Washington changes tack on regime change

Russia and the United States have agreed to work together to bring the warring sides in Syria to the negotiating table, raising hopes for an end to carnage in the war-torn country and a thaw in frosty relations between Moscow and Washington.

Emerging from hours-long talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that stretched late into the night on Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the sides agreed to convene “as soon as possible, maybe at the end of this month” an international conference on Syria.

The meet will be a follow-up to the Geneva peace conference in June 2012, which called for the Syrian government and the opposition to create a transitional government to steer the peace process in Syria. The Geneva plan got stalled because the U.S. demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as a precondition for peace talks.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry essentially fell in line with what Russia has been saying all along — that Mr. Assad’s fate should be decided by the Syrians themselves.

‘Mutual consent’

“I’m not going to decide that [Assad departure] tonight. And I’m not going to decide that in the end. Because the Geneva communiqué says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties. Who are the parties? The parties are the current regime and the opposition,” Mr. Kerry said.

The U.S. Secretary of State said failure to reach a negotiated settlement would push Syria to “chaos”, “breakup” and “ethnic cleansing” and trigger “wider instability in the Middle East”.

Moscow appears to have convinced Washington that a violent removal of the current regime in Syria will land the country in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.

“One of the threats in Syria is — that has become a magnet for extremists, for people who have already announced their desire to do harm to other people in the world, to align themselves with al-Qaeda, to attack Western interests or other interests,” Mr. Kerry said addressing at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart.

He also said Russia and the United States agreed that “our special services will be in close contact” on the controversial issue of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry called on President Vladimir Putin and their meeting continued well beyond the planned 40 minutes.

“I was impressed by his [Putin’s] desire to try to see us make a transformation [in bilateral relations],” Mr. Kerry said.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have recently soured over alleged human rights violations in Russia and differences over Syria. However, on Tuesday Mr. Kerry said the two countries shared “some very significant common interests” in Syria.