As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it is time to “reignite a diplomatic outcome” to a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions.
Kerry said an effort is underway to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “change his calculation” and enter into negotiations.
On Monday, Assad said he is awaiting "action" from Washington to match Kerry's words.
"We are still hearing the declarations and we should wait for actions and then decide," Assad was quoted by state-run Syrian media as saying to Iranian television.
But U.S. partner France said Monday there is no place for Assad, who is accused of recurring human rights violations, at the table in negotiating Syria's future.
"The solution is a political transition which would preserve regime institutions, not Mr. Bashar al-Assad. Any other solution that would keep Mr. Assad in the saddle would be an absolutely scandalous, gigantic gift to Daesh," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Brussels, using another name for the Islamic State group.
Gulf states concerned
However, Kerry's comments on Assad provoked alarm and dismay among commentators close to Gulf Arab governments opposed to his rule.
Saudi Arabia, the top oil exporter and main Arab ally of the United States, has long feared that the Obama administration lacks the resolve to tackle Assad and that it is instead focusing on a nuclear deal with the Syrian leader's main supporter Iran, analysts said.
Although there was no immediate official comment from Riyadh, Saudi analysts with connections to the ruling family and conservative Sunni Muslim clerics quickly voiced concern about Kerry's remarks.
“Bashar has no legitimacy after killing his people and driving 11 million out of their houses. How can you sit down and talk to him and keep him in power? It's a big joke for us,” Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center based in Jeddah and Geneva, told Reuters.
“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said Sunday. “We've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference that called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict.
Other Gulf countries, which like Saudi Arabia have backed Syrian rebels against Assad, worried about Kerry's remarks.
“The fact that Assad is still in the picture is something we have lived with and accepted as an interim arrangement. If Mr. Kerry was talking about this same interim arrangement -- one year or two years until negotiations reach some fruit -- we understand,” said Sami al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council that comprises Gulf Arab states.
“But if he means that even after negotiations Assad would stay on, that is unacceptable," Faraj said.
Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said any transition cannot begin in Syria until Assad leave power. Faisal has also accused Assad of committing genocide against Syrians.
Kerry spoke Sunday to the CBS program Face the Nation from Egypt, where he took part in an investment conference, saying it is time to restart negotiations to end the Syrian civil war.
"We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we could reignite a diplomatic outcome. Why? Because everybody agrees there’s no military solution. There’s only a political solution," he said.
"But, to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That’s underway right now. And, I am convinced that, with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad," Kerry added.
Willing to negotiate
Asked if he is prepared to negotiate with the Syrian leader, Kerry said the U.S. has to negotiate with the regime.
Media reports suggested he was referring to Assad. But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf later issued a statement saying that U.S. policy has not changed, adding “there is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria.”
Further, she said, “by necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of’ the peace process.”
Middle East analyst Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania said he believes the warring factions may be closer now than ever to reaching a political settlement.
"Many of the options that people fought for and imagined that negotiations could work in relation to are not now being entertained," Lustick said. "For example, the idea that Assad will simply leave [power] of his own accord with a graceful set of negotiations to allow him to do so, nobody is imagining that anymore.
"So, some things have been accomplished in the sense that some quote-unquote solutions seem to be impossible now. What I don’t think we’re closer to is a negotiating process that would lead to a re-establishment of the Syrian state united across the territory that has been traditionally governed by Damascus," he said.
Analyst Jonathan Adelman of the University of Denver said the Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite factions emerging from the conflict reflect a rejection of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement defining British and French spheres of influence in the former Ottoman Empire.
“This is very much possibly a model for what’s likely to happen in Iraq, a division of a country into its Sunni, its Shi’ite and Kurdish parts, and it’s going to back 90 to 100 years to the Sykes-Picot treaty during World War I," Adelman said. "This is when the colonial powers just decided where the borders [in the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire] were, and in a very, very horrible way these people are trying to decide they don’t want to be part of this Syria, except for the Alawites and some of the Christians.
"They support overwhelmingly Bashar al-Assad, but they’re not a majority of the population,” he said.
Seeking political solution
Friday, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told representatives of the Syrian opposition and members of the Syrian-American diaspora the United States remains committed to a genuine political solution to end the war and restore the nation.
Blinken said the conflict has pushed 80 percent of the population below the poverty line, life expectancy has been cut by 20 years, to 55, and nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced.
He said the Obama administration is asking Congress for another $70 million in foreign assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, bringing the total to nearly $400 million U.S. support since the conflict began.
Blinken said the U.S. will offer additional humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians during a forthcoming Kuwait donor’s conference.
Some material for this report came from Reuters.