US and Russia hopeful over Syria despite rifts

US and Russia hopeful over Syria despite rifts

KIRUNA, Sweden
US and Russia hopeful over Syria despite rifts

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk during the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, in Kiruna, Sweden, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. AP Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed their hope for a peace conference to be held on Syria “within a short period of time,” and called on both the Syrian regime and opposition to support efforts to sit around the table together.

Kerry and Lavrov expressed their belief yesterday that they could organize peace talks on Syria, where their nations back opposing sides in a war that may have cost 120,000 lives.

Differences between Russia, a main ally of President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States, which supports those trying to topple him, have long obstructed United Nations action on the turmoil convulsing Syria for more than two years. But last week Kerry and Lavrov announced plans to hold a peace conference now expected to take place in Geneva in June.

Sharing assessments with ‘John’

“Both of us are ... very, very hopeful that within a short period of time, the pieces will come together so that the world, hopefully, will be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment,” Kerry told a news conference after meeting Lavrov in Kiruna, Sweden. “I would very much share the assessments just presented by John,” Lavrov said. He said Moscow and Washington were trying to mobilize support for the negotiations from Syria’s government and opposition, as well as other countries concerned.

Kerry said the peace drive was based a deal that has stayed a dead letter since it was announced in Geneva in June 2012 for the creation of a transitional government in Syria “with full executive authority by mutual consent” - ambiguous wording which deliberately left Assad’s future role unclear. “That’s what we’re working toward and I don’t think it’s insignificant that at this moment in time we are finding this common ground and working closely together,” he said.

Kerry and Lavrov, who met for an hour on the night of May 14 on the sidelines of a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, both emphasized that they were working in tandem on the Syria plan. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said al-Assad’s government, fighting an insurgency that threatens to draw in Syria’s neighbors, wanted specifics on the proposed conference before it decides whether to participate. Kerry and Lavrov both said they expected Syria to attend.

Carrying expectations a step forward, Lavrov called on the Syrian opposition to support Moscow and Washington in their efforts. “It is important for all participants to express articulate support for the Russian-U.S. initiative to implement the Geneva communiqué,” Lavrov said. “We [with the U.S.] have firm initiatives. We should mobilize support for this conference. All outside participants in this situation, all Syrian sides, should be mobilized.”

Syrian revolutionaries have previously demanded al-Assad’s removal before any talks on the country’s future. The main Western-backed opposition coalition is due to meet in Istanbul to consider whether or not to attend the new Geneva talks.

On the other hand, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said the Syrian regime and its allies would refuse any “dictation” at an international peace conference, particularly concerning the departure of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria will not accept any dictation and its friends will not accept it either,” Muqdad said in an interview with Syrian state television Al-Ikhbariya late May 14.