John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, appeared to have avoided a major embarrassment after the leadership of the Syrian opposition said it would attend a US-backed conference aimed at addressing the rapidly-deteriorating situation in Syria.
“We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is,” John Kerry said at a press conference in London before talks in Rome later this week.
Mr Kerry, who replaced Hillary Clinton three weeks ago, appeared alongside William Hague, UK foreign secretary, at a joint event in Britain’s Foreign Office.
His remarks came after the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella group for the political opposition in Syria, threatened at the weekend to boycott forthcoming international meetings on the conflict in protest at what it said was the “silence” of world powers “over crimes committed by the regime”.
However, on Monday the SNC’s leader, Moaz al-Khatib, wrote on his Facebook page that the coalition leadership would be attending the Rome conference after all. Mr Khatib claimed the decision, which came after Mr Kerry had telephoned has telephoned him and urged him to attend, was made after pledges to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.
The SNC has been frustrated that more international support has not been forthcoming to the newly-formed body itself, which is struggling to maintain coherence and relevance as the situation on the ground deteriorates. Late on Monday residents of Damascus and state media reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire, according to news agencies.
Mr Kerry has begun a nine-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, which will include the Syrian conference in Rome on Thursday.
The veteran Democrat politician said the US was still primarily seeking a political resolution to the conflict in Syria which has claimed at least 70,000 lives in the past two years, according to the UN.
The US was “determined to change the calculation” for President Bashar al-Assad on the ground, Mr Kerry said, and the time was “ripe” for western powers to consider what more they could do. “We are not going to let the Syrian opposition not have its ability to have its voice properly heard in this process,” he said.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, said on Monday that the government was ready to talk with armed opponents of the regime.
“We’re ready for a dialogue with anyone who’s willing for it,” said Mr Mouallem, who was speaking in Moscow ahead of talks with his Russian counterpart. “Even with those who carry arms.”
It was not clear what conditions Mr Mouallem was offering, however. The government has previously insisted that rebels lay down their arms before talks. The opposition for its part has said it is only willing to discuss the departure of the Assad regime.
Last week the EU approved plans for the UK to send “security and civilian-military” trainers to assist the Syrian rebels, despite opposition from some member states, after a compromise amending EU sanctions to allow “technical assistance for the protection of civilians”.
Mr Hague also stressed the need for a new “package” agreed by the EU at a time when “appalling injustice” was being meted out to Syrians.
“In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by,” the UK foreign secretary said. “We must significantly increase support for the Syrian opposition. We are preparing to do just that.”
Thursday’s meeting in Rome is set to involve European, Arab and Turkish officials as well as Mr Kerry and some key opposition figures.
Separately, Mr Kerry said the US still wanted a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme but said that option “cannot remain open forever”.