WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry pleaded Thursday with Syrian opposition groups not to drop out of a peace conference scheduled to convene next week to begin the process of setting up a new government for their war-scarred country.
With an umbrella group preparing to vote Friday on whether to attend, Kerry said at an impromptu news conference at the State Department that the Syrian government wouldn’t be able to impose new leadership that is against the wishes of the opposition.
He also refuted claims by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad that the goal of the talks set to begin Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland, is to forge an international agreement to eliminate the rebels. The contention, made in a letter conveying the government’s decision to attend the gathering, was “revisionism,” Kerry said.
“Any figure (who) is deemed unacceptable by either side — whether Assad or a member of the opposition — cannot be part of the future,” he said.
Kerry urged the Syrian National Coalition, the main U.S.-backed opposition group, to vote to join the conference, saying it offers the best opportunity to find “a political solution for this conflict that has taken many, many, many, too many lives.”
Kerry’s impassioned plea appeared to reflect anxiety that the conference, a central goal of U.S. diplomacy since plans for a transitional government for Syria were hammered out in Geneva in 2012, could still unravel.
It remained unclear how the splintered opposition coalition would vote Friday.
The National Coordination Body, an internal opposition group that has tense relations with the coalition, said Thursday that it would not attend the so-called Geneva II negotiations.
Meanwhile, some rebel groups in Syria have denounced participation in the talks as a sellout that will prolong Assad’s rule.
There has also been jockeying over whether Iran, a key backer of Assad’s government during the nearly three-year conflict, can take part. U.S. officials argue that Iran should not be represented at the talks, which will include 35 countries and the United Nations, because Iran has not agreed to the goal of forming a new government for Syria.
Kerry said the talks have other goals as well. They include localized cease-fire agreements, greater access for humanitarian workers and the release of prisoners. He said that he was working with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to help persuade Syrian government forces to stop “playing games” that obstruct aid workers’ efforts to reach victims.