Peace Negotiations for Syria Ramp Up as 700 Slaughtered

U.S. partners look to Russia, Iran, Hezbollah for next moves.

Secretary of State John Kerry, center, with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.N-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, right, attend a joint news conference at the US Ambassador's residence in Paris, France, Monday, Jan. 13, 2014.
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Diplomatic chiefs gathered in Paris Monday in an attempt to chart a path to peace in Syria, where the three-year-old civil war claimed the lives of almost 700 in the latest brutal violence.

The so-called Geneva II summit is slated to begin Jan. 20, bringing major powers together for a second conference since 2012 in Switzerland in an attempt to broker peace between the Bashar Assad regime and rebel forces struggling for control. It remains unclear whether the Western-backed opposition, which continues to fight against the regime and growing Islamic extremism among its ranks, will send a delegation.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined delegates from 10 other countries for the Paris meetings, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with whom he met on Monday. He hinted at the importance of the Syrian National Coalition's presence at Geneva II, despite continued infighting among the rebel leaders and stresses imposed by extremist groups.

"We've had private conversations and I think they understand the stakes," Kerry told reporters on Sunday. "I'm not going to get into consequences, other than to say it's a test of the credibility of everybody. That's why I'm confident they'll be there, because I think they understand that."

The Syrian National Coalition must play a role in future negotiations to secure a lasting peace, Kerry said.

Experts on the continued fighting in Syria point to strong financial funding and supplies provided to the regime by the Russian government, as well as aid and troops sent in by Iran and Lebanese militant political party Hezbollah.

Kerry was asked Sunday whether the U.S. and its allies would be willing to negotiated with Iran and Hezbollah -- which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group -- for the future of Syrian peace.

"We would engage anywhere with respect to any country that wants to have a constructive impact on that," he said. "If Iran wants to exert its influence -- which is enormous, significant, because it's perhaps the largest patron of Hezbollah -- Iran could have a profound impact on helping to change the dynamics of what's happening in Syria."

He called on Iran to formally recognize the premise of the first Geneva conference in June 2012.

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The meetings on Sunday and Monday come amid heavy infighting in Syria among so-called rebel forces. Nearly 700 people have died in the last nine days as a result of rebel-on-rebel violence, reports the Associated Press.

Much of this violence comes from al-Qaida linked group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. The rise of this organization in the northern reaches of Syria has also been tied to fighting spilling across the Iraqi border, where extremist groups have seized control in towns such as Fallujah and Anbar.

Kerry met with Lavrov early Monday morning, as well as with U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who has previously attempted to broker negotiations in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. The trio discussed the possibility of brokering a ceasefire in Syria, which could begin in localized stages, beginning in locations such as Aleppo.

Kerry also met with a delegate from Jordan, home to some of the largest and most overwhelmed refugee camps for Syrians.

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