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Kerry downplays Syria government's gains

In Jordan for talks with the pro-opposition Friends of Syria bloc, he calls Bashar Assad's military advances 'very temporary.'

May 22, 2013|By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Secretary of State John F. Kerry speaks at a news conference in Amman, Jordan.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry speaks at a news conference in Amman, Jordan. (Mohammad Hannon, Associated…)

AMMAN, Jordan — Recent battlefield advances by the Syrian military against U.S.-backed rebels are "very temporary" and do not signal that the government of President Bashar Assad is gaining the upper hand, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

"Yeah, he's made a few gains in the last days," Kerry told reporters here. "But this has gone up and down in a seesaw."

Kerry also condemned what he called the "destructive role" of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, in dispatching "several thousands" of militiamen to aid Assad's forces.

Syrian troops have overrun guerrillas in several parts of the country, most recently in and around the strategic western town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah fighters have faced off against rebel combatants. But Kerry downplayed the government's advances, which have caused some analysts to recalibrate projections about its ability to endure.

"If Bashar al-Assad thinks that the gains that he's made in the last few days are going to be determinative of this, then he is miscalculating," Kerry said before a meeting of the pro-opposition Friends of Syria bloc. "I don't believe there's a military victory for Assad that is going to somehow justify the gains he's made in the last days."

Washington is prepared to accelerate support to the opposition if Assad does not negotiate "in good faith" during U.S.- and Russian-brokered peace talks planned for next month, Kerry warned.

The talks are designed to lead to a transitional government in Syria under the terms of an international accord that was hammered out last year in Geneva and recently revived during U.S.-Russian talks in Moscow. Washington and Moscow are pushing for a "Geneva 2" conference in June to bring opposition and government envoys together in peace talks for the first time.

If Assad balks at the process, more U.S. aid might be sent to the rebels, Kerry said without elaborating. The Obama administration has said it has so far provided only nonlethal aid to the rebels, despite pressure from Congress and elsewhere to send arms.

While ruling out the deployment of U.S. forces to Syria, the White House "has taken no options off the table," Kerry said.

The Assad government has signaled its intention to participate in the peace talks, but has made clear that it will not negotiate away its existence, and its leverage could be bolstered by its recent military gains. Russia, a close ally of Assad, has also insisted that the talks cannot proceed with Assad's ouster as a predetermined outcome.

But Kerry reiterated the oft-stated U.S. position that Assad's departure must be the result.

"It is very, very clear as a starting point that mutual consent will never be given by any member of the broad opposition of Syria for Assad to continue to run that government," he said.

The original Geneva pact mandated that each side give "mutual consent" to a transitional government for Syria, where tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced since hostilities broke out more than two years ago.

The major U.S.-backed opposition group, known as the Syrian National Coalition, has yet to agree to attend the peace talks. Coalition members have repeatedly said they would not negotiate with government representatives unless the ouster of Assad and his regime was guaranteed.

The revived Geneva peace process is likely to be protracted, Kerry warned. But he painted an almost apocalyptic scenario should the initiative fail.

"There will be more foreign fighters, there will be more extremists, there will be more danger to the volatility of the region," he said. "There may be more 'ethnic cleansing,' more massacres. Syria may break up into different parts. Nobody will benefit from that continued struggle."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

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