Kerry presses Syrians to commit to peace talks in first U.N. visit as top U.S. diplomat


Secretary of State John F. Kerry walks to his seat for a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the world body’s headquarters Thursday. (Seth Wenig/AP)
July 25, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry pressed Syria’s opposition coalition and President Bashar al-Assad’s government Thursday to commit to negotiations on a peaceful settlement to the country’s civil war, saying there “is no military solution.”

“There is only a political solution, and that will require leadership in order to bring people to the table,” Kerry told reporters during his first U.N. visit as the United States’ top diplomat.

With U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at his side, Kerry said he had reassured Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Obama administration remains committed to a long-delayed, and as yet unscheduled, peace conference to be sponsored by the United States and Russia. “We will try our hardest to make that happen as soon as possible,” Kerry said.

Ban reinforced Kerry’s calls for peace talks, saying that he and his top Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, “will spare no effort to convene” the Geneva meeting as soon as possible. Asserting that the Syrian death toll has now surpassed 100,000, Ban called for an end to “military and violent actions.”

“The conflict is now continuing for almost 21 / 2 years,” Ban said. “We have to bring this to an end.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday the U.S. “will not abide” Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria. (The Washington Post)

Kerry’s remarks came hours before he was scheduled to meet with four senior members of the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, including Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

After the meeting, Jarba urged the United States to speed the delivery of military support to opposition ­forces, saying that “American leadership and drive is essential to end this war.”

“The situation in Syria is desperate,” he said in a statement. “The U.S. commitment of military support to the Supreme Military Council is vital, but it needs to happen fast, and in a way that allows us to defend ourselves and protect civilians. To deny us the right to self-defense is to risk that the regime will survive: thousands will be executed, the repression will continue without end.”

The opposition leaders later informed a gathering of European diplomats that they could not enter into negotiations with the Syrian government while it was killing 100 to 150 civilians a day. They also said they would not negotiate directly with Assad or other Syrian leaders responsible for war crimes, according to a diplomatic source.

The Syrian opposition, which remains deeply divided, has so far refused to participate in peace talks without an assurance that they would result in Assad’s exit from power. A top Syrian rebel leader, Gen. Salim Idriss, who had been expected to participate in an informal briefing of the Security Council, which is scheduled for Friday morning, canceled his appearance this week.

The intense focus on a diplomatic outcome signaled continuing U.S. misgivings about the prospect of arming a fragmented opposition, which includes extremists groups linked to al-Qaeda. The military balance of power in the country has recently shifted in favor of government ­forces.

During his U.N. visit, Kerry also touched on a wide range of foreign policy crises, chiding long-standing U.S. ally South Sudan for failing to provide access to humanitarian aid workers, and promoting progress on “the possibility of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”

He also presided over a ministerial council meeting on Congo.

Kerry took an indirect swipe at the Congolese military, which has been accused of collaborating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose members participated in the Rwanda genocide. He also appeared to criticize the Rwandan government’s alleged sponsorship of a ruthless militia — known as the M23 — that has been fighting Congolese government ­forces for control over a strategically important swath of eastern Congo that borders Rwanda.

Kerry introduced delegates to former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is Washington’s new envoy for Central Africa’s Great Lakes region, which includes Congo and Rwanda.

“The United States is deeply concerned about recent reports of . . . resumed external support to M23 as well as collaboration with the FDLR,” he said.

But Kerry offered no indication that the United States was prepared to consider imposing any penalties on either government if they don’t end their support for the armed groups.

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