WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry pleaded Thursday with Syrian opposition groups to not drop out of a peace conference scheduled to convene in Switzerland next week.
With an umbrella group of opposition forces 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 rejected claims by the government of President Bashar Assad that the goal of the talks, set to begin Jan. 22 in Montreux, 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.
The talks have had the stated goal of beginning the process of setting up a new government for the country, which has been engaged in civil war for nearly three years.
"Any figure [who] is deemed unacceptable by either side — whether Assad or a member of the opposition — cannot be part of the future," Kerry said.
He urged the Syrian National Coalition, the main U.S.-backed opposition group, to vote to join the conference, saying the venue offers the best opportunity to find "a political solution for this conflict that has taken many, many, many — too many — lives."
Kerry added that the talks had goals other than establishing a new government, including localized cease-fire agreements, greater access for humanitarian workers and the release of prisoners. He said 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.
Kerry's impassioned plea appeared to reflect anxiety that the conference — a central goal of U.S. diplomacy efforts since plans for a transitional government for Syria were hammered out in Geneva in 2012 — could 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, can take part. U.S. officials say Tehran should not be represented at the talks, which will include 35 countries and the United Nations, because it has not agreed to the goal of forming a new Syrian government.
Lavrov met Thursday in Moscow with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Lavrov said that "Iran should certainly be involved" in the talks.
Zarif also met with President Vladimir Putin, and the influential Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an unidentified government source as saying that Russia, a major oil exporter, was interested in striking a deal to purchase Iranian oil. Putin said in televised remarks that Russia and Iran have "a big bilateral agenda."
Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded early Thursday in the center of the northeastern Lebanese city of Hermel, close to the border with Syria, killing five people and injuring dozens, authorities said.
The blast was the latest in a series of attacks in Lebanon that appear to be linked to the war in Syria. Authorities described all of the victims as civilians who were in the town's center as the workday was beginning.
Hermel is a mostly Shiite Muslim city whose residents are closely allied with the Hezbollah movement, which has dispatched militiamen to Syria to fight on Assad's behalf. Some of the militant Sunni Muslim groups battling to topple Assad have vowed to take their fight to Hezbollah's Lebanese homeland.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. News reports suggested that a suicide bomber was involved.
Richter reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.