Kerry Arrives in Moscow to Seek Syria Talks After Strikes

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to heed their countries’ “very significant common interests” in Syria and redouble efforts to end the war that’s destabilizing the Middle East.

Speaking at a meeting with the Russian leader in the Kremlin today, Kerry thanked Putin for Russia’s cooperation on counterterrorism and the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings, which police say were carried out by brothers who moved to the U.S. from Russia.

Kerry also said the U.S. and Russia can work together effectively over Iran, North Korea and economic issues.

“The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria -- stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere,” Kerry said. “So it’s my hope that today we’ll be able to dig into that a little bit and see if we can find the common ground.”

The U.S. is seeking Russian support to end a civil war in Syria that has killed about 70,000 people since March 2011 and risks destabilizing neighboring countries. Putin, who returned to the presidency a year ago, has opposed any U.S. intervention in the war-torn country and resisted pressure to denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while urging peace talks between government forces and rebels.

Russia and the U.S. are cooperating on the most pressing questions as they seek solutions to the conflict, Putin said.

‘Serious Approach’

After meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said his Russian counterpart was taking a “very serious approach” to critical issues. While the countries have “some disagreements,” Kerry said the U.S. and Russia have shown a “tremendous amount” of cooperation on issues such as strategic arms, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Lavrov told reporters that Russia is “satisfied with the tone and atmosphere” of the talks and that the countries are determined to overcome differences and build trust.

Syria has accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes on its territory in the past week, attacks that may increase pressure on the U.S. to authorize limited use of air power to help oust Assad. During the conflict, Russia and China have blocked measures at the United Nations Security Council targeting the Syrian regime.

Syria Options

Before departing for Moscow, Kerry had lunch at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Last week, Hagel said no decision has been made on whether to help arm the Syrian rebels. President Barack Obama said on May 3 that he doesn’t foresee circumstances that would require putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

While Obama has been reluctant to have the U.S. drawn into the conflict, the administration has stepped up a review of options as it assesses intelligence that Assad’s forces may have used small amounts of the chemical weapon sarin against the opposition. The UN yesterday failed to clear up conflicting claims after a former war-crimes prosecutor said there were signs that rebels, not government forces, had used sarin gas.

The U.S. is also seeking new ways to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the wake of the attack in Boston, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters in Washington yesterday on condition of anonymity before the private talks. Russian authorities have provided productive assistance after the April 15 bombings that killed 3 people and injured more than 200 others, he said.

‘Enormous Challenges’

“There are enormous challenges today that require” the strongest cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, Kerry said today, praising communication between the two sides over the probe into the attacks.

Robert Mueller, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, was in Moscow today “for productive meetings with his Russian counterparts on opportunities for growth in security cooperation between our countries,” according to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

U.S. lawmakers have questioned the FBI’s decision to close a 2011 inquiry into Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected of detonating bombs at the marathon. Russian intelligence agencies had told the FBI in 2011 that Tsarnaev had become radicalized and asked the U.S. for information about him. The Central Intelligence Agency also was provided with the information.

Tsarnaev Probe

The Tsarnaev brothers and their two sisters are immigrants of Chechen descent and came to the U.S. from the Russian region of Dagestan, after having been refugees from the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.

The FBI searched U.S. terrorism and crime databases, conducted interviews and found nothing incriminating, and the Russians didn’t respond to requests for more information, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing intelligence matters.

Because of the FBI investigation, Tsarnaev was listed in a government database maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that alerted the agency when he traveled to Russia in January 2012. Members of Congress have asked how that information was handled.

Obama said on April 30 that Russia has been “very cooperative” since the attack. Kerry thanked Putin for his country’s help in investigating the attack at their meeting today.

Relationship Improving

“There are still suspicions sometimes between our intelligence and law enforcement agencies that date back 10, 20, 30 years, back to the Cold War,” Obama said at a White House news conference. “But they’re continually improving.”

Obama said “we want to leave no stone unturned” in a review to determine whether warning signs were missed by U.S. authorities before the bombings.

The review of how the information from Russia was handled is being performed by inspectors general for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, according to a spokesman for James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

U.S. authorities have said Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, 19, detonated two homemade bombs near the marathon’s finish line. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with two capital counts, including use of a weapon of mass destruction. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

“President Obama particularly feels that cooperation between Russia and the United States with respect to economic issues is something that would be of enormous benefit to both, and Russia’s leadership is so key on so many of those issues,” Kerry said.

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