U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has opened the door for Iran's participation in peace talks to end Syria's civil war.
The U.S. has long been opposed to an Iranian role in the so-called Geneva II talks later this month, but Kerry's comments in Jerusalem on Sunday may be the first sign that opposition is softening.
The secretary of state noted that Iran couldn't be a "ministerial partner" in the talks if it didn't accept that the goal of the conference would be to set up a transitional structure to rule Syria if President Bashar Assad agrees to give up power. But, he added:
"Now, could they contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them conceivably to weigh in? Can their mission that is already in Geneva be there in order to help the process? It may be that there are ways that that could happen. But that has to be determined by the [U.N.] secretary general and it has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves."
Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are battling a range of rebel groups, some of them backed by the West. Russia supports Iranian participation in the talks, as does Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy.
As NPR's Peter Kenyon tells our Newscast unit, Kerry's comments appear to soften "Washington's long-held position that Iran must accept all aspects of the final statement from the first Geneva talks on Syria, including the formation of a transitional authority."
The Geneva II talks are set to start in the Swiss city on Jan. 22.
Kerry's comments come as fighting continues in Syria — both between government troops and rebels, as well as moderate rebel groups and those allied with al-Qaida. NPR's Deborah Amos tells our Newscast unit that a newly formed rebel group has declared war on al-Qaida-linked fighters. She says:
"The unprecedented battle began on Thursday, when a new rebel coalition called the Army of the Mujahideen, issued a challenge on Facebook: 'Drop your weapons and leave Syria.' According to activists inside Syria, the rebel alliance has driven the al-Qaida group out of two towns in the north and retaken a border crossing on the Turkish frontier in two days of fighting. The al-Qaida militants, known as ISIS, were once welcomed by rebels and civilians alike who saw them as experienced fighters in a battle to topple the Syrian regime. But as ISIS gained territory in the north, their brutal tactics alienated many Syrians."