By Elise Labott, reporting from Jerusalem
American, Russian and U.N. officials are set to meet next week in Geneva, Switzerland, to prepare for peace talks on Syria. Those talks would bring together officials from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and members of the Syrian opposition to discuss a political transition.
Proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they are tentatively scheduled for mid-June. But unresolved disagreements among members of the international community and continued disputes within the Syrian opposition cast doubt on whether the talks can be held so soon, or at all.
Russia is proving to be one of the primary spoilers of its own diplomatic initiative. Even as Kerry flew home from Paris after meeting with Lavrov to discuss plans for the Geneva conference, Moscow announced its decision to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles, and their delivery could improve al-Assad's chances of retaining power.
At best, a move of weapons to the regime to further its violence against the Syrian people casts doubt on Russia's stated intention of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Moscow has argued that sending the advanced weaponry to Syria would deter "hotheads interested in military intervention in the conflict."
"We are against foreign military intervention in Syria, so to the extent those systems, if deployed in Syria, can deter foreign military intervention, I think it will help focus minds on a political settlement," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour this week.
Churkin said the missiles are part of a contract with Syria that preceded the conflict and are "specifically designed not to be a part of any kind of a domestic confrontation or domestic civil war."
At the State Department on Friday, Kerry urged Russia not to deliver the weapons "in the interest of making this peace process work."
"Whether it's an old contract or not, it has a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region, and it does put Israel at risk," Kerry said. "And it is not - in our judgment - responsible because of the size of the weapon, the nature of the weapon and what it does to the region in terms of Israel's security."
The Russian announcement came on the heels of a decision by the European Union that it would lift the arms embargo on the Syrian rebels, a move pushed by Britain and France. European diplomats, however, said they did not expect any European shipment of arms to Syrian rebels within the next several months.
The move, the diplomats said, was meant to increase pressure on al-Assad to negotiate at the Geneva talks, making clear to both the regime and Russia that the EU would not allow the rebels to be defeated. But the Russian decision to go ahead with sophisticated weapons transfers suggest the European plan may have backfired and could see the conflict escalate even further.
Washington and Moscow still have additional differences about Geneva. One of the main sticking points is whether Iran should attend. Russia is pushing for Iranian participation. Lavrov, after meeting with Kerry, suggested as much when he said the guest list "could be expanded to involve all key outside players who have influence on the situation on the ground."
But the United States has argued that Iranian military support for the Syrian regime and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah make Iran more part of the problem with ending the conflict than part of the solution. The United States estimates thousands of Hezbollah fighters are fighting for al-Assad and maintains Iran has sent members of its Quds force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to help the regime.
On Friday, Kerry said, "The Iranians have said they welcome this conference. Well if they do, they need to show it in other ways than sending their forces across the border, being the only nation in the world to have their fighters on the ground in an organized state-supported way."
Even if the hosts of the proposed Geneva talks could get on the same page, it remains to be seen whether Syria's fractious opposition groups can overcome their persistent divisions. The regime already said it would attend the proposed talks. But the Syrian National Coalition, the main rebel umbrella group, said it would not participate in the talks in Geneva until the international community intervened to end the siege in Qusayr, a town in Homs province near the Lebanese border. The coalition has insisted that al-Assad must step down from power and be excluded from the political process.
The National Coalition wrapped up six days of talks in Istanbul, Turkey, unable to unite disparate elements of the opposition. The group could not agree on including more moderates into its ranks, frustrating the United States, European and Arab nations seeking to curb the rising influence of Islamists.
When asked when the Geneva conference could reasonably take place, a senior Obama administration official said, "It all depends on whether there is an opposition delegation to attend."
Both the international and internal divisions point to a drawn-out political process, one that al-Assad could exploit militarily with Russian support. The Syrian conflict, now in its 26th month, is likely to drag on - which is why Fred Hof, who recently stepped down as the State Department's coordinator planning for a Syrian transition, warned against clinging exclusively to open-ended peace talks.
"For a long time after Vietnam, our government was paralyzed with doubt; we are seeing that process again in the wake of the catastrophic war in Iraq," Hof told a conference Wednesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "We have a government that believes that whatever we do, it can only make things worse. What this ignores is how bad things are now."