Obama pushes for Syria talks, but warns of major challenges
The potential peace conference to bring Syrian government and rebels to the negotiating table may slide to early June, U.S. State Department spokeswoman says.
U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Monday to work to bring the Syrian government and rebels to the negotiating table in Geneva in coming weeks but warned that it will be hard to get the situation under control in Syria's civil war.
Even as Obama backed a new joint U.S.-Russian effort to seek a diplomatic solution in Syria, he cited an array of obstacles to a credible peace process, including the involvement of Iran, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front in the two-year-old conflict.
The potential peace conference may slide to early June, U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday. Noting that Secretary of State John Kerry last week said the conference could be held by the end of May, the spokeswoman told reporters, "It looks like it will slip past that to possibly early June. I don't have an exact date at this point."
Obama, holding a joint White House news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, injected a note of caution after Washington and Moscow raised hopes last week with an agreement to try to arrange an international peace conference on Syria.
With Syria's factional and sectarian hatreds more entrenched than ever and President Bashar al-Assad showing no sign of a willingness to give up power, it was far from clear whether the warring sides were ready to talk.
"If, in fact, we can broker a peaceful political transition that leads to Assad's departure, but a state in Syria that is still intact, that accommodates the interest of all the ethnic groups, all the religious groups inside of Syria, and that ends the bloodshed, stabilizes the situation, that's not just going to be good for us, that'll be good for everybody," Obama said.
But Obama said he could make no promises because of what he called a "combustible mix" in the Syria crisis.
"Frankly, sometimes once sort of the Furies have been unleashed in a situation like we're seeing in Syria, it's very hard to put things back together," he told reporters.
"There are going to be enormous challenges ... even if Russia is involved, because we still have other countries like Iran, and we have non-state actors like Hezbollah that have been actively involved," he Obama said.
Obama, who has faced criticism at home and abroad for his cautious approach to the Syria crisis, made no mention of U.S. deliberations on whether to start arming Syrian opposition fighters - something he has resisted during more than two years of civil war - as well as other options under consideration.
"We'll continue to work to establish the facts surrounding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and those facts will help guide our next steps," Obama said.
He has warned that confirmed use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces would be a "game-changer" but has insisted he must have conclusive proof to back intelligence assessments of probable chemical weapons deployment.
Cameron said in a an interview with National Public Radio that Britain had not ruled out taking tougher action against Assad's government, but he later told reporters that his government has not made a decision to arm the Syrian opposition.
He said, however, that Britain would double its non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition over the next year and that it was looking at ways to provide more technical assistance to the rebels.
Obama and Cameron sought to project a united front in seeking a political solution on Syria, but the British leader warned that the clock was ticking.
"The challenges remain formidable, but we have an urgent window of opportunity before the worst fears are realized," Cameron said.
Both leaders agreed on the need to keep up pressure on Assad to step aside and make way for a political transition.
"And that includes bringing together representatives of the regime, and the opposition in Geneva in the coming weeks to agree on a transitional body, which would allow a transfer of power from Assad to this governing body," Obama said.
Obama said he and his aides were working to narrow differences and develop trust with Moscow, which has backed Assad's government in the conflict. "I don't think it's any secret that there remains lingering suspicions between Russia and other members of the G8 or the West," Obama said.
He said he and Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week and secured agreement to pursue a Syria peace conference, were trying "to break down some of those suspicions and look objectively at the situation."