The United States and Russia have announced their intention to summon an international conference, as early as the end of this month, aimed at resolving the devastating civil war in Syria, now in its third year.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the plan following more than five hours of meetings at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin and at a government guesthouse in Moscow.
Mr. Kerry, on his first visit to Russia as State Secretary, told reporters that he and Mr. Lavrov agreed to use a transition plan the two countries laid out in Geneva last year as the basis for the conference. This time, however, they are committed to pushing both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition to attend the conference and to put an end to a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives and displaced millions of people.
“The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss,” Mr. Kerry said, “if not over the abyss and into chaos.”
Mr. Kerry said both Russia and the United States wanted to hold the conference “as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully as soon as the end of this month.”
As an incentive to Russia to deliver their Syrian ally, Mr. al-Assad, to the negotiating table, Mr. Kerry indicated the Obama administration would consider holding off on any plans to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels.
With rising body counts, talk of the use of chemical weapons and recent Israeli attacks on Syria, pressure has been mounting on U.S. President Barack Obama to announce some kind of lethal intervention in aid of Syria’s opposition.
Moscow opposes such a move strongly. It worries that military assistance to even the more moderate Free Syrian Army that Washington supports could lead to the spread of arms to more extremist rebel fighters linked to al-Qaeda.
But if Russia’s task is to deliver Mr. al-Assad, it is up to Mr. Obama to bring the Syrian opposition leadership to the table. To date, the opposition has said it would not negotiate unless Mr. al-Assad was removed from power.
That is not going to happen, according to this latest plan. Mr. Kerry, in another apparent concession to Moscow, backed away from the former U.S. position that the Syrian President had to step down in any transition process.
The Russian Foreign Minister welcomed that development. “I would like to emphasize,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters Tuesday, “we are not interested in the fate of certain persons. We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people.”
“The task now is to convince the government and all the opposition groups … to sit at the negotiating table,” he said.
For its part, the Syrian regime has dismissed the opposition as “terrorists” and won’t readily agree to their participation in a transitional authority.
The Geneva plan allowed each side to veto candidates it found unacceptable for an interim government.