Kerry seeks peace talks with Syria's Assad

Kerry seeks peace talks with Syria's Assad
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri meet at an economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Sunday. (Brian Snyder / Associated Press)

Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday he is willing to negotiate personally with Syrian President Bashar Assad to end that country's four-year-old conflict.

With 215,000 dead and no sign that the Syrian civil war is about to wind down, the United States and its allies are looking for new ways to build pressure on Assad to come to the bargaining table, Kerry said.


"We are working very hard with interested parties to see if we can re-ignite a diplomatic outcome," Kerry told CBS News during a visit to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. "We will have to negotiate in the end."

Kerry was in Egypt to talk with that country's leaders about economic development efforts before flying here to resume negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

In the interview, Kerry gave no hint about what leverage the United States or other countries hoped to use to try to force Assad to negotiate. In the past, U.S. officials have hoped to build pressure on the regime by supporting relative moderates in the Syrian opposition. But those groups have been weakening, as the Islamic State militant group has gained strength and seized territory in Syria and Iraq.

Many observers have been expecting that the Obama administration would soften its attitude toward Assad. The administration views the Islamic State as a greater threat than Assad, and it is hoping to successfully conclude its nuclear negotiations with Iran, which is the most important backer of the Syrian government.

But a State Department spokeswoman insisted that Kerry's statement did not signal a new U.S. willingness to work with Damascus, or any shift in policy.

"Policy remains same & is clear: there is no future for Assad in Syria & we say so all the time," spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Twitter.

The Obama administration has been pressing Assad's government to negotiate a transition in which he would step down from power but leave the rest of the regime intact. Kerry has sought to organize negotiations to seek such a bargain, but they have repeatedly collapsed.

Assad has been unwilling to negotiate an end to his 14-year hold on power. He and his family and members of his Alawite religious group, which is his power base, fear that any lessening of their control could lead to destruction.

Kerry has long experience with Assad. While a senator, he met with Assad personally several times in an effort to convince the Syrian president to take part in a settlement of Israel's conflict with its neighbors. So far, however, his personal contacts have not succeeded in bringing about a negotiation.

Many diplomats fear the war will continue indefinitely, with none of the numerous factions able to fully defeat the others. That would leave Assad controlling only a portion of the country.

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