US warns Assad he must step aside to foster peace in Syria

Comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry signal America is uncertain rebels will attend the UN-hosted conference in Switzerland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 10:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 2:05am

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Syrian regime yesterday it would fail to divert peace talks away from the aim of installing a new government.

Accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of funding and even ceding territory to extremists in order to fuel fears of militant groups, Kerry said "nobody is going to be fooled."

"They can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions, the bottom line is we are going to Geneva to implement Geneva I, and if Assad doesn't do that he will invite greater response," he said.

Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have led moves to bring together the divided Syrian opposition and the Assad regime for the first time since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

More than 35 countries will gather in the Swiss cities of Montreux and Geneva from Wednesday for talks on setting up a transitional government to lead the country, in line with a 2012 deal.

"I believe, as we begin to get to Geneva and begin to get into this process, that it will become clear that there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he's going to be part of that future. It's not going to happen," Kerry said.

The international community was "not out of options" for increasing pressure on Assad, Kerry said as he met yesterday with Mexico's foreign minister Jose Antonio Meade and their Canadian counterpart John Baird.

"I'm not particularly … surprised that he is trying to divert this. He's been doing this for months, trying to make himself the protector of Syria against extremists," Kerry said of Assad.

Kerry slammed alleged comments from the Syrian regime that the Geneva II peace talks were to discuss ways to combat the rise of terrorist groups plaguing the country as "revisionism."

With just five days to go, the Syrian opposition National Coalition remains divided over whether to show up to the talks.

Around a third of the opposition Coalition have threatened not to support the peace talks, which will start in Montreux before moving to Geneva.

Instead of seeking a two-thirds majority vote of the 120 members, senior Coalition member Anas al-Abdah said they might resort to a simple majority of those present.

"The outcome is finely balanced, but I expect a 'yes' vote," said a Western diplomat following the talks, adding that the United States, Britain and other Western backers had told the Coalition that a 'no' vote would have unwelcome consequences.

Additional reporting by Reuters