BERLIN — Syrian opposition leaders agreed on Monday to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry this week in Rome, backing off from their threat to boycott the session after a day of public and private lobbying by Kerry to persuade them to attend what is expected to be a centerpiece of his nine-country tour.
The opposition leaders agreed to meet with Kerry after he signaled he has unspecified new strategies for ousting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. That thrust Kerry to the forefront of efforts to end a civil war that has cost tens of thousands of Syrian lives.
During a press conference Monday in London, Kerry condemned Assad, saying that bloodshed in the country was “unacceptable” and suggesting that Americans may develop a new approach for the region.
“We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming,” he said. “We are not going to let the Syrian opposition not have its ability to have its voice properly heard in this process.”
Kerry made the remarks during his first stop on a swing through Europe and the Middle East. He has a hectic itinerary and plans to address a range of topics as he tries to make an impact in his first weeks as secretary of state.
But the topic that has come to dominate his trip — and one that is testing his diplomatic skills from the start — is the civil war in Syria, which Washington has tried unsuccessfully to defuse since 2011.
The situation has grown more complicated as Assad, who Kerry once considered a potential reformer, has stepped up a bloody crackdown. For example, militants with links to Al Qaeda have reportedly taken control of some opposition forces seeking to oust Assad, which has made arming the militants all the more complicated.
Kerry held his press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who continued to nudge the Americans — and the international community — to take a more aggressive posture in aiding the Syrian rebels.
Up until the past few days, members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition had been planning to meet with Kerry and other European leaders in Rome later this week. But some in the deeply divided coalition began suggesting they would boycott the talks, frustrated by what they saw as an international community too slow to come to their aid.
Starting Saturday night, State Department officials began sending stronger signals to the Syrians that they sympathized with them. Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, was dispatched on Sunday to meet with the opposition leaders in Cairo. Ford withdrew from Syria more than a year ago because of the violence.
Kerry also called Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian Opposition Council, and encouraged him to come to Rome, according to a senior State Department official. The official also confirmed on Monday night that Khatib later posted a Facebook message confirming he and opposition leaders will attend the Rome meeting.
Kerry said he understood the frustration of the Syrian rebels.
“I was a member of the Senate, and I was one of those voices on the outside pushing for one thing or another,” Kerry said. “And I understand the reason people question another meeting.”
“But I’m a new secretary of state,” he added. “I’m here now beginning a fresh term with a president who has just been reelected and [has] a significant mandate in the country, and the president of the United States has sent me here and sent me to this series of meetings and sent me to Rome because he is concerned about the course of events.”
Kerry has said he has new ideas to propose to solve the crisis in Syria, but he declined several opportunities to provide any public details. He said that those terms were still part of negotiations he was talking to European allies about and that he is hoping to have an announcement in Rome.
“I want our friends in the Syrian Opposition Council to know that we are not coming to Rome simply to talk,” Kerry said. “We are coming to Rome to make a decision about next steps and perhaps even other options that may or may not be discussed further after that.”
The pressure from Kerry to meet with the Syrian opposition — and perhaps bolster the US backing of their cause — came as Syria’s government signaled it would like to negotiate. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, said Assad’s government would be willing to meet with the rebels.
The comments came during a visit to Moscow, where he met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The Russians back the Syrian government and could influence Assad. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Lavrov Tuesday in Berlin, where Kerry arrived late Monday. His day Monday began with breakfast with Prime Minister David Cameron, followed by lunch with Hague.
During the press conference, Kerry stood sentry as his British counterpart spoke, looking ahead and nodding occasionally. Kerry at times had a casual tone, referring to the British foreign minister numerous times as William and cracking several jokes.
“It is no accident, sir, that this is the first stop on my trip as secretary of state,” Kerry said. He joked that when he was 4 years old his mother took him to London. “I managed to get lost at the London Zoo,” Kerry said. “I want to thank somebody for finding me.
“And this day, I must say, was made much easier,” he added. “It was impossible for me to get lost.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.