LONDON — Violent extremists seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad may instead have hurt negotiations to replace him, frustrating Western diplomats who continue to push for his ouster as a necessary part of a peace agreement in the Mideast nation's bloody civil war.
Bolstered by infighting among Syrian opposition groups — including some linked to al-Qaida that have jeopardized foreign aid — U.S. officials say Assad has a stronger grasp on power now than he did just months ago, when the U.S. and Russia called for a new round of talks to settle the 2 1/2-year war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Still, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad's recent gains do not assure his future in a new government.
How to persuade Assad to step down will be part of the focus Tuesday at a London meeting of 11 nations from the West and Mideast seeking a negotiated settlement to the war. Kerry met Tuesday morning with the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, during what the top U.S. diplomat called "a very important time."
"We have a lot to discuss," Kerry told al-Jarba as the 45-minute private meeting got underway at the U.S. ambassador's residence in London.
Extremist groups, including the al-Qaida-linked cross-border Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have hurt the credibility of the fractured opposition to Assad and drawn battle lines among once-allied rebel forces.
As a result, that likely has boosted Assad's confidence to resist yielding at the negotiating table, according to a second senior State Department official who spoke Monday on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate discussions more candidly. The official also accused the Islamic State of Iraq of helping Assad — knowingly or not — by hobbling the moderate rebel groups and diverting aid and focus from the battle against his ruling government.
Al-Qaida linked militant groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Jabhat al-Nusra, are now some of the most powerful factions in Syria. Some experts and more moderate rebels blame the growth of al-Qaida linked militants in Syria on meager foreign aid — both money and arms — to moderate rebel groups.
U.S. officials have argued it is difficult to identify moderate rebel groups and ensure that the weapons they are supplied with will not fall into al-Qaida hands.
And moderate groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of rebel brigades, are in disarray. Last week, 65 rebel groups, including many linked to the FSA, announced they would not recognize the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition in what was widely seen as a rebuke to the West for failing to send more support.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday said the moderate Syrian groups need to be reassured that they have Western backing and "we will continue to help them in many ways."
"This is the only way in the end to solve this tragic and bloody conflict in Syria," Hague said. He also told the BBC that the longer the conflict drags on, the more sectarian it becomes, noting: "I am in no way glossing over or minimizing the danger of extremism taking hold."
Several Sunni-led Mideast nations, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have filled the void with aid to Syrian's Sunni-dominated rebel groups. But that has led to questions over whether some of that assistance has fallen into extremist hands — a charge that Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah tersely denied.
"Talking about us supporting radical groups or extremist groups, this cannot be true in any way when we're working with allies closely," al-Attiyah said Monday night at a news conference with Kerry in Paris.
It's also feared that Assad's recent willingness to let United Nations inspectors examine his government's chemical weapons stockpile — a cache that earlier this year he denied even existed — has helped his own credibility and worldwide image. In an interview Monday, Assad questioned the legitimacy of the opposition and said the factors needed for a proposed peace conference to succeed do not yet exist.
"Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people or they represent the country that made them?" Assad said during an interview with Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV. "There are many questions about the conference."
He said it's not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility they would have inside Syria. Assad also did not rule out the possibility of running for re-election as early as next year.
Kerry, speaking to reporters in Paris, said Assad must step down if a peace settlement is to be reached, noting that opposition officials will not allow the Syrian president to participate in a new government.
"There's a human catastrophe awaiting the world if you can't have a negotiated solution," Kerry told reporters Monday. He said negotiations in Geneva between Assad's government and the Syrian opposition are likely to take place late next month, but would not confirm they have been set for Nov. 23, a date mentioned by other officials.