DAMASCUS: The parties to the Syrian war came under intense international pressure yesterday to open direct talks to end their two-year conflict, on the eve of a Rome meeting of the Friends of Syria group.
The main opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, was preparing for a weekend gathering in Istanbul to elect a prime minister and government to run “liberated” parts of the country.
But Syrian fighters paid no heed to the diplomatic activity, a watchdog reported.
Initially at odds over Syria, Washington and Moscow on Tuesday sought to find common ground to end the bloodshed in a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia has urged Assad’s regime to start a dialogue to end the conflict that has cost at least 70,000 lives since March 2011.
After their Berlin meeting, Lavrov called on the opposition to “declare itself in favor of dialogue” when it meets various Western leaders, including Kerry, at Thursday’s crunch talks in Rome.
Describing his meeting with Kerry as “constructive,” Lavrov said Syrian regime officials had “assured” Moscow they “have a negotiating team and are ready to start dialogue as soon as possible”.
He called on the opposition also to name a negotiating team.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry — on an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East — had a “really serious and hard-working session” with Lavrov.
She said discussions had “focused on Syria and how we can work together to implement the Geneva agreement”, which remains hazy on whether Assad needs to step down before talks can begin.
Russia is one of the few big powers to maintain ties with Assad and, with China, has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that threatened sanctions on Damascus.
But Washington has toned down its criticism of Moscow’s perceived intransigence.
“We’ve been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime... that there needs to be that political transition,” a State Department official said.
The Washington Post said yesterday the White House was considering a major policy shift to supply fighters with “non-lethal” aid including body armor, armored vehicles and perhaps even military training.