Russia, U.S. Still Far Apart on Syria as Kerry to Meet Putin

Updated on
  • Talks seek to find agreement on Syria truce, power-sharing
  • Moscow talks take place before proposed meeting in New York

Russia and the U.S. are struggling to narrow differences over Syria as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday amid continuing friction in relations between the former Cold War enemies.

The Kremlin dismissed talk of compromise, with demands by the U.S. and its allies for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian and Iranian ally, at the center of the deadlock over a political settlement aimed at ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country. “Work is going on, contacts are going on, but so far we can’t really say that positions are converging,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Russia is disappointed by “ridiculous” White House comments ahead of Kerry’s visit that it’s internationally isolated, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement Monday. It expects business-like discussions with Kerry and is ready for “constructive cooperation,” though that’s possible only on the basis of “equality and mutual respect.”

Kerry’s second visit to Russia this year for meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, following eight hours of talks in Sochi in May, comes as the U.S. seeks agreement among Russia and other major powers for a meeting on Dec. 18 in New York to pursue efforts for a cease-fire and an interim power-sharing government in Syria. In another conference call late Monday with reporters, Peskov confirmed Putin and Lavrov would meet Kerry.

Target Date

Russia’s bombing campaign that began Sept. 30 against Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria has reinforced Assad. At the same time, the air strikes haven’t achieved the progress on the ground that officials in Moscow expected and the U.S. has urged Russia to change its stance to avoid a quagmire in Syria. Assad only controls a quarter of Syrian territory, though about 60 percent of its population, after almost five years of civil war that has killed about 300,000 people and displaced millions.

International talks on Syria in Vienna in November set a Jan. 1 date for dialogue to begin between the Syrian government and opposition groups. That goal now looks in doubt, with the State Department on Friday calling it a “target date, not a deadline.”

Disagreement over which Syrian opposition groups should take part in the peace negotiations, and a list of terrorist groups that would be excluded, is holding up the process, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the U.S., said Friday, according to state-run RIA Novosti news service.

Transition Period

Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone on Monday at the U.S. initiative and agreed that the New York meeting should happen only if the lists of Syrian opposition and terrorist groups are finalized first, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said.

“In the short-term, the Russians feel they can ride out any American pressure,” said Christopher Phillips, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House research group in London. “Getting the Americans to agree to a transition deal in which Assad can stay on for some time and then seeing who can come in and replace him only after a transition period is Russia’s preferred option.”

The Syrian leader said in an interview with Spanish news service EFE published Friday that his government is willing to negotiate with its opponents, but not terrorist organizations. “We’ve been seeing that some countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United States and some Western countries, want the terrorist groups to join these negotiations,” Assad said.

Riyadh Meeting

A Saudi-sponsored meeting of the Syrian opposition last 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. The U.S. in contrast welcomed the Riyadh opposition meeting as a “milestone.”

While the U.S.-led coalition and Russia both say they’re conducting air strikes to defeat Islamic State in Syria, the Obama administration says the Kremlin is mainly attacking other groups opposed to Assad, including some supported by the U.S.

The U.S. and allied nations have tempered their calls for Assad to leave office immediately. Russia has said their insistence on a timeframe for his departure violates international law.

Assad Departure

While the U.S. has shifted its stance, the talks will be “doomed to failure” if it continues to insist on Assad’s departure because his regime won’t take part, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.

Underscoring that the U.S. isn’t putting aside its other differences with Russia amid the worst period in relations since the Cold War, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington Friday that “the first item on Secretary Kerry’s agenda” will be Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to encourage separatists in eastern Ukraine, contrary to commitments it made in a February peace accord and “that has isolated Russia from the rest of the international community,” he said.

Russia is under international sanctions over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people since April last year. A fragile cease-fire has been in place since February, though this month’s deadline for fulfilling the accord negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, has been pushed back into 2016.

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