Kerry to Meet Putin in Moscow Next Week on Syrian Transition

  • Visit aims to narrow divisions ahead of Dec. 18 New York talks
  • Russia says no agreement on Syrian opposition, terror groups

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week to discuss moving toward a political transition in Syria as the two countries remain at odds over how to end the five-year civil war.

The visit on Tuesday comes as the U.S. seeks agreement among Russia and other major powers for a meeting that Kerry wants to hold on Dec. 18 in New York to pursue a cease-fire and an interim power-sharing government in Syria. Demands by the U.S. and its allies for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian and Iranian ally, remain at the center of the deadlock.

Kerry will also meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, according to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. The top U.S. diplomat “will discuss ongoing efforts to achieve a political transition in Syria and related efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL,” the State Department said Friday, referring to Islamic State by one of its acronyms.

Ukraine Differences

Underscoring that the U.S. isn’t putting aside its other differences with Russia, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington Friday that “the first item on Secretary Kerry’s agenda” will be Ukraine.

Russia’s continuing “support and encouragement to Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine is destabilizing that country and is undermining their territorial integrity,” he said.

On Syria, while the U.S. and Russia both say they’re conducting air strikes to defeat Islamic State, the Obama administration says the Kremlin is also attacking other groups opposed to Assad, including some supported by the U.S.

Disagreement over which Syrian opposition groups should take part in the peace process, and a list of terrorist groups that would be excluded, is holding up the Dec. 18 talks, said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, according to state news service RIA Novosti.

‘Real Work’

While Russia wouldn’t rule out the meeting of world and regional powers in New York, it needs to be “real work,” and not just talk, RIA Novosti cited Churkin as saying on Friday. A Saudi-sponsored meeting of the Syrian opposition this week in Riyadh, intended to form a united platform for talks with the Assad government, included groups that Russia considers “close to terrorist,” Churkin said.

Kerry said in a statement that the opposition meeting had a productive outcome, “including a consensus on principles for a pluralistic and democratic Syria and on how to advance a political settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”

International talks on Syria in Vienna in November set a deadline of Jan. 1 for dialog to begin between the Syrian government and opposition groups.

Russia’s more than two-month bombing campaign in Syria has bolstered Assad, who controls a quarter of Syrian territory and 60 percent of its population, after almost five years of civil war that has killed about 300,000 people and displaced millions.

While the U.S. and allied nations have tempered their calls for Assad to leave office immediately, “they insist on a date, some kind of time frame after which he won’t continue to exercise his functions,” Russia’s Lavrov said in an interview with Italian media published Dec. 9. “We consider such an approach artificial and against international law.”

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