MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia and the United States agreed to bury their differences over Syria and to try to convene international talks with both sides in the civil war to end the carnage that is inflaming the Middle East.
Visiting Moscow after Israel bombed targets near Damascus and as President Barack Obama faces new calls to arm the rebels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia had agreed to try to arrange a conference as early as this month involving both President Bashar al-Assad’s government and his opponents.
An East-West disagreement that has seen some of the frostiest exchanges between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War has deadlocked U.N. efforts to settle the Syrian conflict for two years, so any rapprochement could bring an international common front closer than it has been for many months.
But with Syria’s factional and sectarian hatreds more entrenched than ever after 70,000 deaths, it is far from clear the warring parties are ready to negotiate. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, which has offered reforms but dismisses those fighting it as “terrorists”.
The late hour of the announcement in Moscow - Kerry was kept waiting for three hours by President Vladimir Putin - also meant leaders of the Western-backed opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition were not available for comment. Many on the body have insisted Assad’s exit is a condition for talks.
Inside the country, where rebel groups are numerous and have disparate views, a military commander in the north, Abdeljabbar al-Oqaidi, told Reuters he would want to know details of the U.S.-Russian plan before taking a view. “But,” he added, “if the regime were present, I do not believe we would want to attend.”
Alarmed at the prospect of the conflict spilling across an already volatile and economically important region, however, the major powers have, as Kerry told Putin on Tuesday, “very significant common interests” in pushing for a settlement.
”The alternative,“ Kerry later told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ”is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos.
“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be even a break-up of Syria.”
Last year at a conference in Geneva in June, Washington and Moscow agreed on the need for a transitional government in Syria but left open the question of what would happen to Assad, whose departure Obama has called for but which Russia, accusing the West of meddling, says should be a matter for Syrians only.
Rejecting a characterization of Moscow as the protector of Assad, to whose army it has been a major arms suppliers since the days of his father’s rule, Lavrov said Russia was not concerned by the fate of “certain” individuals.
“The task now is to convince the government and all the opposition groups ... to sit at the negotiating table,” he said.
Kerry said the conference should be held “as soon as is practical - possibly and hopefully by the end of the month”. Neither he nor Lavrov said where it might take place.
Kerry said there would be “a growing crescendo of nations who will want to push for a peaceful resolution, rather than the chaos that comes with the break-up of a country”.
Kerry said the decision on who takes part in any transitional government should be left to the Syrians.
Lavrov said the aim would be “to persuade the government and the opposition together ... to fully implement the Geneva communique” on creating a transitional government.
Russia, backed by China which shares its mistrust of Western enthusiasm for toppling some autocrats, has refused appeals to consider sanctions on Assad, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.
Recent developments have helped focus minds on the risks of wider war in the Middle East: intelligence reports that Assad’s troops may have used chemical weapons had renewed calls for Obama to arm the rebels or even offer U.S. forces; Islamist fighters pledging allegiance to al Qaeda has highlighted how some of the rebels are also hostile to the West; and Israeli air strikes said to target Iranian arms headed for Lebanon’s Hezbollah have underlined the risk of escalation.
In what appeared to be another sign of the country’s travails, Internet connections between Syria and the outside world were cut off on Tuesday, according to data from Google Inc and other global Internet companies.
Google’s Transparency Report pages showed traffic to Google services pages from Syria suddenly stopping shortly before 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT). Most websites within Syria were rendered unreachable as well, other experts said, as the county appeared to shut itself off.
Speaking before the announcement in Moscow, Assad was quoted by a sympathetic Lebanese television channel as saying he would defy Israel, the United States and Arab powers who oppose him.
“The recent Israeli aggressions expose the extent of the complicity between the Israeli occupier, regional countries and the West in promoting the current events in Syria,” he said.
“The Syrian people and their heroic army ... are capable of confronting this Israeli adventure, which represents one of the faces of terrorism that is targeting Syria every day.”
While showing little desire to embroil U.S. forces in Syria after winding down engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has rejected criticism that he might back out of a commitment to act if Assad crossed a “red line” of using chemical weapons.
On Tuesday, he pointed to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toppling of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, brought down by a U.S.-backed rebellion, as evidence that “we typically follow through on our commitments”. It is still unclear if chemical weapons were used.
The chaos in Syria, where a fifth of the 25 million population has been driven from their homes, was underlined by the latest incident of rebels taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage on the ceasefire line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the incident and called for the four Filipinos’ immediate release. They were detained as they patrolled close to an area where 21 Filipino observers were held for three days in March.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade said the peacekeepers were seized for their own safety during clashes in the area.
More widely, the violence in a religiously and ethnically diverse country at the heart of the Arab and Muslim world has inflamed a confrontation between Iran and its fellow Shi‘ite allies like Hezbollah on the one hand and the Sunni Arab powers, including U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, who back the Sunni rebels against Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
Iran, at daggers drawn with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, warned of unforeseeable consequences if Assad were toppled and said only a political settlement to Syria’s civil war would avoid a regional conflagration.
“God forbid, if there is any vacuum in Syria, these negative consequences will affect all countries,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Jordan. “No one knows what will happen.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Arshad Mohammed, Timothy Heritage, Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alison Williams and Mohammad Zargham