capital, killing at least 45 people.
The attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma was a reminder of the civilian suffering inside Syria while talks take place. There were conflicting reports about the attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) said government forces fired more than 11 missiles at a market, killing 57 people, though the LCC said at least 40 died. A third group, the Douma Revolution network, listed the names of 45 people killed. Dozens more were wounded. The Syrian National Council, the main western-backed opposition group in exile, blamed Russian air strikes for the “massacre” in Douma, saying 55 civilians were killed. It said it was the second deadly attack in the past 24 hours after Russian air strikes hit the main Douma hospital.
The sprawling suburb is a frequent target of government air strikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. It is home to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, also known as Islam Army, which has claimed responsibility in the past for firing rockets on Damascus, the seat of Mr Assad’s presidency.
In August, air strikes on Douma were said to have killed around 100 people.
Douma has been held by anti-Assad rebels since the early days of Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown.
The conflict has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria’s pre-war population.
Meanwhile, at least 15 people, including four children, were killed in air strikes on the northern city of Aleppo, activists revealed.
It was not clear whether the air strikes were Russian or from Syrian government aircraft.