On his first visit to Moscow as secretary of state, John Kerry said the U.S. and Russia want representatives of the two sides in Syria to participate in an international conference, hopefully before the end of this month. The aim is to revive a year-old diplomatic initiative that stalled because of differences over what should happen to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The plan known as the Geneva communique, reached at a meeting of an “action group” including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, called for the establishment of a transitional governing body comprising members of the regime and the opposition.
It did not explicitly require Assad to leave, and Moscow – a longstanding ally of Syria – accused Western governments afterwards of trying to “reinterpret” the agreement in favor of the rebels’ demand for Assad’s exit.
For its part, the U.S. pointed out that the communique called for the formation of the transitional governing body to take place on the basis of “mutual consent.”
“It’s no secret that the ink was barely dry on that when we had a difference of interpretation what mutual consent would mean,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland commented last March. “From our perspective, there’s no way that mutual consent would ever be given to Assad or regime members with blood on their hands.”
Speaking alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Kerry reiterated that he could see no place for Assad, but added that that was not his decision to make.
“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,” he said.
“But that’s not – I’m not going to decide that tonight,” Kerry continued. “And I’m not going to decide that in the end. Because the Geneva communique says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties. Who are the parties? The parties are the current regime and the opposition.”
Despite Assad’s record of rights abuses, support for Iran and sponsorship of Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist groups, until the outbreak of the conflict two years ago Kerry viewed him as a leader the U.S. could and should engage with.
In his then capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Kerry strongly backed President Obama’s decision to send an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years, and he met with Assad at least six times, most recently in November 2010.
At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event in March 2011 – ironically, one day after the anti-Assad protests erupted – Kerry voiced optimism about the future of U.S.-Syria relations.
“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”
“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry continued. “My judgment is that Syria will move. Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”
‘A country ruled by extremists’
In his joint appearance with Kerry Tuesday, Lavrov said Russia and the U.S. both recognized that fulfillment of the Geneva plan would require “mutual agreement” between the opposing parties, according to Russian media reports. (He spoke in Russian, and the State Department transcript of the event did not provide his comments.)
Lavrov said the Syrian regime had assured Russia that it was ready to participate in the envisaged conference. It had yet to receive the views of the opposition.
“The opposition hasn’t said single word yet which would confirm its commitment to the Geneva communique and hasn’t named representatives charged to negotiate in the opposition name,” he said, according to the pro-Kremlin Russia Today television network.
Lavrov noted that the opposition was fractured, and stressed that all groups in Syria had to be accommodated.
“A major part of the population is afraid that the regime might be overturned,” Itar-Tass quoted him as saying. “They are afraid that those who are fighting against the regime might take an upper hand and Syria will become a country ruled by extremists.”
Russia, which along with China has blocked several Security Council sanctions resolutions targeting its ally in Damascus, strongly opposes the provision of weapons to the rebels.
“Arming non-governmental players violates international law,” Lavrov said last week. “Arming the Syrian rebels is betting on a military solution and not a political settlement.”
Over the past year concerns have grown that weapon shipments to rebels – mostly originating from Qatar and Saudi Arabia – were mostly benefiting radical Salafi groups.
Officially, the Obama administration has supplied only non-lethal aid to the mainstream opposition, although officials said recently it was considering providing lethal weapons.
Citing concerns about chemical weapons use by the regime, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Monday introduced legislation to arm “vetted” Syrian rebel groups “which meet certain criteria on human rights, terrorism, and non-proliferation.”
The bill cites a White House letter to Congress last month saying that “our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin.”
The regime and opposition have both accused each other of using chemical agents.
Asked in Moscow about the Menendez legislation, Kerry said he believed its future would ultimately be “determined to some degree by the state of the evidence with respect to chemical weapons and what steps have been taken.”
He added that if the Geneva communique was implemented, the measure would hopefully not be necessary.
“So much will depend on what happens over the course of these next weeks as to what will happen to that particular legislation.”
Lavrov cautioned that when it comes to alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict, “we have to be 100 per cent sure we won’t get captive to rumors.”
He said Russia and the U.S. had agreed to even closer cooperation between their intelligence services in investigating claims of chemical weapons use.