Kerry seeks support for Syrian peace talks

ROME — As new reports of sectarian atrocities flowed from Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned leaders in Europe and the Middle East on Wednesday to lay the ground for a conference between rebels and the Syrian government, sponsored by the United States and Russia, that he hoped would begin within a month.

Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, announced a new diplomatic effort to end the 2-year-old Syrian conflict after intense discussions on Tuesday in Moscow.

Kerry then flew to Rome, where aides said he would announce on Thursday a 25 percent increase in American humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians whose lives have been upended by the crisis. The additional aid, according to a State Department statement, would bring the American total to about $510 million.


The US ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who accompanied Kerry during his talks in Moscow, flew to Istanbul to press representatives of the Syrian opposition to agree to talks with an envoy of President Bashar Assad of Syria. There were initial indications, at least, that both sides were not opposed to the idea.

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Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported it with the headline: ‘‘Lavrov, Kerry: Negotiations Are Vital Tool to Reach Settlement.’’

The main political opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said in a statement that it welcomed ‘‘all international efforts calling for a political solution, which will achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people for a democratic state that begins with the removal of the Assad regime.’’

But the statement also said: ‘‘It is important to note that the Assad regime rejected all initiatives that have been presented thus far to resolve the crisis.’’

The special Syria peace envoy from the Arab League and the United Nations, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been expected to resign in frustration over his failed efforts to make any headway, issued a statement welcoming the American-Russian proposal on Syria, calling it ‘‘the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time.’’


It remains uncertain whether the two sides in an increasingly brutal civil war will even agree to substantive talks, but Russia’s support for a transitional government — which Lavrov suggested would not include Assad — raised hopes of American officials.

Lavrov, whose government has been Assad’s primary foreign backer, spoke with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, before the agreement was announced in Moscow after extended meetings that Kerry had held with President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov.

‘‘I think we, hopefully, found a cooperative way forward to maybe try — I can’t guarantee you can — but try to bring people together to deal effectively with Syria and hopefully end bloodshed and see if there isn’t a way to find a way forward,’’ Kerry told workers from the US Embassy in Moscow on Wednesday before flying to Rome. ‘‘It is not easy. Nothing is easy in this process.’’

The Obama administration has not reversed its demand that Assad resign, but the proposal Kerry negotiated with the Russians in effect accepts the premise that Assad’s government would at least have a say in the negotiations, if they begin, just as Russia accepted that Assad would most likely not be in power if an agreement is reached on forming a transitional government.