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Kerry offers ultimatum to Assad on truce, transition

| Tuesday, May 3, 2016, 8:03 p.m.
Syrian emergency personnel secure a street and quell blazes Tuesday, May 3, 2016, after rockets reportedly fired by rebels hit Al-Dabbeet hospital in the northern city of Aleppo.
Three women were killed and 17 people were wounded, state news agency SANA said.
AFP/Getty Images
Syrian emergency personnel secure a street and quell blazes Tuesday, May 3, 2016, after rockets reportedly fired by rebels hit Al-Dabbeet hospital in the northern city of Aleppo. Three women were killed and 17 people were wounded, state news agency SANA said.

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Syria's government and its backers in Moscow and Tehran on Tuesday that they face an August deadline for starting a political transition to move President Bashar Assad out, or they risk the consequences of a new U.S. approach toward ending the 5-year-old civil war.

But given the various, unfulfilled U.S. threats throughout the Arab country's conflict — from declaring Assad's days “numbered” five years ago to promising military action if chemical weapons were used — it was unclear what effect Kerry's ultimatum might have.

And it's unlikely that the Obama administration, so long opposed to an active American combat role in Syria, would significantly boost its presence beyond the 300 special forces it has authorized thus far in the heart of a U.S. presidential election season. More feasible might be U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia giving the rebels new weapons to fight Assad, such as portable surface-to-air missiles.

“The target date for the transition is 1st of August,” Kerry said. “So we're now coming up to May. So either something happens in these next few months, or they are asking for a very different track.”

The top American diplomat spoke following a meeting between the U.N. envoy for Syria and Russia's foreign minister in Moscow on Tuesday, a day after discussions with Kerry in Geneva. The goal was to restore a partial truce that has all but unraveled amid 12 straight days of bitter fighting in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

Kerry condemned a hospital attack in the city that killed at least 20 people on Tuesday and said the missile appeared to have been fired from rebel-controlled territory. He said the United States rejects violence against civilians, whether it's by Assad's government or Western-backed opposition groups.

But Kerry saved his sharpest comments for Assad and his government's two key military, economic and diplomatic lifelines: Russia and Iran.

“If Assad does not adhere to this, there will clearly be repercussions,” Kerry warned. “One of them may be the total destruction of the cease-fire and then go back to war. I don't think Russia wants that. I don't think Assad is going to benefit from that.”

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