BEIRUT: Debate over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s potential role in any future transition government raged Tuesday, as the U.S. Secretary of State announced that proposed peace talks to try and halt the bloodshed will be held next month.
Speaking in Stockholm, John Kerry told reporters that the fledgling dialogue initiative could include the embattled Syrian president, but that if he decides not to join the conference “it would be another one of Assad’s gross miscalculations.”
"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.
However, Damascus has said that it requires more information on the specifics of the talks before deciding whether to attend.
Kerry warned that Assad’s failure to participate in talks would not only show “the world will see how empty his rhetoric is,” but would result in extra assistance for the rebels fighting to oust him.
"If President Assad decides to miscalculate again about that, as he has miscalculated about his own country's future over the course of the last years, it is clear the opposition will be receiving additional support, there will be additional efforts made and unfortunately the violence will not end," Kerry said.
Washington has already committed to providing opposition forces with non-lethal military equipment such as night-vision goggles and body amour as well as $510 million for humanitarian projects. It is also weighing up whether to directly arm the rebels, hoping to tilt the balance of power in favor of anti-Assad forces.
Prominent opposition backers Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who support arming the rebels, threw their weight behind the proposal on the condition that Assad not play any part in Syria’s future.
Along with Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, the Gulf heavyweights announced late Monday that they will support U.S.-Russian-led talks as long as “as "it takes in consideration that president Assad and his aides with blood-stained hands would have no place in Syria's future," the Emirati WAM news agency reported.
The countries are part of the so-called “Friends of Syria” group, a collection of Western and Arab nations that oppose Assad. The Friends group announced Tuesday that they will meet in Amman next week to coordinate on a united strategy for the June talks.
A European official, who will attend the meeting, told Reuters the United States was trying to explore all peaceful options before considering arming the opposition.
"The meeting will discuss pressuring Assad through other means. The Americans prefer to bring Assad to the table to end this peacefully but they are making it clear that they are not ruling out the military option, whether direct or indirect action," he said.
Russia’s president appeared to give a veiled warning against Western military intervention in the conflict or arming the opposition.
"Only a quick cessation of hostilities and a political settlement can prevent a negative scenario...At this sensitive moment, it's particularly important to avoid any action that could destabilize the situation," Vladimir Putin said after talks Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Putin’s government has been a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, arguing in the past that Western concerns are driven by political rather than humanitarian motives.
Despite disquiet about the possible arming of the opposition, Russia has been providing Damascus with military support during the course of the two-year civil war.
Netanyahu's visit to Russia was focused on trying to dissuade Putin from delivering the advanced air defense system to Assad’s forces, fearing not only that it could undercut the new peace initiative, but that the S-300 missile system could be transported to Hezbollah, thus threatening the stability Israel’s border with Lebanon.
The Israeli premier did not elaborate Tuesday as to whether he and Putin had made headway on the issue, only alluding generally of Israel’s fears of a security vacuum.
“The region around us is very unstable and explosive, and therefore I am glad for the opportunity to examine together new ways to stabilize the area and bring security and stability to the area," he said at the start of the talks.
As diplomats persevered to reach a political solution, on the ground rebel groups united to retake a crucial Damascus town.
Wide-ranging ideological divisions among disparate rebel brigades have hampered the operational gains of the opposition forces at large.
But in a rare move, rebel forces fighting in Ghouta, in the eastern suburbs of the capital, have come together under one command to wrest the town of Otaiba from government control.
"This is a huge target no brigade can deliver on its own, even al-Nusra cannot do it alone, so we all agreed to unite to retake it," a commander whose brigade is one of the 23 taking part in the battle told Reuters.
The Nusra Front are an Al-Qaeda-aligned brigade who have been responsible for some of the biggest rebel victories of the war, including the seizing of Raqqa – the first city to fall into rebel hands.
The bloc of brigades was agreed only for the current battle, the rebels said, but it was driven by a heavy setback last month when their feuding and failure to reinforce local fighters allowed government forces to advance in the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that several parts of eastern Ghouta were struck by regime warplanes Tuesday.
The activist group also reported rebel infighting in the northern city of Aleppo Tuesday, between the Ghurabaa al-Sham brigade and battalions aligned with the local Sharia council. The clashes occurred on the airport road as well as in city’s souks, the Observatory reported. – with agencies