TALKING: US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks to Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni during their meeting at the US ambassador's residence in Rome on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
TALKING: US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks to Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni during their meeting at the US ambassador's residence in Rome on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

ROME — US Secretary of State John Kerry doggedly pursued his hopes of both ending the war in Syria and bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations on the third day of a whirlwind tour on Wednesday.

Fresh from a marathon day of diplomacy in Moscow, at which he agreed with Russian leaders to organise a conference seeking to end the bloodshed in Syria, the new top US diplomat met for talks with Israeli peace negotiators.

In a surprise move, Mr Kerry announced he would make his fourth trip back to Israel in less than three months towards the end of the month, as he seeks to breathe fresh life into talks stalled since 2010.

All sides were approaching the issues "with a seriousness of purpose that has not been present in a while and we all believe that we are working with a short time span", Mr Kerry said as he met Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the US ambassador’s residence in Rome.

He added they were working through "a threshold of questions" and he would return to Israel around "the 21st or 22nd of this month" to meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Ms Livni, who was accompanied by veteran Israeli negotiator Isaac Molho, praised Mr Kerry’s efforts saying, "after some years of stalemate ... your enthusiasm and efforts could change the realities".

"I believe what you are doing here could create hope in the region, because people somehow lost hope."

Mr Kerry will also meet with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Rome today for talks on Syria and Jordan’s role in the peace process.

During meetings in Moscow lasting into the early hours of Wednesday, Mr Kerry agreed with Russian leaders to convene a new international conference to try to find a way to end the 26-month Syrian conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mr Kerry said they hoped the conference could be held by the end of the month to build on the Geneva accord agreed upon by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria.

The Geneva agreement, which was bogged down almost as soon as it was signed, set out a path towards a transitional government without ever spelling out the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The six-point accord — negotiated by the last United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan — "should be the road map... by which the people of Syria can find their way to the new Syria, and in which the bloodshed, the killing, the massacres can end," Mr Kerry told a press conference after his Moscow talks.

He and Mr Lavrov have now agreed to act almost as go-betweens between the opposition and the Assad regime, aiming to bring the two sides to the table to map out a path to a transitional government.

Washington has soundly backed the Syrian opposition and is expected to make efforts to bring the rebels to the negotiations, despite their demand that Mr Assad must quit before any transitional government can be set up.

Moscow, Mr Assad’s most powerful ally, is likely to try to convince the regime that it must be serious in its efforts to end the conflict. Mr Lavrov signalled on Tuesday, after his talks with Mr Kerry, that Russia was growing increasingly concerned about the bloodshed.

And, in a side swipe at Mr Assad, he said "we are not interested in the fate of certain persons, we are interested in the fate of the Syrian people." But he also reiterated Russian concerns that "the opposition hasn’t said a single word yet that would confirm its commitment to the Geneva communiqué", again saying the rebel coalition was "not representative of all groups".

It was not immediately clear where the proposed conference would be held, but Geneva is seen as a possible venue.

Since the war erupted to oust Mr Assad, more than 1.5-million Syrians have fled the country into neighbouring nations, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, vastly straining the resources of those countries.

Jordan is housing about 500,000 refugees — many of them in the Zaatari refuge camp, which is now the country’s fourth-largest city — who have escaped the violence in Syria, in which about 70,000 people have been killed.

At the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would fly to the Russian resort of Sochi tomorrow to discuss the Syrian conflict with President Vladimir Putin. The trip was confirmed by the Kremlin, which said in a statement that Mr Cameron would be on a "working visit", without giving further details.

Mr Cameron added that the "room for doubt" whether or not the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons against rebels, including the nerve agent sarin, "continues to diminish".

"There’s an urgent need to start a proper negotiation to force a political transition and to bring this conflict to an end, and I will be flying to Sochi on Friday to meet with President Putin to discuss this issue further," Mr Cameron said.

He added: "There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons including sarin, and the room for doubt about this continues to diminish." Mr Cameron said he discussed the Syrian crisis with Mr Kerry on Wednesday.

Russia is the most powerful ally of Mr Assad, and Washington, London and other western powers want Mr Putin to use his influence to help end the bloodshed. Mr Cameron’s trip to Russia has been planned for several weeks, but was subject to a media blackout.

Sapa-AFP