Moscow, Russia, Dec 16 – The United States and Russia agreed to plough on with efforts to halt Syria’s brutal civil war, with a fresh round of international crisis talks set for this week in New York.
After a three-hour meeting in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State John Kerry, the two sides appeared to be a step closer to each other’s positions on Syria, though differences remained on the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
In a stark reminder of the urgency of the quest — and even as the US envoy and the Kremlin leader were meeting Tuesday — a monitoring group said suspected Russian air strikes killed 34 Syrian civilians.
“We support the idea of convening in New York another meeting of the International Syria Support Group at the ministerial level this Friday, December 18,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the talks, which also touched on counterterrorism and Ukraine.
He and Kerry said the New York negotiations would lead to a UN Security Council resolution to underpin the process aimed at brokering a ceasefire and political talks between Assad’s regime and Syria’s armed opposition.
“We discussed today in great detail the need to accelerate the effort,” Washington’s top diplomat said.
“You can’t defeat Daesh without also de-escalating the fight in Syria,” he said, using another name to refer to the jihadist Islamic State group.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby predicted “the same level of activity and energy” at the New York talks as in two previous rounds among the 17 nations involved in Vienna.
– Focus on political process –
Kerry and Lavrov admitted differences remained between Washington and Moscow on Assad’s fate, but stressed they would not let those ruin the political talks.
“What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to lead the future Syria,” Kerry said.
“But we focused today not on our differences about what can and can’t be done immediately about Assad; we focused on the political process whereby Syrians will be making decisions about the future of Syria.”
He also said he had conveyed to Putin Washington’s concern “that some of Russia’s strikes have hit the moderate opposition” in Syria, and not just IS fighters.
“And I’m pleased to say he took that under advisement,” Kerry said.
Washington is relying on the Kremlin to drag its ally Assad to the table for talks with his rebel opponents.
But looming large over the effort is the threat posed by the Islamic State group to spread the carnage beyond Syria’s borders.
More than 250,000 people have died since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, and millions more have fled their homes.
Kerry hopes that if the regime and the rebels can agree a truce, then they, Russia and a US-led coalition of Western and Arab allies can focus their fire on the jihadists.
Lavrov said the two countries agreed to intensify “our efforts in counterterrorism.”
“ISIL, Jabhat Al-Nusra and other terrorist groups are common threats to every one of us and today we reiterated our determination to uproot this evil,” he said, referring to the IS group and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
The negotiations had been in jeopardy after Moscow took issue with unprecedented talks in Saudi Arabia, charging that several “terrorist” groups had taken part in them.
Meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, the rebels insisted that Assad and his aides leave power “with the start of the transition period” set out by world powers in Vienna last month.
– ‘Not isolating Russia’ –
US officials stress Russia has committed to a political transition to end the war and warn that if it cannot get Assad to the table, the Kremlin’s own forces will get bogged down in the fighting.
Russia has dispatched air and naval forces to Syria to shore up Assad’s regime, while the United States and its allies are bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
On Monday, US President Barack Obama again defended his anti-IS strategy, vowing to kill the group’s leaders and win back territory in the Middle East.
US-Russia ties have also been strained over Ukraine, especially over US sanctions on Moscow, but the two sides have tried to bridge the gap on Syria.
“We don’t seek to isolate Russia as a matter of policy,” Kerry said.
“We have consistently said that the world is better off when Russia and the United States find common ground and an ability to be able to work together.”