Kerry says sees opportunity for progress on Syria as he meets Zarif

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New York, Washington and Beirut, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—US Secretary of State John Kerry said he saw an opportunity for progress this week towards ending Syria’s four-year conflict, as he met Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Saturday.

Western officials said Kerry wants to launch a new initiative to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which has taken on a new urgency in light of Russia’s military build-up in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and a refugee crisis that has spilled over into Europe.

The new US approach, which officials stressed was in its infancy, could bring Russia, a major ally of Assad, together with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar that support Syrian opposition groups against Assad.

It is unclear what role, if any, might be played by Iran, which is a longstanding supporter of Assad. The United States has long said Assad must go, but in recent weeks has left open the possibility of his staying in power during a transition.

“I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East,” Kerry told reporters as he and Zarif posed for photographs.

“We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen . . . in the region,” he said. “There are opportunities this week, through these discussions, to make some progress.”

Zarif said his priority for the meeting was to discuss the implementation of the July 14 agreement under which Iran agreed to take steps to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that have crippled its economy.

“We hope that by its full implementation—its good-faith implementation—we can vent some of the mistrust that has existed over the past many decades,” Zarif said according to a US State Department transcript.

Iran is willing to discuss Syria with the United States, a senior Iranian official said.

“To help establishment of peace and security in the region, Iran is a key player. Therefore, we can offer our views and solutions to end crisis in Syria and Yemen or any other regional issue,” the Iranian official told Reuters.

Diplomats have said Iran might consider Assad’s departure but have suggested that Tehran wants him to be succeeded by another Alawite government in Sunni-majority Syria, a position that could be unacceptable to the United States.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main coalition of Syrian opposition groups, opposes any possible solution to the crisis which keeps Assad in power. In a statement on Saturday it criticized any such moves as “marketing” for the Syrian regime by Western countries.

It said it would not accept Assad’s remaining in power whether during or after a transitional period, calling the recent initiatives by the US and others “improvisatory” and adding that they would only create an “illusory stability” that would lead to further conflict in the country.

The statement criticized the build-up of Russian military presence in Syria as “an invasion” and rubbished claims by Moscow that its support for Assad aimed to counter the terrorist threat in Syria. It said Russian involvement would instead further split the country and lead to a continuation of the conflict.

However, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Khalaf Dahud, a senior member of the Syrian National Opposition Coordination Committee, said Assad’s fate could be “subject to negotiation” based on the Geneva Communiqué of 2012, which stipulated the need for a transitional government in the country which could include both members of the opposition and the Assad regime.

Dahud said “a US-led initiative would be proposed soon to secure the safe passage of Assad out of Syria to Russia or any other country.”

Returning US citizens

During his talks with Zarif, Kerry “conveyed the urgency of seeing our detained and missing US citizens come home to be reunited with their families.”

Jason Rezaian, Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post, was arrested in July 2014 and charged with espionage. Two other US citizens are currently being detained in Iran: Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine Corps sergeant.

Robert Levinson, a private investigator, disappeared in Iran in 2007.

According to the New York Times, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who alongside Zarif has been present at the UN General Assembly meetings, told guests at a private meeting at a New York hotel on Friday he wanted both Washington and Tehran to be “helpful” in reaching a resolution on the crisis.

Dan Kildee, a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives, said Zarif told him Tehran and Washington would “continue to have discussions” in order to return men to the US.

Kildee told the New York Times he had spoken to Zarif during an “impromptu meeting,” after he approached the Iranian foreign minister during Pope Francis’s speech at the UN’s General Assembly Hall on Friday.

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