The United States and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to convene an international conference on ending Syria’s brutal civil war – possibly by the end of May – but the effort appeared to run into trouble within hours of its announcement with the key U.S.-backed opposition group reiterating that it won’t attend talks involving top Assad regime officials.
The bid to revive a long-stalled peace plan, unveiled in Moscow by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, reflected both sides’ fears that worsening bloodshed, living conditions and waves of refugees are driving Syria to disintegration and threatening to plunge the region into sectarian mayhem.
“The alternative (to peace talks) is that there is even more violence,” Kerry told reporters after his five-hour meeting with Lavrov. “The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos.”
"The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow,” he added. “The alternative is that there may be even a break up of Syria."
The pair met as the U.N. humanitarian agency said that the number of internally displaced people inside Syria had more than doubled to 4.25 million over the past two months, and two days after Israel stepped up its involvement with airstrikes on military targets in Damascus. Tensions also have soared over unproven allegations that chemical weapons have been used.
Kerry and Lavrov said they’d push President Bashar Assad’s regime and opposition leaders to attend an international peace conference that would seek to revive a June 2012 plan, known as the Geneva Communique, calling for the formation of a transitional government that included representatives of the warring sides.
“We undertake an obligation to use the possibilities that the U.S. and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table,” Lavrov said.
The Geneva Communique “should be the roadmap, the implemented manner by which the people of Syria could find their way to the new Syria, and by which the bloodshed, the killing, the massacres can end,” said Kerry. “The communique’s language specifically says that the government of Syria and the opposition have to put together, by mutual consent, the parties that will then become the transitional government itself.”
The top U.S. and Russian diplomats reached the agreement despite serious differences between the countries over the two-year civil war that U.N. estimates say has claimed more than 70,000 lives and driven millions into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
Russia is Assad’s main foreign political and military supporter. The United States has been struggling to build a viable political opposition out of an amalgam of ideologically disparate sectarian actors even as Islamist groups allied with al Qaida have emerged as the most effective rebel force. The Obama administration is providing non-lethal aid to rebel groups while backing arms supplies to the insurgents from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The conference will be held “as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully, by the end of this month,” said Kerry, who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin before his talks with Lavrov
Kerry said that Assad’s role was left undecided “even though it’s impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place.”
It was unclear whether that statement reflected a change in the Obama administration’s view, however. In Washington, President Barack Obama reiterated that Assad would have to step down before a meaningful peace process could begin.
The United States has “a moral obligation and a national security interest” to ensure “that we’ve got a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people, and is not creating chaos for its neighbors. And that’s why for the last two years we have been active in trying to ensure that Bashar Assad exits the stage, and that we can begin a political transition process,” said Obama.
The administration, as well as the Syrian opposition and its other foreign supporters, has demanded that Assad leave power. Russia has said that there should be no preconditions to peace talks, but Lavrov indicated that Moscow won’t insist that Assad be part of a transitional government.
“I would like to emphasize that we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons. We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people,” he said in a formulation that Russia officials have used for months.
It remained highly uncertain that a conference will be held between the regime, which is dominated by Assad’s minority Alawites, a Shiite Muslim sect, and opposition groups that overwhelmingly comprise Syria’s long-oppressed majority Sunni Muslims and include hundreds of foreign jihadist fighters allied with al Qaida.
There is virtually no chance that the Islamist groups will participate.
Najib Ghadbian, the political representative to Washington of the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, told McClatchy that while his group awaits details of the new proposal, it remained opposed to talks with Assad or members of his inner circle.
“It seems like there’s nothing really new. We stand by our guidelines of any political settlement and that is: Assad and those with blood on their hands cannot be included,” Ghadbian said.
“The problem with Geneva from the beginning was the Russian understanding,” he said, referring to Moscow’s stance that Assad’s ouster wasn’t a pre-condition for negotiations.
“We want the Russians involved, but with that understanding. It would be totally unacceptable to have someone involved who’s killed 90,000 people and displaced 5 million,” he said, citing a U.S. estimate of the death toll.
Joshua Landis, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that with Assad firmly in control of his forces and the war stalemated, he will insist on participating in any peace talks and “won’t want to talk to these people (rebel groups) he calls terrorists.”
“Assad feels he’s still in the driver’s seat and to a certain extent he is, even though he’s been attacked by the Israelis and lost half of his country,” said Landis. “His biggest trump card is that the West doesn’t like the opposition they have.”