US ready to negotiate with Assad says Kerry

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Syrian president BASHAR AL-ASSAD visiting troops on the front line on New Year’s Eve
Syrian president BASHAR AL-ASSAD visiting troops on the front line on New Year’s Eve

AS the devastating war in Syria entered its fifth year on Sunday, the US said it would have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as it seeks to ‘reignite’ new peace talks.

‘Well, we have to negotiate in the end. We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,’ US Secretary of State John Kerry said when asked by CBS television if he would negotiate with Assad.

His spokeswoman stressed however there had been no change in US policy as it was envisioned any talks would be held with representatives of the Assad government rather than directly with the Syrian leader.

‘Our policy has not changed – there is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria,’ said Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in a statement.

In the past four years, more than 215,000 people have been killed and half of the country’s population displaced, prompting human rights groups to accuse the international community of ‘failing Syria’.

Amid the dragging stalemate on the ground, the country has been carved up between government forces, jihadist groups, Kurdish fighters and the remaining non-jihadist rebels.

Kerry acknowledged in the interview aired on Sunday increased pressure was needed on Assad to bring the regime back to negotiations which stalled after two rounds last year in Geneva, and ‘change his calculation about negotiating.’

‘That’s under way right now. And I am convinced that, with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad.’

The top US diplomat met earlier this month with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss ways of kick-starting the stalled peace talks.

Russia, a key Assad ally, is floating its own dialogue process, and will host talks in Moscow in April. But it remains unclear if the internationally recognised opposition will attend.

‘Assad didn’t want to negotiate,’ Kerry told CBS television, about the last failed rounds of peace talks in Geneva. What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that,’ he replied when asked again if he would negotiate with Assad.

Harf said in a statement that ‘the only way to bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people is through a genuine political solution consistent with the Geneva principles.’

‘By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process. It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate – and the secretary was not saying that today.’

The conflict began as an anti-government uprising, with protesters taking to the streets on March 15, 2011, inspired by similar revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

But a fierce government crackdown on the demonstrations prompted a militarisation of the uprising and its descent into today’s brutal multi-front conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 215,518 people had been killed in the past four years, nearly a third of them civilians and including more than 10,000 children.

The full toll is likely to be even higher, because the fate of tens of thousands of missing people remains unknown.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR says Syria is now ‘the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era’.

Around four million people have fled abroad, with more than a million taking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, while others are sheltered in Jordan and Turkey – placing a huge strain on those countries.

Inside Syria, more than seven million people have been displaced, and the United Nations says around 60 per cent of the population now lives in poverty.

Despite international outrage at the death toll, and allegations that his regime used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, Assad has clung to power.

His forces have consolidated their grip on the capital Damascus, where 26 more people were killed in more air raids close to the capital on Sunday and more than 100 injured, according to the monitor group.

The assaults have been aided by the government’s alleged use of barrel bombs, which Assad denies using.

His government has been emboldened by both its military successes and an apparent shift in international rhetoric.

Calls for his resignation have been notably more muted as international attention shifts to the threat posed by the jihadist Islamic State group.

Diplomats describe a new willingness to countenance a role for Assad in Syria’s future, although Washington still insists that he has lost all legitimacy and must step down.

‘We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome,’ Kerry told CBS News.

Kerry’s comments were flashed straight away on Syrian state television.

But international attention has largely shifted away from the war to fighting the Islamic State (IS) group which has captured a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, terrorising the population and carrying out horrific beheadings and murders.

Kerry has said Washington’s top priority is defeating IS, and repeatedly blamed Assad for allowing his country to become a magnet for terror groups.

Last year, the United States assembled a coalition of nations to fight the group which has also attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many from the West.

l Iran nuclear talks entered a critical week on Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart sitting down in Switzerland seeking an elusive breakthrough after 18 months of intense negotiations.

Time is running out, however, with Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif aiming to agree the outlines of an agreement by the end of the month. A full accord is then due by July 1.

Both men, who began meeting soon after 0700 GMT in a luxury hotel in the lakeside city of Lausanne, are also under intense pressure from domestic hardliners worried they will give too much away.

Speaking in Egypt before travelling to Switzerland, Kerry sought to ease such concerns, saying that the aim is ‘not just to get any deal, it is to get the right deal’.

‘If Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful, let’s get it done. And my hope is that in the next days, that will be possible,’ Kerry told CBS television.

There were, however, ‘important gaps,’ he said. ”Several questions need to be discussed, those where we haven’t found a solution yet and also those where we have found solutions but where we need to discuss certain details,’ Zarif said on Sunday.

Zarif was later on Monday due in Brussels to meet his British, French, German and EU counterparts before returning to Lausanne.

Negotiators from the other five powers involved in the talks – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – were to be involved from Tuesday, according to Iranian officials.

The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for 35 years but the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani resulted in a minor thaw and a diplomatic push to resolve the more than decade-old nuclear standoff.

Under a landmark November 2013 interim deal with the ‘P5+1’ powers, Tehran stopped expanding its activities in return for minor sanctions relief.

Since then the parties have been pushing for a lasting accord.

But to the alarm of Iran’s foe Israel, US Republicans and Washington”s Gulf allies, the US looks to have abandoned insisting that Iran dismantle all nuclear activities.

Instead it appears prepared to tolerate a small programme under tight controls and potentially shipping abroad some of Iran’s nuclear material, possibly to Russia.

In theory this still leaves Iran with the possibility to get the bomb, critics say. Iran says its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.

Last week 47 Republicans took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Iran’s leaders.

They warned that any nuclear deal could be modified by Congress or revoked ‘with the stroke of a pen’ by whomever succeeds President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

The Obama administration has been trying to dissuade lawmakers from passing legislation that would force the president to submit any Iran deal to Congress for approval.

Obama is sure to veto this but the Republicans are trying to assemble a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress with rebel Democrats to pass the measure and override the veto.

‘Apparently the administration is on the cusp of entering into a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world that would allow them to continue to have their nuclear infrastructure,’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN on Sunday.

Some progress has been made towards a deal but the two sides remain far apart on several key issues.

These include the future size of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacities – which can make nuclear fuel but also the core of a bomb – and the pace at which sanctions would be lifted and the accord’s duration.

‘We need clarity on the way in which sanctions will be lifted and what the guarantees will be for applying the deal,’ Zarif said.

Two deadlines, in July and November, were missed but in view of the controversy in Washington – and pressure in Iran on Rouhani to deliver – extending yet again will be very tough.

‘There is no time for additional extensions,’ Kelsey Davenport, an analyst at the Arms Control Association, said.