Vienna: The United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations directed the UN today to start a new diplomatic process between Syria's government and opposition groups with the goal of reaching a nationwide cease-fire and political transition but without an explicit demand for President to quickly leave power.
"Four-and-a-half years of war, we all believe, has been far too long," US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a joint news conference with Russia's top diplomat and the UN envoy to Syria.
Kerry said the countries, which included fierce regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, all pledged to support an independent and secular Syria, to maintain the country's institutions, to protect the rights of all Syrians, to ensure humanitarian access and to strive to defeat the Islamic State.
He said the new UN-led process should lead to a new constitution for Syria and internationally supervised elections, as well as an end to violence between Assad's military and rebels so that the world community can focus on the fight against the Islamic State.
But no agreement was reached on Assad, whose future lies at the center of the conflict.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both acknowledged as much, repeating their long-standing positions. Washington and its partners believe Assad forfeited legitimacy after turning weapons against his own people.
Russia and Iran say outside forces cannot dictate who leads Syria.
"I did not say that Assad has to go or that Assad has to say," Lavrov said through an interpreter.
The new approach, hashed out after two days of discussions in Vienna, was short on details.
But officials said the 19 governments in attendance were considering a plan that would establish a cease-fire within four to six months, followed by the formation of a transition government featuring both Assad and opposition members.
Conscious of the deep divide over Assad's fate, they left undefined how long he could remain in power under that transition.
The officials describing that plan weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The war has killed more than 250,000 people and uprooted more than 11 million, leading to the growing terrorist threat of the Islamic State and sparking a refugee crisis throughout Europe.
Kerry and Lavrov said another round of Syria talks would occur within two weeks. They didn't say if representatives of the Syrian government and opposition might be included.