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Kerry insists no place for Assad in Syria's future

Men ride a motorbike past buildings damaged by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Dara
Men ride a motorbike past buildings damaged by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Dara

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted on Friday that President Bashar al-Assad has no place in Syria's future and he said the United States had options to step up pressure on him.

Kerry will lead a U.S. delegation to Switzerland next week for peace talks between the Syrian government and rebels aimed at ending the country's civil war. Syrian opposition groups are meeting in Istanbul to vote on whether to attend the U.N.-backed talks in Montreux on January 22.

"I believe as we begin to ... get into this process, that it will become clear there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that future. It is not going to happen," Kerry told a news conference after meeting his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.

"We are also not out of options with respect to what we may be able to do to increase the pressure and further change the calculus," he added.

Despite lobbying by Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia for the United States to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict, Washington has long insisted there is no military solution to the crisis.

Syria sank into civil war after a peaceful street uprising in March 2011 against four decades of Assad family rule. The revolt spiraled into an armed insurgency after the army responded with deadly force to suppress the unrest.

A Middle East security source told Reuters Russia, a co-sponsor with the United States of the Montreux talks, has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs.

Kerry on Thursday pressed Assad's opponents to attend the talks, known as the Geneva-2. The Syrian National Coalition, a fractious 120-member body, is meeting on Friday to decide whether to attend the conference although some of its members have already declared they will not participate because they see little chance of the talks succeeding.

Kerry has emphasized the meeting is a start to a process to forge a political transition and he rejected suggestions from Damascus this week that the talks focus on cooperation against "terrorism".

"They can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions, the bottom line is we are going to Geneva to implement Geneva 1, and if Assad doesn't do that it will invite greater response," Kerry said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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