A transitional government should be set up in
Syria to bring to an end the civil war between the regime and the
opposition, but President Bashar al-Assad must be excluded from it,
the top US diplomat said Thursday.
"In our judgement, President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome, on his way back from a visit to Moscow where he had agreed with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to hold an international peace conference on Syria.
Damascus officially welcomed the outcome of the Moscow talks.
"Syria welcomes the US-Russian rapprochement out of its belief in Russia's firm stance based on the United Nations charter and the rules of international law, particularly the principles of non-interference in internal matters and of not threatening or using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state," the Foreign Ministry said, according to the official news agency SANA.
Russia, a key ally of al-Assad, is Syria's main arms supplier.
Kerry said this continued to be US concern, but stressed that it would be "counterproductive" to confront Moscow about it now, rather than during the upcoming peace conference.
"I think we made it crystal clear that we would prefer if Russia would not supply any (military) assistance, that is on record, that has not changed," he added.
Speaking alongside Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, Kerry mentioned sales of Russian missiles to Damascus, saying it was "potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel."
The US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, was sent to Istanbul to hold preparatory meetings with the Syrian opposition, Kerry said. He added that it would be up to the United Nations to set a date for the peace talks, expected to be held in Geneva.
The Syrian government said separately, in its statement, that it had taken steps towards holding a "comprehensive national dialogue in Damascus" proposed by al-Assad.
The Middle East peace process was the other main topic of Kerry's two-day visit to Rome, which started Wednesday. He met Israeli Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and Quartet envoy Tony Blair.
He confirmed he would travel back to Israel and the West Bank "in two weeks" as part of efforts to relaunch peace talks. "We need to be serious about this," he said.
In Cairo, Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi urged all sides to the Syrian conflict to "respond to the joint Russian-US efforts to hold an international conference and use this opportunity to reach an agreement on forming an interim government."
Kerry announced an additional US humanitarian aid pledge of 100 million dollars for UN agencies assisting Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and internally displaced people.
Judeh said his country was hosting 525,000 Syrian refugees, accounting for 10 per cent of its present population. The number is rising by 2,000 per day, and, should the conflict continue, refugees may reach 25 per cent of the kingdom's population by the end of the year and some 40 per cent by 2014, the minister warned.
The Syrian conflict has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people and forced 1.4 million to seek refuge abroad since it started in March 2011, according to the United Nations.
Syria was expected to be at the centre of talks British Prime Minister David Cameron was to hold Friday in Russia. His spokesman said Cameron would urge Moscow to step up efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, said he would push for the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group fighting in Syria to oust al-Assad, to be classified a "terrorist organization" by the United Nations.
"So that there is no ambiguity, we propose to class the al-Nusra Front, which is opposed to Bashar al-Assad but an al-Qaeda affiliate, as a 'terrorist organization' in UN terms," Fabius said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.
The al-Nusra Front is particularly powerful in rebel-controlled areas of northern and eastern Syria.
The group's chief, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, last month pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
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