By Justin Sink - 02/26/13 02:25 AM EST
Vice President Joe Biden called Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib on Monday to thank the reluctant rebel leader for agreeing to multilateral talks later this week in Rome, as the Obama Administration pushes for a resolution to the bloody conflict that has ravaged the country.
According to a White House statement, Biden "emphasized the importance of the meeting," telling the rebel leader that the summit — scheduled for later this week in Rome — was the best opportunity to solicit international assistance for the Syrian people.
Syrian opposition leaders had threatened to boycott the summit — which was heralded as the centerpiece of Secretary of State John Kerry's first overseas trip — after a series of missile attacks by the Syrian government into rebel-held areas last week. Opposition leaders said they were frustrated that international supporters had not stepped in when the Assad regime launched the attacks.
Kerry, looking to salvage the summit, made both public and private pleas to the Syrian rebels Monday.
“We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming,” Kerry said at a news conference Monday. “We are not going to let the Syrian opposition not have its ability to have its voice properly heard in this process.”
Kerry went on to promise an increase in support for the Syrian opposition.
“We are not coming to Rome simply to talk, we are coming to Rome to talk about next steps,” Kerry said.
Earlier Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the Assad regime would be open to peace talks with the rebels, a potential breakthrough in the conflict that the United Nations estimates has left some 70,000 dead. But the Obama Administration openly questioned the seriousness of the offer.
"If they're serious, you know clearly they can communicate that to the U.N. special representative -- something which we understand they haven't done," said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said negotiations must be preconditioned upon the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"That future cannot include Bashar al-Assad, who has long since forsaken any opportunity he might have had to participate in Syria’s future. He has so much blood on his hands. He has been engaging in a prolonged assault on his own people that has cost tens of thousands of lives, of innocent civilian lives," Carney said.