PARIS — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Syria’s government is considering opening humanitarian access and a prisoner exchange in the run-up to a peace conference that would bring together the opposition and the leadership for the first time.
Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry met Monday in Paris in a second day of talks to raise pressure on Syria’s opposition to attend the peace conference, which is scheduled to begin in just over a week in Switzerland.
Kerry said he and Lavrov, who last year hammered out an agreement that saw Syrian President Bashar Assad give up chemical weapons, agreed on the need to press for humanitarian access, a cease-fire and a prisoner exchange.
Assad has agreed to send a delegation, but there are still questions as to whether the Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition will attend. The groups influence has eroded significantly over the course of the conflict as it has struggled with chronic infighting, international pressure and disagreement over whether to negotiate with Assad.
However, on Sunday the foreign ministers gathered in Paris urged coalition President Ahmed al-Jarba to deliver his group to the Switzerland talks and finally meet face-to-face with the government it hopes to overthrow. Kerry said he was confident the coalition would be at the talks, and hinted at a diplomatic backlash from its allies if it skips the meetings.
“I think they understand the stakes,” Kerry told reporters Sunday. “But I’m not going to get into consequences other than to say it’s a test of the credibility of everybody, and it’s why I am confident that they will be there. Because I think they understand that.”
Al-Jarba, who will meet again with Kerry on Monday, tried to put the best face on his coalition’s precarious position. The Syrian National Council will vote Friday on whether to attend the peace talks but already has agreed to uphold a cease-fire once negotiations begin.
“We have made clear the reality of the situation on the ground,” al-Jarba said. “We have addressed issues, preoccupations and worries that we know exist.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.