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January 16, 2014

Kerry Slams Syrian Efforts to Change Focus of Geneva Peace Talks

by Scott Stearns

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is urging opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join peace talks planned for Switzerland next week. Kerry is pushing back against efforts by the Assad government to change the focus of those talks from forming a transitional government to fighting terrorism.

International efforts to stop the fighting in Syria focus on forming a broad transitional government.

But President Assad says he is sending delegates to next week's talks in Switzerland not to give up power but to fight terrorists, among whom he includes the armed opposition.

Secretary Kerry says that is an effort to "rewrite history" by undermining the peace process before it even begins.

"It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive power established by mutual consent." said Kerry.

President Assad's move to shift that focus reflects the far stronger position he is in now than when this process began, says former U.S. ambassador Adam Ereli.

"He and his supporters had a reason to talk to people about how to end the violence. They're not on the ropes [losing] anymore. They're on the ascendancy. They're in control of most of the country," said Ereli. "What reason in the world do they have to talk about a transition?"

Fighting between the main rebel Free Syrian Army and more extremist militias affiliated with al-Qaida helps justify President Assad's push to focus on terrorism, says U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann.

"From the regime's perspective, the more they can change the terms of the negotiations, the better off they'll be. But the further they go in that direction, the less value there is for the opposition in even showing up," said Heydemann.

With the main opposition coalition due to vote Friday on whether to attend these talks, Kerry urged them not to miss the opportunity to form a new government where all members must be agreed to by both sides.

"Any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side - whether President Assad or a member of the opposition - cannot be a part of the future," he said.

But President Assad's biggest supporters - Russia and Iran - do not accept the presumption of an end to Assad rule, says American University professor Hillary Mann Leverett.

"The Russians are completely against that interpretation. The Iranians, another critical player in this saga, are not going to sign onto that. It's really a formula for diplomatic failure," said Leverett.

As fighting in Syria continues, Kerry says the Geneva peace talks are the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and their revolution.