WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met in Paris Monday to coordinate international efforts to bring both sides in the Syrian civil war to peace talks.
The diplomats said they discussed possible participants at an international peace conference they’ve proposed to seek negotiations toward a cease-fire and a transitional Syrian government.
The U.S. and Russia are “deeply committed” to making the peace conference work, Kerry told reporters after the meeting.
“We concentrated on the need to determine the participants in the conference, first of all from the Syrian side — the government and the opposition groups,” Lavrov said.
The diplomats also discussed whether to expand the group of other countries “to include all key outside players who have influence on the situation on the ground,” Lavrov said. Russia has proposed including Iran in a peace conference. Countries supporting the Syrian rebel forces didn’t reach an agreement on Iran’s participation when they met in Jordan last week.
“The chances for success are there,” Lavrov said. “We will do everything in our power to use those chances to make them realized.”
Kerry said the men also “discussed our mutual concerns about any potential use of chemical weapons and the need to really get the evidence and ascertain what has happened.”
Monday’s discussion was the third meeting between the two top diplomats this month, and the sixth so far this year, with the Syrian crisis dominating their discussions.
The U.S. and Russia are seeking to persuade Syria’s government and rebels to come together in Geneva next month to agree on a cease-fire and establish a transitional government. The fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebels has taken at least 70,000 lives and created more than 1.5 million refugees, the United Nations estimates.
While Assad’s government has agreed to attend an international conference next month aimed at ending the 26 months of conflict in the country, opposition forces haven’t yet chosen their new leadership and haven’t pledged to participate.
Pressure has been building in Washington among some congressional Democrats and Republicans for the U.S. to do more militarily to stop the bloodshed, with calls for providing weaponry to the rebels and to establish a no-fly zone.
The U.S. and its allies will expand support for the Syrian rebels and consider all options short of deploying American troops if diplomacy doesn’t halt a bloody civil war, Kerry said last week at a conference in Amman, Jordan.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, crossed the Turkish border Monday and went into Syria, spokesman Brian Rogers said, without disclosing details. The trip was reported earlier Monday by the Daily Beast website. McCain backs increasing support for the rebels.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich last week accused Syrian opposition groups of trying to sabotage U.S.-Russian efforts to broker a peace deal. “They are doing everything to quash the idea of this conference,” he said in televised comments.
Russia, whose ties to the Assad dynasty date back decades, has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in Syria and has supplied the Syrian government with billions of dollars in weapons in recent years. Russia has vetoed three European-drafted UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on opponents, arguing that rebels were equally to blame for the violence. Russia has accused the U.S. and its allies of seeking regime change in Syria.
While Russia and the U.S., along with other powers, last year agreed in principle to UN-brokered guidelines to end the conflict, the plan never went anywhere because Syria’s warring parties didn’t put down their arms to negotiate a transition.
Kerry and Lavrov announced on May 7 that they’d try to bring representatives of Assad’s government and rebels together for talks in the coming weeks in Geneva.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has raised the issue of lifting the European Union’s arms embargo on Syrian rebels, while saying guarantees aren’t yet in place to ensure weapons don’t fall into the hands of extremists.
EU members didn’t reach agreement on lifting the embargo on Monday, Interfax reported, citing Fabius. Countries have “no agreement” on supplying weapons to Syrian opposition, he said after EU’s 27 foreign ministers ended talks in Brussels, according to Interfax.