MOSCOW – The U.S. and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to convene an international conference this month to come to a political solution to end the two-year Syrian civil war but gave no indication how they would convince President Bashar Assad to enter talks with the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that if such a gambit were successful, it might no longer be necessary to consider arming the Syrian rebels. Kerry also said it was up to the Syrian people whether Assad should leave office.
Yet even as Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed their joint strategy as evidence of enhanced U.S.-Russian cooperation, it was unclear how their plan might work toward ending a war that has become even more dangerous in recent months with accusations the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, Israeli airstrikes on weapons convoys and American threats to begin arming the rebels.
Despite different points of view, committed partners can accomplish great things together when the world needs it, Kerry told reporters in Russia’s capital. And this is one of those moments.
Neither official spoke about Israel’s actions in recent days, which have included airstrikes on what the Jewish state says were weapons being readied for transfer to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The outcome of more than five hours of meetings in Moscow involving President Vladimir Putin, Kerry and Lavrov essentially bring diplomatic efforts to halt Syria’s violence to a point they were about a year ago.
The former Cold War foes, who’ve split bitterly over how to halt the conflict, said they’d work to revive a transition plan they laid out in June 2012 but that never gained momentum with Syria’s government or the opposition. They said this time they were committed to bringing the Syrian government and rebels to the negotiating table.
Speaking about the U.S. strategy, Kerry suggested the Obama administration would consider holding off on any possible plan to provide weapons to vetted units of the Syrian opposition if a peace strategy takes hold.
Kerry said the final proof of whether Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in two attacks in March, as suggested last week by a U.S. intelligence assessment, would go a long way toward determining what course of action Obama takes. Talking about the U.S.-Russian peace strategy’s effect on decision-making, he said, much will depend on what happens over the course of these next weeks.
That appeared to be a minor concession to Russia, which has argued vehemently against any foreign governments providing military assistance for fear it would aid extremists. It could also reflect the Obama administration’s continued discomfort with the greater involvement in Syria, where it has expressed deep reservations over most of the military options being considered.
Kerry also appeared to back down from the outright U.S. demand that Assad step down in the transition, while maintaining that he, personally, couldn’t see how a leader responsible for such widespread abuses could remain in power as part of a peace deal.
But I’m not going to make that judgment, he said, saying it was up to the Syrian people.
Kerry’s statements about arming the rebels and whether Assad should go seemed at odds with statements by President Obama and other Cabinet members such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said the administration was considering arming the rebels.