The world must persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to see the writing on the wall, top U.S. diplomat John Kerry said Tuesday, stressing Russia could play a key role in ending the conflict.
As observers wait to see if President Barack Obama plans any shift in U.S. policy towards Syria, the new U.S. secretary of state hinted at behind-the-scenes moves to try to cut off some of the last lifelines to the Assad regime.
But he made it plain that Assad needs to abandon hopes of riding out the war and instead accept the “inevitability” of his departure.
“We need to address the question of President Assad’s calculation currently,” Kerry told reporters. “I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his current perception.”
Kerry said he is convinced, given the current situation on the ground, “that there is an inevitability here” although it “hasn't sunk into him yet.”
Washington has in recent months increasingly called on a key Syria ally, Moscow, to halt its support for the Assad regime. It has also accused Iran of propping up Assad with money, men and materiel.
Despite working to shape a viable political opposition to Assad, the U.S. has stopped short of providing arms to the rebels, fearful of dumping even more weapons into an uncertain theater of war amid a rise of jihadist groups.
Various diplomatic initiatives led first by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan and his successor Lakhdar Brahimi have so far failed to end the 23-month conflict that has claimed nearly 70,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates.
Obama, who a year ago predicted that Assad's days were numbered, made barely a mention of Syria in his State of the Union speech late Tuesday, vowing only “to keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people.”
Kerry said after talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh that he would not go into specifics, but added that he had “a good sense of what I think we might propose.”
Syria will likely top Kerry's talks at the State Department on Thursday with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon as well as the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
He revealed that his first foreign trip, expected in the coming weeks, would focus on the Middle East as well as garnering opinions on Syria, and hinted the U.S. and Jordan could take renewed steps to urge Russia to bring more pressure to bear on Assad to quit.
Moscow has been sharply criticized for keeping up ties with the Assad regime as it battles the opposition rebels, and for continuing arms sales to Damascus.
“I still remain hopeful that there may be an equation where the Russians and the United States could in fact find more common ground than we have found yet with respect to that,” Kerry said, adding that Jordan's King Abdullah II was expected to visit Moscow.
“The current situation is untenable,” agreed Judeh, saying there was general “agreement across the board that a political discourse” is needed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib met for the first time in Munich earlier this month, with Moscow saying it wanted to keep in regular contact.
A top Russian diplomat also said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and Khatib will make separate visits to Moscow in the coming weeks.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there was no “secret among the countries that have been working to increase the pressure on Assad that he’s living in his own fantasy world about his staying power.”
And as long as Russia keeps supplying the Syrian regime with arms and money, “then they’re feeling quite comfortable,” she added.
Sanctions put in place by other nations were however managing to squeeze the regime, Nuland insisted, saying the leadership had “run through more than half of the gold reserves of the country because they can't trade anymore and maintain their sources of hard currency.”