PARIS — The top U.S. and Russian diplomats met Monday to try to accelerate frustratingly slow peace efforts in Syria, where the signs point only to a worsening conflict.
Capping off an eight-day trip to the Middle East and Africa, Secretary of State John Kerry flew into the French capital to see Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and exchange updates on their respective diplomatic efforts.
The United States and its Arab allies are attempting to secure the participation of Syria's fractured opposition at an international peace conference in Geneva, planned for next month. Russia is pledging to deliver Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime to the talks.
But despite claims of progress by both powers, there is little evidence to suggest either side in Syria is ready to halt more than two years of violence that has killed more than 70,000 people. President Barack Obama has demanded that Assad leave power; Russia has stood by its closest ally in the Arab world.
Kerry said the U.S. and Russia each are committed to starting a political transition that "would allow the people of Syria to decide the future of Syria."
"We are committed to this," Kerry told reporters upon conclusion of the meeting. "We both want to make this conference happen, if possible, together with many other countries that will join up."
"It is our hope that we will come out of here with greater clarity about some of the issues that need to be worked on in the days ahead," he added.
Lavrov suggested much work remains if any peace conference is going to make headway, calling it a "very tall order." He also signaled continued disagreement between Washington and Moscow on the participants at the conference, saying it should include more interested parties than previous diplomatic gatherings. It was an apparent reference to Iran, which the United States and the Syrian opposition don't want to see involved in any negotiation.
The one-on-one Paris meeting between Kerry and Lavrov, to be immediately followed by a dinner that includes French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, occurred as Sen. John McCain slipped into Syria Monday to meet with rebels, and at an increasingly dangerous time for the country.
For the past week, regime troops and allies from Lebanon's Hezbollah – and even some Iranian fighters – have waged an offensive in Qusair, gaining ground against the rebels behind intense bombardments of the strategic western Syria town.
Hezbollah's enhanced role poses an assortment of concerns for the Obama administration, with the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, vowing over the weekend that his militants would back Assad to victory.
Beyond providing powerful reinforcements to Assad's regime, Hezbollah's involvement increases the risk of spillover into Lebanon, a country as ethnically divided and fragile as Syria. Two rockets struck a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut on Sunday, raising fears that the country could be plunged back into civil war.
And any conflict with Hezbollah threatens to drag in Israel, which has proven with airstrikes it won't tolerate large-scale and advanced weapons transfers to its northern border. Lebanon's state-run news agency reported one missile fired from that area toward the Jewish state on Sunday night.
For Kerry and other would-be peacemakers, the confluence of developments only reaffirms the need for a serious peace process to begin.
The Americans have stressed that any talks be carried out in good faith and lead to the full transfer of power to an interim government. Logic, they say, compels that this government not include Assad or other members of his government culpable in widespread abuses.
Getting to the talks hasn't been easy. Kerry is waiting for Syria's Sunni-led opposition coalition to unearth itself from a mountain of internal divisions, from adding new representatives to determining how Islamist or how secular to define their movement.
Opposition leaders met among themselves Monday in Istanbul for the fifth straight day. And while they've grappled for unity, they haven't given a firm yes to the peace strategy outlined by Kerry and Lavrov earlier this month.
McCain spokeswoman Rachel Dean confirmed the Arizona Republican met with rebels in Syria. She declined further comment. McCain has been a leading proponent of arming the rebels and other aggressive military steps against the Assad regime.
Russia has achieved, rhetorically at least, greater success. The Syrian government said Sunday it agreed "in principle" to send delegates to Geneva, strengthening Moscow's hand ahead of any direct – and potentially proxy – U.S.-Russian diplomatic negotiations.
With Syria's opposition scrambling politically and militarily, the European Union apparently is moving to bolster the opposition effort.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday the EU has decided to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against Bashar Assad's regime after June 1.
The Obama administration has been mulling a similar step for months. Despite Assad's military advances and evidence that his forces used chemical weapons against the rebels, the Obama administration remains wary about getting too involved.