Syria’s Assad must go, Kerry insists

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Thursday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will have to step down as part of any political solution in Syria, as he held a third day of talks on the bloody conflict.

Speaking as he met Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Kerry said all sides were working to “effect a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgment President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government.”

Kerry also officially unveiled $100 million in additional U.S. humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, almost half of which will go to help Jordan struggling to cope with a tide of people fleeing the 26-month war.

Washington has now pledged some $510 million dollars in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and a further $250 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

But the brutal conflict is taking a heavy toll, with some 2,000 people flooding into Jordan every day, and the country now hosts some 525,000 refugees, Judeh said at the start of the talks in Rome.

“We have 10 percent of our population today, in the form of Syrian refugees. It is expected to rise to about 20 to 25 percent given the current rates by the end of this year, and possibly to about 40 percent by the middle of 2014,” he said.

“No country can cope with the numbers as huge as the numbers I've just described,” he warned.

Plans for an international conference to try to find a solution to the crisis were also continuing, Kerry said, after he agreed Tuesday in Moscow talks that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would work in tandem on the issue.

There is a “very positive response and a very strong desire” to find a way forward, he said after a round of telephone calls with foreign ministers.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon had also been in touch, so “we are going to forge ahead very, very directly to work with all of the parties to bring that conference together,” Kerry added.

It is hoped the conference, aimed at finding a path towards a transitional government in Syria based on the six-point Geneva accord agreed last June, could be held by the end of May. Although no venue has yet been identified, the Swiss city could again host the talks.

U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, meanwhile also met with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul on Wednesday to discuss the way forward, Kerry said.

Since the war erupted to oust Assad, more than 1.5 million Syrians have fled the country into neighboring nations, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, vastly straining their resources.

Up to four million more could be displaced within the country as they seek to flee the fierce fighting, which has already claimed some 70,000 lives.

Up for discussion

Kerry and Judeh were also set to discuss efforts to revive the Middle East peace process, with the U.S. secretary of state set to return to Israel for his fourth visit at the end of May.

Jordan, which is one of only two countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, would play a key role going forward, Kerry said, adding it had also been instrumental in bringing together the Arab League to help kick start the process.

But Kerry warned time was of the essence.

“Each day that goes by in the Middle East always brings the ability for someone, somehow, to create events that always threaten the ability of the process to continue smoothly,” he said.

Jordan’s Judeh also referred to a row after Israeli police briefly detained a senior Islamic cleric, Jerusalem Mufti Mohammed Hussein, on Wednesday for questioning on an incident at the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound.

“Jerusalem has to be the symbol of peace and I think Jerusalem is a very, very important component of all the final status discussions that will take place,” he said.

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