Kerry wants common ground with Russia on Syria

2015-12-15 19:50
US Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. (Ivan Sekretarev, AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. (Ivan Sekretarev, AP)

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Moscow - The United States and Russia need to find "common ground" to end Syria's civil war and restore stability in eastern Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Opening talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before seeing President Vladimir Putin, Kerry said the world benefits when great powers agree in their approaches to major crises.

"Even when there have been differences between us, we have been able to work effectively on specific issues," Kerry said as he began what are expected to be difficult discussions in the Russian capital. "Today, I hope we can find some common ground."

Russia and the US are at odds over the mechanics of a political transition aimed at halting the war in Syria, as well as the military approach to fighting the Islamic State group. The results of Tuesday's meetings will determine whether or not a new international diplomatic conference on Syria will go ahead as planned on Friday at the United Nations.

On Ukraine, the two countries are split over the implementation of a February agreement meant to end hostilities between the Kiev government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov noted "outstanding issues" with the US on the Syrian political transition that is supposed to bring representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government together with the opposition for negotiations by early January. And on Ukraine, Lavrov said the US should use its influence with the government in Kiev to settle the conflict with the separatists by respecting a shaky cease-fire and moving ahead with political reforms in eastern Ukraine.

Kerry praised Moscow for having been "a significant contributor to the progress that we have been able to make" on Syria and said the US and Russia both believe the Islamic State group must be eliminated.

"Russia and the United States agree that this is a threat to everybody, to every country," he said. "They are the worst of terrorists. They attack culture and history and all decency. It leaves no choice but for civilised nations to stand together, to fight and destroy them."

However, ahead of his arrival, Russia's foreign ministry said Moscow would be looking for a "revision" in US policy "dividing terrorists into 'bad' and 'good' ones." It also complained that the US was unwilling to engage in "full-fledged co-ordination" between the two powers' militaries while both are conducting airstrikes in Syria.

Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted the Islamic State, but Western governments claim Moscow is bombing mostly moderate Syrian rebels and is primarily concerned with shoring up Assad.

Assad's future and his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry's conversations with Putin and Lavrov.

Russia has consistently said Assad's future is for the Syrian people to decide, while the US and many of its allies insist that he go, although they have softened their stance somewhat to allow Assad to play a temporary but as-yet undefined role in the transition. Syrian opposition groups, however, demand that Assad leave at the start of the process.

After his lengthy meeting with Lavrov, Kerry took time out for a brief stroll through Moscow's Stary Arbat pedestrian shopping street, stopping at stores including in front of a Dunkin' Donuts, under a light snow and exchanging greetings with Russians.

Kerry's trip to Moscow is his second to Russia this year - he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May - but his first since frosty relations over Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea were exacerbated by Moscow's intervention in Syria in late September.

President Barack Obama has seen Putin briefly twice since then at summits in Turkey and France.

Kerry said "nothing would please us more than to resolve the differences on Ukraine" but there was little sign of a convergence. The US and its European allies have imposed sanctions on Russia for its continued support for the separatists.

Kerry is asking for Russia's full implementation of a February cease-fire in exchange for sanctions relief. That truce called for the removal of heavy weaponry from front lines, a Russian troop withdrawal, the release of detainees and full access for international monitors. But the cease-fire has become increasingly strained.

Lavrov, however, put the responsibility for a resolution squarely on Washington.

"Of course, we would like to continue the dialogue ... on how the United States can assist with the Ukrainian settlement," he said. "Given the US influence on Kiev, it would be a positive factor."

Read more on:    john kerry  |  russia  |  ukraine  |  syria  |  us

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