US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow for talks on ways to bridge gaps over possible Syria peace talks, BBC reports. Ahead of his meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Mr Kerry said he hoped to find common ground. Later, he will meet President Vladimir Putin, as the two nations seek to narrow the gap on which groups should be included in the planned talks.
They also disagree on what role Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad should play in any transitional period. The US wants him to stand down, but Russia says only the Syrian people should decide his fate. Russia launched an air campaign to bolster Mr Assad’s government in September. It says it has targeted only “terrorists”, above all jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS), but activists say its strikes have mainly hit Western-backed rebel groups.
A US-led coalition has been targeting IS positions in Syria since September 2014 and does not co-ordinate its raids with the authorities in Damascus. There has been some confusion (to put it mildly) about whether Russia is or isn’t supplying weapons and ammunition to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Last week, President Putin said it was – then, a few hours later, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied it.
On Monday, the chief of the Russian general staff said Russia was supporting the FSA with arms, ammunition and material help (copying Mr Putin almost word for word). But a few hours later a Kremlin aide denied that Moscow was supplying anything.
I used the Tuesday morning conference call with the Kremlin to try to get some clarity. Alas, I failed. This is what Mr Peskov said: “I have nothing to add to what’s already been said. I have nothing to add and I don’t want to explore this subject.” No harm in trying.
Russia has also rejected the outcome of last week’s meeting of Syrian opposition political and armed factions in Riyadh, which it said was unrepresentative and included “terrorist groups”. The meeting produced a statement of principles to guide peace talks with the government. The statement stresses that President Assad and his aides can play no part in any transitional period.
As the meeting with Mr Lavrov began, Mr Kerry said: “The world benefits when powerful nations can find common ground and I hope today we can find some common ground.” On Islamic State, he said Russia and the US both agreed it was “a threat to every country”. “These are the worst of terrorists, they leave no choice but for civilised nations to join together and push them back and destroy them,” he added.
Mr Kerry will try to prepare the ground for a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group – which includes the Arab League, the EU, the UN and 17 countries – in New York later this week. There are some doubts whether it will go ahead, but the US state department denied claims from Russia “preconditions” would have to be met for the meeting to take place.
World powers want negotiations between a unified opposition delegation and Mr Assad’s government to start by 1 January. Mr Lavrov said the IS issue was not limited to Syria, as the group was also active in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. He also said the meeting would cover the matter of Ukraine, with its continued division between the Western-backed government in Kiev and the Russian-backed separatists in its east.
Mr Kerry said: “Nothing would please us more than to solve the problem of Ukraine and move forward on the economic front.” The United States, which supports the Syrian opposition, wants a negotiated settlement based on the 2012 Geneva Communique, which calls for the formation of a transitional governing body. It says President Bashar al-Assad must go.
Russia, which launched an air campaign against Mr Assad’s opponents in September, also calls for the implementation of the Geneva Communique. But it says Mr Assad’s future is for the Syrian people, and not external powers, to decide.
Most of Syria’s political and armed opposition factions now agree on the need for a managed transition, but they demand that the president leave at the start of it. Bashar al-Assad says peace talks cannot begin until “terrorism” is eliminated, and that his departure is out of the question before elections are held.