World powers urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to commit to peace, but warned yesterday that if he fails to negotiate a political transition, they would boost their backing of the opposition.
The stark warning came from a meeting of the Friends of Syria group, which held talks on Wednesday in Amman to try to agree the contours of a peace conference to end the war.
The conflict, now in its third year, has claimed about 94,000 lives.
The US and Russia have backed opposite sides in the conflict, but hope to bring the warring sides together at the conference next month, although a date and venue remain unclear.
“We would call on President Assad to exhibit the same commitment to trying to find peace in his own country. That is critical,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told a joint press conference with Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh ahead of the talks.
After meeting late into the night, the 11 ministers from the Friends of Syria group laid out a grim choice for al-Assad: he and his associates with “blood on their hands” had no role to play in the future of Syria, they said.
If the regime refused to negotiate a transitional government, then they would boost their support for the opposition, they said.
“The ministers also emphasized that until such time as the Geneva meeting produces a transitional government, they will further increase their support for the opposition and take all other steps as necessary,” a final statement said.
A US official would not confirm whether that meant Washington would finally overcome its reluctance to send arms to the rebels.
“All of the countries agreed that the support to the opposition is a tactic that works towards achieving a strategy of securing a negotiated political settlement,” the official said, asking not to be named. “We’ve long said that it’s important to change [al-Assad’s] calculation, and in order to change his calculation, the balance of power on the ground must change. So, the communique states we will increase our support to the opposition and the goal of that is to change the balance on the ground.”
The ministers met for more than two hours, first behind closed doors at an Amman hotel, then holding three hours of talks with the interim president of the Syrian National Coalition, George Sabra and two other rebel leaders.
The communique denounced ethnic cleansing, and “identified as the corner stone of a political solution the formation of a transitional governing body through mutual consent.”
And it condemned the intervention of foreign fighters, including the Hezbollah militants and Iranians backing the Damascus regime.
In another sign of the growing impatience with al-Assad, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said they would seek European support for their proposal to arm the Syrian opposition.