LONDON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saturday that the United States is willing to negotiate the conditions and timing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and urged Russia to persuade him to negotiate his exit.
Kerry, who is in London before flying to Germany to discuss the refugee crisis engulfing Europe, called for a renewed diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict in Syria, which he said was as urgent a need as fighting Islamic State militants.
“We’re prepared to negotiate,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond. “Is Assad prepared to negotiate? Really negotiate? Is Russia prepared to bring him to the table and actually find the solution to this violence?
“We’ve made it very clear. We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time,” he added. “We’re open. But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion, and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that. So that’s why we’re where we are.”
Kerry declared that “Assad has to go” but said there was some flexibility in the “modality” and timing of his departure.
“We’ve said for some period of time it doesn’t have to be done on day one, or month one, or whatever,” he said. “There’s a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this could best be achieved. I don’t have the answer as to some specific time frame. I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet. They are leaving Syria.”
Peace talks between Syria’s warring factions, based on the 2012 Geneva communique that includes a commitment to form a transitional government, have faltered in the past, and Syria has grown increasingly unstable. That has contributed to a sense of urgency and potentially an opening for renewed peace talks.
“We talked about a number of ideas that we have on how to use this moment, where Russia appears to be more committed to doing more against ISIL, to find ways to move toward a political settlement,” Kerry said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “That’s the objective, and this is a moment for, hopefully, diplomacy to take hold and be able to produce a result that I think everybody wants.”
The conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year, has created an exodus of millions of Syrian refugees and spawned a geopolitical brew. That will be a major topic of discussion among diplomats and leaders when they convene at the U.N. General Assembly in another week, and Kerry’s trip to Europe is to help lay the groundwork for more talks at the United Nations.
Kerry said the refugee crisis must be addressed “by dealing with the root cause, which is violence in Syria, and the lack of hope and possibility of a future that so many people in that region feel is a consequence of the violence that’s taking place.”
Kerry and Hammond both said Assad is to blame for the rise of the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in part of Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, Washington has watched with alarm as Russia has beefed up its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to fight Islamic State militants. But the United States and its allies worry that Russia will prop up Assad, further lengthening the conflict.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter spoke by phone Friday with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the first such discussion in more than a year. The conversation was partly about the logistics of making sure that any military actions inside Syria do not result in an inadvertent accident. The United States also hopes to gain understanding of what Russia’s military buildup intends to accomplish.
Kerry raised the prospect of Russia and the United States cooperating in fighting the Islamic State militants, but not if it bolsters Assad.
“Would we welcome Russia’s help in going against ISIL?” he asked. “Obviously. . . . The other part of the equation is Assad, and how do you resolve the fact he is a magnet for foreign fighters who come to the region, which in the end is ISIL. There’s a lack of logic if . . . they’re bringing in more equipment, shoring up Assad and say they’re going after ISIL. That has to be resolved in our conversations in the next days.”
Hammond said Britain is fully aligned with the U.S. approach and said the government is willing to ask Parliament for authorization to join airstrikes against the Islamic State if needed.
“Because of the Russian engagement, the situation in Syria is becoming more complicated,” Hammond said. “I think we need to discuss this as part of a much bigger problem: the migration pressures, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as well as the need to defeat ISIL.”