Lawmakers skeptical of Kerry peace plan

Secretary of State John Kerry's last-ditch attempt to get the warring factions in Syria to strike a peace deal has failed to convince key players on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers who want the Obama administration to take a more active role in the 26-month-old civil war tell The Hill they have doubts the newly announced peace talks will amount to much. They give Kerry credit for working with Russia, but say the administration must be prepared to take action if the talks fail.

“I'm hopeful, because anything that can create a political solution to the crisis is desirable,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). “Having said that, I still think we have to create a parallel track to help the rebels should in fact the political solution not materialize.”

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Menendez introduced a bill last week to arm vetted rebel groups. The top Democrat on the equivalent House panel, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), has offered similar legislation.

Kerry announced plans for the talks during a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow last week. He said Tuesday that the talks would take place under the auspices of the United Nations probably in early June, and that Bashar Assad's regime has given the Russians a list of people they want present.

Russia's public expulsion of an alleged U.S. spy on Tuesday however cast a shadow on the talks. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the arrest of Ryan Fogle and reports that Russia intends to go forward with an existing contract to sell air defense systems to Syria were bad omens.

“It's fine with me to have meeting or gathering or conference or whatever it is,” McCain said. “But the only way that the Russians are going to be cooperative on this effort is if they believe that Assad is losing.

“That's why we should act before any conference takes place... That means a no-fly zone, that means [giving] heavy weapons to the resistance.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the onus was on Russia to see the talks to a fruitful end.

“If Russia decides to join the rest of the world in putting pressure on Assad,” Levin said, “he might decide that he's got no other alternative.”