Member of the UN Security Council approved a resolution on Friday outlining a peace process for Syria involving talks by representatives of the Damascus government and the opposition. However, the draft make no mention of the critical issue of the role of President Bashar Assad.
The resolution acknowledges that the peace process will not end the conflict because it bars "terrorist groups" operating in the country, including the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, from participating in a cease-fire.
Foreign ministers from 17 countries met on and off for more than five hours to overcome divisions on the text.
The resolution has been described as a rare gesture of unity on the Syria peace process by a council often deeply divided on the crisis.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speak during a UN Security Council meeting on Syria at the United on Nations December 18, 2015
The draft resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, requests that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convene representatives of the Syrian government and opposition "to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process on an urgent basis, with a target of early January 2016 for the initiation of talks."
Within six months, the process should establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance," with UN-supervised "free and fair elections" to be held within 18 months.
The draft calls the transition Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, stressing that the "Syrian people will decide the future of Syria."
The draft also says cease-fire efforts should move forward in parallel with the talks, and it asks Ban to report within a month of the resolution's adoption on a way to monitor the cease-fire.
The draft notes that the cease-fire "will not apply to offensive or defensive actions" against groups considered terrorist organisations, meaning that airstrikes by Russia, France and the US-led coalition apparently would not be affected.
Meanwhile Friday, some 20 foreign ministers tackled those and other difficult issues for a possible end to Syria's civil war, including sorting out which Syrian groups will represent the opposition in peace talks in the new year.
Addressing the UN meeting, British Foreign Secretary Phil Hammond said: "Sadly it is far too soon for any of us to predict an end to the Syria conflct. But I hope that we will look back on today as a significant step in that direction."
Demanding an end to repeated failures to secure UN agreement over the way forward, he said the international community "have to do better fast if there is not to be still more suffering."
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said he presented lists submitted from each country of groups they consider terrorist organisations. He said some countries "sent 10, 15, 20 names" and others more.
"Now I think there will be follow-up steps in terms of countries meeting again to set criteria which will help filter the list," said Judeh, whose country is tasked with putting the final list together.
Others around the table included the United States, key European nations, Saudi Arabia and top Syria allies Russia and Iran.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the two most important issues are launching political negotiations among Syrian parties and implementing a UN-monitored cease-fire. "Without peace talks, the cease-fire cannot be sustained. Without a cease-fire, peace talks cannot continue to produce results," he said.
Wang noted the "severe threat posed by international terrorism," a reference to the Islamic State group, which has exploited the chaos to seize large parts of Syria.
A gathering in the UN Security Council of foreign ministers lead by US Secretary of State John Kerry vote on a draft resolution concerning Syria, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015 at UN headquarters
A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad's government and opposition groups.
That deadline is "too ambitious a timetable," the UN representative for the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, told reporters Friday. Najib Ghadbian estimated that a month of preparation is needed.
Ghadbian also said a comprehensive solution to the conflict requires "the removal of all foreign troops from Syria, all of them," including Russia, which began airstrikes there in September. The strikes are focused on more moderate forces fighting Assad in areas where the Islamic State group has little or no presence.
The coordinator of the opposition team that will negotiate with the Syrian government, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, said in Saudi Arabia on Friday that Assad should have no role during a transitional period. He also called for "confidence-building measures" such as the lifting of a siege imposed on rebel-held areas and a halt to airstrikes.