World and Nation

Kerry, meeting with Russian counterpart, seeks Syria talks soon

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States and Russia were still working toward holding an international peace conference on Syria and agreed that it should take place “sooner rather than later.”

“We agreed that we are both serious, more than serious, committed,” Kerry said after meeting here in the Brunei capital with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.

But Kerry indicated that there were still differences with the Kremlin over the conference and suggested that it might not be held before September because of the press of other diplomatic business and the practice of European and other leaders to go on vacation in August.

Kerry made his remarks in a statement at the U.S. Embassy here, and did not take any questions.

In his meeting with Lavrov, Kerry also reiterated the Obama administration’s request that Edward J. Snowden, the former security contractor who has fled to Moscow, be returned to the United States. But Kerry said Snowden’s fate was not part of Lavrov’s “portfolio.”

The two diplomats met on the margins of a conference that was hosted by Southeast Asian nations.

Kerry first sought the Kremlin’s backing for the Syrian peace conference, to be held in Geneva, during a May trip to Moscow. At that time, Kerry indicated that the gathering, which would bring together the Syrian opposition with representatives of the government of President Bashar Assad, might take place by the end of May.

But the push for the peace conference was almost immediately overtaken by events as the Assad government, drawing on arms supplied by Iran and fighters from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group, made gains on the battlefield.

A weakened Syrian opposition faced the prospect of attending a conference to negotiate with representatives of a reinvigorated Assad government. Gen. Salim Idris, the senior rebel commander, said in early June that the opposition would not attend unless the additional arms were sent to the rebels.

Since then, President Barack Obama decided to covertly supply light arms, ammunition and possibly anti-tank weapons to the Syrian opposition, an administration official said last month.

Still, questions remain whether the steps taken by the United States and its partners are sufficient to tilt the military balance in Syria and whether the conference can achieve its main goal of fostering a political transition to a post-Assad government if Assad still believes he can prevail.