Kerry kicks of meetings in Vienna ahead of critical new round of Syria talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kicked off meetings in Vienna on Friday ahead of a critical new round of international diplomatic talks on the crisis in Syria.

On the eve of Saturday's larger gathering, Kerry was seeing the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.N. special envoy for Syria.

Saturday's meeting will include senior officials from 19 nations and groups and aims to chart a way toward a cease-fire and political transition in Syria to end the country's devastating war. They must overcome deep differences to do so. The meeting comes amid new pushes against Islamic State group extremists in Syria and Iraq.

On Friday, the U.S. released a list of nations that are taking part in the meeting alongside the United Nations, European Union and Arab League. While nearly all are sending their top diplomats, China and Iran are sending deputy ministers.

The participants will be grappling with questions that have scuttled all previous attempts to forge a cease-fire and usher in a political transition.

Other than the Islamic State group, who are the extremists? Who from Syria's government and opposition should do the negotiating? How long can Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power?

Failure to reach agreement could leave international peace efforts in tatters.

Kerry pointed out the difficulties himself in a speech about Syria in Washington on Thursday.

"We face an environment now that bears little resemblance to the kind of black-white scenarios that make decisions relatively easy," he said. "Put simply, there are bad guys all around and good guys who are not accustomed to working with each other."

More than 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war. Eleven million have been uprooted from their homes. The conflict has allowed Islamic State militants to carve out significant parts of Syria and Iraq for their would-be caliphate and commit atrocities, particularly against women and minorities, that some human rights groups consider genocide. Europe, meanwhile, is struggling to cope with the worst migrant crisis since World War II.

History augurs poorly for a quick understanding — even among just the would-be mediators.

The U.S. says Assad forfeited the ability to lead Syria in the long term. The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia wants him toppled as part of a proxy war with Shiite Iran, which supports Assad. Russia is ambiguous about Assad's long-term future, carefully safeguarding its longstanding security relationship.