May 7, 2013 11:16 pm

Russia and US agree to Syria conference after Moscow talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry poses in front of the St.Basil's cathedral during a walk at the Red Square in Moscow on May 7,©AFP

Russia and the US agreed to hold a peace conference to find a solution to the conflict in Syria, even as President Barack Obama said he was as determined to deal with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as he had been with the likes of Osama bin Laden.

After John Kerry, US secretary of state, held talks in Moscow on Tuesday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the two men said an international conference on Syria should be held “as soon as possible” to convince both the Assad regime and the opposition to accept the plan laid out in Geneva last year for a negotiated end to the conflict.

“We believe that the Geneva communiqué is the important track to end the bloodshed in Syria,” Mr Kerry said, describing the agreement as a road-map to a “new Syria”. He added that the conference should take place “as soon as is practical – possibly and hopefully by the end of the month”.

Mr Lavrov said after the meeting: “We agreed that Russia and the United States will encourage both the Syria government and opposition groups to find a political solution.”

The Obama administration, which has been trying to get Russia to loosen its support for the Syrian regime, will regard the announcement of the conference as a breakthrough. However, it could be a struggle to convince both the Assad regime and the opposition to attend.

The Geneva plan stipulates the transfer of authority to a government made up of opposition and government representatives, but it has been interpreted differently by the US and Russia. Washington argues this means Mr Assad must step aside, an understanding that has not hitherto been shared by Moscow.

By contrast, Mr Obama, speaking on Tuesday during a press conference with Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president who was making her first visit to the US, struck a far more belligerent tone.

Accused of prevaricating after evidence emerged suggesting chemical weapons had been used in Syria – a development he once warned would cross a “red line” – the US president defended waiting for confirmation of what had happened, invoking the memory of intelligence failures about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to say that he did not make decisions based on what was “perceived”.

“We tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn’t work out well,” Mr Obama said.

The disclosure last month that US intelligence believes chemical weapons have been used on a small scale in Syria has put Mr Obama in a bind.

Last August he warned Mr Assad, who has been fighting a democratic movement turned civil insurrection for more than two years, that using chemical weapons would “change my calculus”.

But Mr Obama clearly does not want to become involved in another war in the Middle East, and public opinion remains strongly opposed to any new intervention in the region.

His administration has been providing humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid, such as night vision goggles, to the Syrian opposition and is now reportedly considering providing arms to well vetted groups. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and millions of people have fled their homes.

Republicans in Congress and liberal interventionists have been urging Mr Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and to consider air strikes on key Assad regime assets.

But the president warned critics on Tuesday that his careful approach had paid off before.

“I would just point out that there have been several instances during the course of my presidency where I said I was going to do something, and it ended up getting done,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “And there were times when there were folks on the sidelines wondering why hasn’t it happened yet and what’s going on and why didn’t it go on tomorrow.”

But he added that his considered actions in Pakistan and Libya resulted in the deaths of the al-Qaeda leader and, indirectly, of the former Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi.

“In the end, whether it’s Bin Laden or Gaddafi, if we say we’re taking a position . . . the international community has a pretty good sense that we typically follow through on our commitments,” Mr Obama said.

Bin Laden was killed during an audacious raid that Mr Obama ordered on a house in Pakistan, while Gaddafi was killed by his opponents after being chased out of Tripoli during a US-backed mission.

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