U.S. and Russia to Organize Syria Conference
- By Alexander Winning
- May. 08 2013 00:00
- Last edited 22:04
Signaling a possible end to a stalemate over Syria, the U.S. and Russia have agreed to try to arrange an international conference to end the two-year civil war in the Middle Eastern country.
The development, announced late Tuesday night, came as John Kerry made his first visit as U.S. secretary of state and declared the start of “a good, new relationship” with Russia.
Kerry, flanked by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, announced the international conference after a long day of talks that included a delayed meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The news conference was called at the late hour after Putin kept Kerry waiting three hours, Reuters reported.
Kerry said he and Lavrov had agreed to organize the international conference, perhaps as soon as this month, to seek a breakthrough for Syria based on a communique reached at a Geneva conference last June. The new conference would bring together representatives of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and this opponents.
“The specific work of this next conference will be to bring representatives of the government and the opposition together to determine how we can fully implement the means of the communique, understanding that 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,” Kerry said, according to a transcript released by the State Department.
Neither he nor Lavrov said where the conference might take place.
The U.S. has long sought Russia's support in ousting Assad amid the turmoil that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. But Moscow, which has large defense contracts with Damascus and bristles at the notion of foreign governments intervening in what it calls a country's sovereign matters, has shielded Assad fromáUN Security Council sanctions.
Lavrov appeared to distance himself from Assad on Tuesday, saying Moscow was not worried about what might happen to “certain” individuals. "The task now is to convince the government and all the opposition groups … to sit at the negotiating table," he said.
It was unclear whether the warring Syrian sides would agree to sit down for talks.
But Kerry stressed that Washington and Moscow had a common interest in finding a solution.
“The alternative is that there’s even more violence,” he said. “The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos. The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow, and the alternative is that there may be even a breakup in Syria or ethnic attacks and ethnic cleansing and other results which threaten the stability of the region and challenge the conscience of good people everywhere in the world. That’s the alternative.”
Earlier Kerry told Putin at the start of their meeting that both Russia andáthe U.S. were interested inámaintaining stability ináthe Middle East andácombating theáthreat posed byáextremists ináthe region. "The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect toáSyriaá— stability ináthe region, not having extremists creating problems," Kerry said.
Kerry'sáhigh-profile visit came days after Israelá— aákey U.S. allyá— launched aáseries ofáair strikes inásouthern Syria, prompting aáharsh response fromáRussia's Foreign Ministry, which condemned theáattacks as aáthreat toáregional stability.
Putin discussed theáSyrian crisis with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ináa telephone conversation Monday, although theáKremlin did not clarify whether theástrikes were discussed.
Inádiscussions over Syria, aásticking point between theáU.S. andáRussia remains theáquestion ofáarming theárebels locked ináfighting with troops loyal toáAssad. Washington has so far only supplied theárebels with non-military equipment but has refused toárule out sending arms. Moscowá— aámajor supplier ofáweapons toáAssad's governmentá— strongly opposes such aámove.
Another bone ofácontention is theáuse ofáchemical weapons, anáissue theáRussian Foreign Ministry has accused theáWest ofápoliticizing as aámeans ofápaving theáway forámilitary intervention.
U.S.-Russian relations have become noticeably strained over theápast year, with both sides trading barbs over aáperceived crackdown onácivil society groups ináRussia, U.S. sanctions against Russian officials implicated ináhuman rights abuses andáRussian legislation banning U.S. adoptions.
Last month, however, U.S. President Barack Obama sent aáconfidential letter toáPutin seeking toáease tensions, andáPutin said Tuesday that he would respond ináthe near future, according toáa Kremlin transcript ofáthe meeting.
Putin andáObama are expected toámeet atáa G8 summit ináNorthern Ireland ináJune andáagain atáa G20 meeting ináSt. Petersburg ináSeptember. Kerry said Obama was anxious toámeet Putin next month andáexchange views onáthe North Korean andáIranian nuclear programs as well as ways toáboost U.S.-Russian trade.
Kerry kicked off his two-day visit on Tuesday byálaying aáwreath byáthe Tomb ofáthe Unknown Soldier ahead ofáVictory Day celebrations later this week. On Wednesday, Kerry was to hold a meeting with civil society representatives.
Contacted byáphone, Andrei Kortunov, president ofáthe New Eurasia Foundation, aáthink tank, was optimistic that U.S.-Russian relations would warm under Kerry, whom he called "an experienced foreign policy expert."
"Kerry has always been viewed as aábalanced thinker ináMoscow," Kortunov said. "His visit is aásign that dialogue between theátwo sides is entering aánew stage, but it's too early toátalk about aábreakthrough ináties."
Inácomments to reporters, Kerry made no explicit mention ofáU.S. plans toáinstall aáEuropean missile shield, toáwhich Russia is angrily opposed, but thanked Russian specialists foráhelping with theáinquiry intoáthe Boston Marathon bombing.
Theátwo men suspected ofácarrying out theábombing, Tamerlan andáDzhokhar Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens who emigrated fromáRussia toáthe U.S. around 2002. Three were killed andámore than 260 injured ináthe twin blasts ináBoston onáApril 15.
FBI director Robert Mueller held talks Monday in Moscow on the bombings investigation and security cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. Embassy said, without elaborating.
Lavrov said he had raised another thorny issue with Kerry: the U.S. imprisonment of Russians Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko. The U.S. says the two Russians are criminals, while Moscow sees their cases as a human rights issue. Lavrov said that if both men exhausted their U.S. court appeals, the Russian government would seek their return to Russia under Council of Europe conventions that allow prisoners to serve out their sentences in their homeland.
At the end of the Tuesday night news conference, Lavrov asked reporters who had won the evening match between the Russia and U.S. teams at the ice hockey world championships in Helsinki. Learning that Russia scored two late goals to defeat the U.S. 5-3, he turned to Kerry and said, “Then let's go celebrate,” according to Interfax.
Kerry replied: “This is the start of a good, new relationship.”