MOSCOW – The United States and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to bring together the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition for peace talks, signaling a potential breakthrough in long-stalled diplomatic efforts to end a bloody conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire region.
The meeting, announced by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a day of talks, appeared to reflect a significant softening of Russia’s support for Assad.
“I would like to emphasize that we … are not interested in the fate of certain persons,” Lavrov told reporters following a meeting with Kerry. “We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people.”
Lavrov said the U.S. and Russia were committed to a deal that would guarantee the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria and would follow the approach of a diplomatic agreement worked out by world powers last year.
Kerry said they hoped to bring together the meeting “as soon as practical” – perhaps by the end of the month.
The developments in Moscow seemed to signal a revival of the so-called Geneva Communique, agreed to in June at a special “Action Group for Syria” meeting convened by Kofi Annan, the former U.N.-Arab League special peace envoy.
The communique’s road map for a peaceful political transition in Syria was sidelined amid differences between Moscow and Washington on a fundamental issue – the future of Assad. Before the Geneva session, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had pushed for an explicit guarantee that Assad would have to relinquish power, but Russia balked.
Forcing Assad’s removal remains a formidable hurdle for Moscow, one that looms large in any prospective peace plan that may emerge from the latest U.S.-Russian initiative.
But Moscow’s softening position now may reflect a growing urgency of finding a diplomatic solution at a moment when it appears the 2-year-old civil war could explode into a regionwide proxy struggle entangling the United States, Israel, Russia, Iran and its neighboring states.
Yet it remained unclear whether the two sides would be able to bring together Assad, who has insisted that he would never surrender his post, and the rebels, who have refused to negotiate with him.