Secretary of State John F. Kerry acknowledged Tuesday that leaders of Syria’s U.S.-backed, moderate opposition have not committed to negotiate with the government of President Bashar al- Assad, a blow to efforts to settle the stalemated civil war at a peace table.
Kerry also acknowledged that a U.N. peace conference may not take place as planned next month, although he said he thinks it should. And he said that despite the U.S. view that Assad must leave office, his political fate would be a matter for the two sides in negotiations.
“That’s for the parties to negotiate. That’s not for us to predetermine,” Kerry said.
The United States and Russia have proposed a framework for talks that would set as a goal the establishment of a transitional government, which the Obama administration has long said would not include Assad.
But such an agreement appears to be a long shot, despite a heavy diplomatic push by the United States, Russia and the United Nations over the past month.
For starters, the U.S.-backed opposition bloc has lost political ground as Western- and Arab-backed rebels have lost ground on the battlefield. Neither side appears to have the military strength to defeat the other, offering the grim prospect of many more months of killing in a war that has claimed more than 100,000 people.
The rebels and opposition figures remain reluctant to negotiate from a weakened position and have resisted pressure to quickly schedule the peace conference in Switzerland. It was unclear after Tuesday’s talks whether the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, would attend talks in Geneva as a united front.
The Syrian National Council, a prominent group with representatives in the Syrian Opposition Coalition, had said previously that it would boycott the Geneva meeting, saying it would not deal with representatives of Assad’s government.
“We do not have the right to make the decision for other players,” Kerry said Monday, after meetings in London with a group of nations promoting talks. “They’re independent, and they have to exercise their own rights here.”
Kerry’s sober assessment made clear that it is more important for the two sides to begin talking, even if the result of those talks is out of U.S. hands.
“It will never be easy. I don’t want to suggest to anybody here that just because everybody says yes and you have the conference and you go to the meeting that this is going to be easy,” Kerry said. “It’s not. But it is far better to be at that table, working diplomatically.”
Kerry met with foreign ministers from the “London 11” — a core group from the Friends of Syria group consisting of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States — and with senior Syrian opposition leaders.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said the Syrian Opposition Coalition would decide its position at its general assembly in a few weeks’ time.
But if the moderate opposition fails to play a key role in the peace process, “then all the Syrian people have got left is to chose between Assad on the one hand and extremist” forces on the other, Hague told the BBC on Tuesday.
Hague said the extremist groups were an increasing threat in the more than two-year-old conflict.
“I am in no way glossing over or minimizing the danger of extremism taking hold,” he said. “That is why we are making this renewed effort to get a Geneva peace process going.”
The London meeting comes a day after Assad suggested in a television interview that he could seek reelection in 2014, indicating that he has no plans to step aside.
But a communique issued after the London meeting made clear that Western and Arab nations at the gathering see “no role” for “Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands” in a transitional governing body.
Kerry also played down reports of a serious rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia over the conflict. “We know that the Saudis were obviously disappointed that the strike didn’t take place and have questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region,” he said, referring to a U.S. proposal to strike Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
He also added that on Iran, he and his Saudi counterpart had had a frank conversation Monday.
“I reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment that he will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and I reiterated our position in any negotiation that our eyes are wide open,” he said. “Actions are what will speak to us, not words, and no deal is better than a bad deal.”
But he stressed that the two countries are “on the same page” going forward, adding, “I have great confidence that the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be close and important friends and allies.”
Both Kerry and Hague said they were open to the prospect of Iran, an ally of Assad’s, attending the Geneva talks, but they said it was realistic only if Iran backed the idea of a transitional government.