Responding to appeals from Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart, Syrian opposition leaders reversed course Monday and agreed to attend an international summit to address the ongoing violence that has ravaged Syria for almost two years.
Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib announced on Facebook that the group will attend Thursday’s meeting in Rome after Washington and London offered more aid to the war-torn country. Opposition leaders initially said they would boycott the conference because the two western governments had refused to provide them weapons to aid their battle with the regime in Damascus and had, in their view, failed to issue strong condemnations of civilian casualties in Syria.
The opposition's about-face came as welcome news for Kerry, who is facing his initial test as America’s chief diplomat. In the midst of his first overseas trip, Kerry phoned al-Khatib on Monday and urged the group to attend the meeting with 11 western nations.
During a press conference in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry also hinted that the United States could be open to revising the current policy of not providing weapons to the Syrian rebels.
Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recommended arming vetted rebel groups, an idea President Barack Obama ultimately rejected last year out of concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida.
Kerry said the president is currently re-evaluating the steps necessary for the United States to "fulfill our obligation to innocent people, as well as to lead on this important issue."
With the start of the president's second term in office and a new secretary of state, Kerry said "this moment is ripe for us to be considering what more we can do," said Kerry. As a senator, Kerry said military aid to the rebels should be on the table.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, armed by Russia, vastly outgun the rebels. On Friday, SCUD missiles rained down on the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, killing scores of civilians.
"Our policy can’t be static in the face of those events. It will have to change and develop," said Hague.
Also on Monday, Syria's foreign minister announced the government was willing to sit down with the rebels in what may be the clearest sign in the 23-month old conflict that the government fears the steady progress being made by opposition fighters.
But the overture was largely viewed with skepticism by U.S. officials.
"It seems to me that it’s pretty hard to understand how, when you see these SCUDs falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it’s possible to take their notion that they’re ready to have a dialogue very seriously," said Kerry.
Nearly 70,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war that began in March 2011 when Assad cracked down on protestors demonstrating on the streets for more political freedoms. On Monday a bomb blast rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, followed by reports of heavy gunfire.
"What I can tell you is we are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it’s coming," said Kerry.
During his 11-day trip, Kerry is making stops in Europe and the Middle East.
Ayman Mohueldin, Andrea Mitchell and Catherine Chomiak contributed to this report