Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and Russia agree that peace talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition should take place "sooner rather than later" but have not yet been able to set a date.
Speaking after a nearly two-hour long meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said that the two had narrowed down options but the actual negotiations could not begin until after August due to scheduling difficulties.
"We have a two plus two meeting between Russia and the United States in July; and obviously August is very difficult for Europeans and others. So it may be somewhere thereafter," he told reporters traveling with him to the Asian Sultanate of Brunei. The latter mention was an apparent reference to the tendency of Europeans to vacation in the month of August.
It was the first face-to-face meeting between the two diplomats since the White House announced last month that the U.S. would widen the "scope and scale" of military support to the Syrian opposition. The Russian government continues to supply weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime, which the rebels are trying to overthrow.
Scheduling is not the only stumbling block. In recent months, the Assad regime has made progress regaining control of territory in Syria thanks in part to the support of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters who are backing the military. The situation on the ground led many - including President Obama - to question whether the Assad regime and their Russian patron are truly interested in finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
In an interview with Charlie Rose on June 16, the president indicated that uncertainty contributed to his decision to increase military support to the rebels.
"And until we see a commitment for a serious negotiation, as opposed to just stalling tactics, I don't want Assad to have comfort in thinking that he can simply continue to kill people on the ground, not engage politically, and that at some point, the international community loses focus," Mr. Obama said.
Thus far, Assad has not shown any willingness to step aside or offer a peaceful solution. The secretary of state acknowledged his own uncertainty in an interview with CBS News on June 24.
"And there isn't, obviously, a lot of incentive for Assad to negotiate at this moment in time, but the Russians have said they will work to bring him to the table as we must work to bring others to the table, and we're going to continue to do that," he said.
Yet Kerry - with the backing of the Obama administration - continues to spearhead an effort to revive the so-called Geneva II process. That is a document drafted in June 2012 and it outlines out a specific, peaceful transition process away from the control of the Assad regime. Following the Tuesday meeting in Brunei, Kerry said he is again convinced that Russia is a partner.
"We are agreed that we are both serious - more than serious - and committed," he said.
Kerry went on to dismiss recent military gains by the Assad regime and seemed to suggest that the provision of military support to the Syrian rebels was not necessarily meant to achieve anything more than a stalemate with the Syrian government. The administration wants to change the balance of power on the ground but the U.S. policy is aimed at rejuvenating peace talks and that political transition.
"Whether the Assad regime is doing better or whether the opposition is doing better is frankly not determinative of that outcome because the outcome requires a transition government and that's why it is valuable to try to get to Geneva," he said. Instead, Kerry indicated that the Assad regime must negotiate an exit and the Syrian opposition must work their way into political power.
Kerry went on to say that neither the U.S. nor Russia believes that there is a military victory that could possibly keep Syria together as a country.
His remarks come at the end of a two week trip by the secretary of state to the Middle East. He spent a good portion of it trying to coordinate the delivery of weapons purchased by Gulf countries to the Syrian rebels.