STOCKHOLM Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he expected a proposed Syria peace conference backed by Washington and Moscow to be held in early June, and he denied reports that the Damascus government did not plan to attend.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said earlier in the day that Damascus, fighting an insurgency that threatens to draw in Syria's neighbors, wanted specifics on such a conference before it decides whether to be part of it.
"If he decides not to come to the table, it would be another one of President (Bashar) Assad's gross miscalculations," Kerry told reporters during a visit to Sweden to attend a meeting of eight nations with Arctic territory.
"I don't believe that that is the case at this moment. The Russians, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already given him the names of people who will negotiate," he said.
Kerry said the exact timing of the meeting was up to the United Nations, but that he expected it would take place in early June, noting that a great deal of work toward the negotiations had already taken place.
"I have talked with almost all of the foreign ministers in the core group who will be meeting next week together in order to lay plans for this negotiation. The members of the opposition have been in touch," he said.
Kerry added that he spoke on Tuesday morning with Syrian opposition General Salim Idriss, and he was committed to the negotiation process.
"It's only been five days since this was announced and a huge amount of work is already under way," Kerry told a news conference in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt present.
"When we announced it, we said towards the end of the month (of May) or early June. We expect it to be exactly that, somewhere in early June, I would hope, and that's our current expectation."
Kerry reiterated the Obama administration's desire for a peaceful resolution to the two-year-long Syrian civil war, which has killed at least 82,000 people by an opposition estimate and could destabilize the wider Middle East.
"We believe the ... best way to settle Syria is through a negotiated settlement," Kerry said. "If Assad decides not to come, the world will see how empty his rhetoric is, as well as his intent."
Assad's departure has been a demand of the opposition since the revolt started and previous peace initiatives have foundered over the failure to settle on the president's future role.
Zoabi, the Syrian information minister, said Damascus also wanted a political solution but that international efforts should also tackle "terrorists", a term the Syrian government uses to refer to rebel forces.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)