BEIRUT: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Tuesday pressed Syrian opposition leaders to open talks with the regime to stop the bloodshed after “constructive” talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
After the nearly two-hour meeting in Berlin, Lavrov called on the opposition to “declare itself in favor of dialogue” when it meets various Western leaders, including Kerry, at crunch talks in Rome Thursday.
“We are counting on the opposition, who will be meeting with representatives of Western and a number of regional countries in Rome, to also declare itself in favor of dialogue because they have voiced contradictory statements on that account and not only declare but also name their negotiating team,” the Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in Berlin.
“I have a feeling that President Barack Obama’s second administration, in the foreign policy field led by John Kerry, will try to play a more constructive role in all those areas,” Lavrov said.
On Syria, Lavrov said the two reaffirmed their “intention to do all Russia and the U.S. can do.
“It’s not that everything depends on us, but we shall do all we can to create conditions for the soonest start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the two met for an hour and 45 minutes, spending more than half that time on Syria.
Kerry and Lavrov discussed how they could implement the so-called Geneva Agreement, which is designed to get the Syrian government and rebels to plan a transitional government for the time after Assad leaves office.
That discussion comes two days before nearly a dozen nations, excluding Russia, meet in Rome with the Syrian opposition to continue to try and find a way forward on resolving the conflict that has cost nearly 70,000 lives.
The Syrian National Council, the main bloc within the opposition National Coalition, is skeptical about outside help from the West and threatened to boycott the meeting until a series of phone calls and meetings between Kerry and his ambassadors and Syrian opposition leaders repaired the schism. The council now says it will attend the meeting, but is hoping for more concrete offers of help, including military assistance, which the U.S. and others have been unwilling to supply.
Despite urging from Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Obama has opposed lethal aid.
Meanwhile in Bulgaria Tuesday, a “Friends of Syria” meeting agreed to ramp up political pressure against the Assad regime, in what officials called their strongest declaration yet.
Delegates from 56 nations working on sanctions against Syria called “on all members of the international community, especially members of the United Nations Security Council, to take swift, responsible and resolute action ... with a view of depriving the regime of resources and instruments essential to its campaign of violence.”
With China and Russia blocking Security Council action, the group’s meeting in Sofia – the sixth since its inception – also encouraged members to increase unilateral sanctions to tighten the noose around the regime.
Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, a Western official welcomed the statement as “the strongest” so far by the club which met five times last year, most recently in Tokyo in November.
The working group in a statement urged states to stop purchasing Syrian phosphate used in agriculture and “a considerable source of revenue for the Assad regime,” as well as to halt the printing of Syrian currency. It also repeated an earlier call for a full embargo on petroleum shipments from Syria.
The U.S. has already banned the import of Syrian oil and gas products but the EU has not followed suit.
Among other pledges, delegates in Sofia vowed to help prevent the Assad regime acquiring technology used to “illegitimately disrupt communications, monitor or track individuals in Syria” and urged similar moves from companies.
Those who have provided financial support to Assad, including loans or credits, should “cease immediately,” the group added.
Institutions and companies in countries that have not joined the sanctions regime should “refrain from engaging in business with entities affiliated with the regime ... or be exposed to a severe reputational risk,” the group warned.
The delegates declared their readiness, however, to work with a future Syrian government on the issue of its debt.
Also Tuesday, the SNC announced that at least five candidates are vying to become “prime minister” of a government that the opposition plans to create to administer rebel-held territory.
The SNC decided Monday to present three names for the post, member Samir Nashar told AFP.
They are former SNC head Burhan Ghalioun and members Salim al-Moslet and Osama Kadi.
“Other names from outside the SNC are being circulated,” including former Syrian premier Riad Hijab, who defected last summer, and Khaled Mustafa, Nashar said.
The premier will be elected in a secret ballot by the 64 general assembly members of the Syrian National Coalition on March 2.
The Coalition decided Friday to form a government to run areas of the country “liberated” by rebels. During the upcoming summit in Istanbul, it will also decide on the composition of the planned government.
Coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni said the new government would bring together “technocrats” tasked with managing electricity and water supplies and other key infrastructure.
The decision came as the conflict approaches the two-year mark, with the rebels having seized significant swathes of territory in the north and east.
Analysts say the move will help the opposition-in-exile gain credibility with Syrians inside the country and the international community, and also catch up with well-established Islamist groups.