RIYADH – Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday toggled from uncertainty over Syrian peace talks to rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran as he met with Gulf Arabs in the Saudi capital.
After meeting with foreign ministers from the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Kerry said he was confident initial talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups would take place as planned next week in Geneva. The warring participants won’t be at the same table, or even in the same room, but they will be in the same venue while U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura acts as a go-between.
Diplomats have cautioned the Syrian talks might be delayed, due to disagreements over which opposition groups will be invited to attend. If disputes or other problems arise, Kerry told reporters, a 20-member multinational group that has promoted peace talks will convene immediately after the Geneva meetings end.
“We want to keep the process moving and put to full test the readiness and willingness of people” to achieve peace, Kerry said, expressing concern that the violence in Syria could spill over its borders.
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed in Syria since peaceful protesters were attacked by government forces, resulting in a civil war that has set off a flood of refugees, spawned an Islamic caliphate run by militants and drawn both foreign fighters and military invention by a host of alarmed countries, including Russia, Iran and the United States. Two previous attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict have both failed.
Kerry noted there are sharp divisions over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States insists Assad must eventually leave power and elections called within 18 months of a cease-fire and peace talks starting.
“We know that the war in Syria cannot end — it’s not that it will not end, it’s not that people choose otherwise — it’s that it cannot end, because he is the magnet that attracts the violent terrorism and jihadis who will continue to come as long as he or his supporters insist he is a part in a long term future,” Kerry said.
Rejecting that notion, Kerry vowed, “We are going to do everything in our power as nations that are deeply impacted by the consequences of Syria to try to push this process forward and help to act as constructive catalysts and try help Syrians to bring about the peace that they desire so much.”
Kerry also came to Saudi Arabia to try to diffuse tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and urge Riyadh to restore diplomatic relations with Tehran. After Riyadh executed a Shiite cleric in early January, and protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic compounds in Tehran and another city, Saudi Arabia cut the ties. Both countries, bitter regional rivals, are involved in organizing the Syrian peace talks, and the rising hostilities have raised concerns their spat will spill over and impact the peace talks.
Talking to reporters after meeting with Kerry, Saudi Prime Minister Adel al-Jubeir dismissed the idea that the United States and Iran will improve their relations after a landmark nuclear deal was implemented this month.
"No, I don't see a coming together of the United States and Iran,” he said. “Iran remains the world's chief sponsor of terrorism.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has expressed regrets over the attack on the Saudi embassy, but Jubeir on Friday called the apology “meaningless” unless it changes its policies and stops supporting terror.
Jubeir took another swipe at Iran on Saturday, telling reporters that the recent prisoner release of seven Iranian Americans and Iranian nationals imprisoned in the United States and five Americans imprisoned in Iran was a trenchant example of how Iran’s government is viewed by its own people.
“I wouldn’t call it an exchange of prisoners, because every person released in the United States, as I understand, chose to remain in the United States, which tells you what a great country Iran is, that none of them wanted to look forward to going back to it.”
Jubeir said he was confident the United States shared Saudi Arabia’s view of Iran.
"Overall I think the United States is very aware of the danger of Iran's mischief and nefarious activities,” he said. “ I don't believe the United States is under any illusion as to what type of government Iran is.”
Kerry said the United States has assured the six countries in the GCC that “the United States, as we have said many times, will stand with them against any external threat and defend, if necessary, together with them against those threats.”