The Syrian peace talks are going about as well as you'd expect

GlobalPost
Seventeen nations, the European Union and the United Nations hold talks at the Hotel Imperial on Oct. 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. The leaders are in Vienna to discuss solutions to the conflict in Syria.

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NEED TO KNOW:

The United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a handful of other countries are in Vienna this week to find a resolution to the Syrian conflict. The talks are going about as well as you could imagine.

Aside from the fact that there is not a single representative from Syria, the dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia — rivals if ever there were — is, to put it lightly, strained.

Iran’s star is rising after decades of being marginalized. That makes Saudi Arabia nervous. The two countries are the last remaining big powers in the Middle East and they are divided along many different lines. Saudi Arabia is Sunni and Iran is mostly Shiite, for one. The two are now basically fighting proxy wars all over the place. Yemen is being destroyed. Syria too. Iraq, of course. And also Bahrain. There is no way out of these conflicts without having the leaders of these two countries at the table.

But that’s not the only complication. There is tension between the United States and Iran as well. Iran just jailed another American for uncertain reasons. It’s at least the fourth American that now sits in Tehran’s feared Evin prison. It is the first American arrested since the signing of the Iran deal in July.

Then there is the United States and Russia. Russia, Iran and Syria are all now partners in the Syrian war. Russia started bombing Syria late last month. It was supposed to be targeting Islamic State positions, but has essentially been targeting Syrian rebels, some of whom are being supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Separately, and far away from the Syrian conflict, US fighter jets intercepted Russian fighter jets on Thursday because they got too close to a US aircraft carrier operating off the Korean peninsula.

Delegates from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are also taking part in the talks. But mostly they are looking on as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States bicker incessantly. If any good comes from these talks, it will truly be a miracle. Meanwhile, at least 40 people were killed and 100 injured yesterday when Syrian government forces fired missiles into a crowded marketplace near Damascus.

WANT TO KNOW:

As if to illustrate all this tension and distrust, a top US official on Thursday basically accused Russia's president of having no actual plan or goal in Syria. “I think he is kind of winging this day by day,” said US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

"I personally question whether he has some long-term strategy or whether he is being very opportunistic on a day-to-day basis," Clapper told CNN late Thursday. "And I think his intervention into Syria is another manifestation of that.”

Whatever Russia’s goals, the fight is real. And it is beginning to resonate at home. That’s because Russians are beginning to die in Syria. Earlier this week, Russia’s defense department announced that a 19-year-old serviceman committed suicide last weekend at a Russian Air Force base in Latakia. It was the first officially confirmed service member to die during the deployment in Syria.

Officials say Vadim Kostenko hanged himself due to relationship problems. But many are not convinced of that. His friends and family said his body returned home badly beaten. And other versions of his death have circulated widely.

“Whatever the truth,” writes GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk, “Moscow is in no mood to talk about its military losses. Earlier this month, officials brushed off news reports that said at least three Russians, thought to be volunteer combatants, had died fighting alongside Syrian government forces.”

Russian propaganda machines have gone to great lengths to tout the precision and success of the military air campaign in Syria. And have buried news of deaths. This is partly because at least two-thirds of Russians don’t want Russia soldiers on the ground, and are wary of getting drawn into another protracted conflict like the one in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Right now approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin are sky-high. But if more Russians die in Syria, that might change.

STRANGE BUT TRUE:

In Peru and Colombia, circus performances using animals are banned. Peru banned the practice in 2011 but has more recently stepped up enforcement. As a result, in total, 24 lions were rescued in Peru and nine from Colombia. Roughly another 60 animals, including mountain lions and monkeys, were also saved.

Now the lions, which have been cared for and rehabilitated, are going to be transferred to a sanctuary in South Africa. It will be the largest ever airlift of big cats. The lions are super excited and are going through all manner of preparations for the flight. You can see the photos of them getting ready here. It’s just a little nugget of happy news for Friday.