MOSCOW — The United States and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to bring together the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition for peace talks, signaling a potential breakthrough in long-stalled diplomatic efforts to end a bloody conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire region.
The proposed peace conference, announced by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after a day of talks, appeared to reflect a softening of Russia’s staunch support of Assad.
"I would like to emphasize that we … are not interested in the fate of certain persons," Lavrov told reporters. "We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people."
Lavrov said the U.S. and Russia were committed to a deal that would guarantee the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Syria and would follow the approach of a diplomatic agreement worked out by world powers last year.
"We are convinced that this will be the best and shortest way to resolve the Syrian crisis," he said.
The developments in Moscow seemed to signal a revival of the so-called Geneva communique, agreed to in June at a special meeting of the "Action Group for Syria" convened by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations-Arab League special envoy.
The communique's road map for a peaceful political transition in Syria was sidelined amid differences between Moscow and Washington on a fundamental issue: the future of Bashar Assad. Before the Geneva session, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had pushed for an explicit guarantee that Assad would have to relinquish power, but Russia balked.
The final communique called for a transitional governing structure in Syria, with full executive powers, created with "mutual consent." At Russia's insistence, the communique specified that the transitional Syrian administration could include members of the current government and the opposition, although U.S. officials insisted that the "mutual consent" language basically meant Assad had to go.
But the process never got underway, and the violence has accelerated, leaving more than 70,000 dead, according to U.N. estimates.
Forcing Assad's removal remains a formidable hurdle for Moscow, one that looms large in any prospective peace plan that may emerge from the latest U.S.-Russian initiative.
But Moscow's softening position now may reflect a growing urgency in finding a diplomatic solution at a moment when it appears Syria's 2-year-old civil war could explode into a regionwide proxy struggle entangling the United States, Israel, Russia, Iran and its neighboring states. The Obama administration has been threatening in recent days to increase its military role in support of the rebels, and over the weekend, Israel reportedly struck Syrian targets twice.
Yet it remains unclear whether the two sides will be able to bring together Assad, who has insisted he would never surrender his post, and the rebels, who have refused to negotiate with him.
Lavrov and Kerry provided no immediate details on how they hoped to overcome those obstacles. Kerry said world powers had no choice but to apply all possible pressure.
"The alternative is that there is even more violence," Kerry told reporters. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos."
Lavrov suggested that the rebels might be the holdouts.
"The opposition has not yet expressed its adherence to settlement based on the Geneva communique, and the opposition has not yet named a negotiator on its behalf," Lavrov said.
Kerry said they hoped to bring together the meeting "as soon as practical" — perhaps by the end of the month.
In Washington, President Obama, facing criticism that he has fallen short of his commitments on Syria, promised that he would follow through as he had in killing Osama bin Laden and ousting former Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
"I would just point out that there have been several instances during the course of my presidency where I said I was going to do something, and it ended up getting done," Obama said during a White House news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
He said that there have been times when there had been "folks on the sidelines wondering why" a promise hadn't been fulfilled by a certain date.
"But in the end, whether it's Bin Laden or Kadafi, if we say we're taking a position I would think at this point the international community has a pretty good sense that we typically follow through on our commitments," he said.
Obama said that "understandably, there's a desire for easy answers." But he said he was measuring decisions "not based on a hope and a prayer but on hard-headed analysis in terms of what will actually make us safer and stabilize the region."
He repeated that he would move carefully in determining whether chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian regime, a move he has said would be a "red line" for his administration. He said he couldn't reach a decision based on the "perceived" use of such weapons.
Loiko reported from Moscow and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.