ATP - Russian support for the government in Syria and separatist rebels in Ukraine topped the agenda Tuesday as Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat down with Russia’s foreign minister in advance of talks with President Vladimir Putin.
As Kerry and Sergei Lavrov settled on opposite sides of a table in an opulent conference room in Russia’s foreign ministry, Kerry reiterated the U.S. position that the primary threat comes from the Islamic State fighters both Washington and Moscow consider terrorists, not the anti-government fighters Russia has been bombing heavily.
“These are the worst of terrorists,” Kerry said. “They attack culture, history, and all decency. And they leave no choice but for civilized nations to stand together, and to fight and push back, and destroy them.”
Lavrov said he also was prepared to discuss the “terrorism of ISIL,” an acronym for the Islamic State militants, not only in Syria but their presence in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
But he served notice that Moscow and Washington have widely divergent perceptions of the conflict in Ukraine. State Department officials traveling with Kerry said he will tell the Russians that sanctions will continue until Moscow withdraws its troops and support for separatist rebels in the east, part of an agreement signed in Minsk earlier this year. Lavrov said he hoped Washington could use its “influence on Kiev” to end the fighting.
Suggesting a broader focus for the high-level talks, Lavrov said the Russians also want to “exchange views” on what he called the “Palestinian settlement” of their conflict with Israel.
Kerry is scheduled to meet with Putin Tuesday evening, and said he hopes they make progress in narrowing some of their differences in advance of a meeting Friday in New York to discuss a proposed peace plan for Syria.
“I think the world benefits when powerful nations with a long history with each other have the ability to be able to find common ground,” Kerry said, noting Russia’s role in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran this summer. “And today I hope we will be able to find some common ground.”
Kerry’s messages reflect the contradictory roles Moscow has played in its relations with Washington.
One goal was to tell the Russian leadership that the United States and its allies will maintain punishing sanctions against Russia until it fully implements the February Minsk agreement end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The agreement calls for a cease-fire, a Russian troop withdrawal and the return to Kiev of full control over its eastern border. Even as the deal’s Dec. 31 deadline approaches, the Obama administration says Russia is violating it by continuing to arm, train and equip pro-Moscow rebels.
Kerry’s other, more immediate and pressing goal is to enlist Russian support in pushing a plan to end the conflict that has raged in Syria since 2011. He hopes to keep the momentum going with talks on Friday in New York, shooting for full negotiations between the government and its opponents to begin in January. And he wants Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to pressure Assad to send a representative.
“Part of this process is to have unity eventually, though we clearly do not have it now,” said a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry , where the secretary met Monday night with 10 Arab and European diplomats pushing the proposal for a transition that requires Assad to relinquish power. “How that transition will happen, the role of Assad in that transition, the secretary will go into deeper with Russian leaders on this trip,” the official said.
Publicly, Kerry insists that Russia “is playing a constructive and important role” in efforts to arrange the political transition as a way out of Syria’s civil war.
“Putin is the decision maker in Russia. It’s important to have a chance to talk to him directly,” said the State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s ground rules for talking with reporters.
Washington is frustrated with Russia’s support for Assad, even though it is one of the countries that has endorsed the transition plan, reached a few weeks ago in Vienna. The United States, its allies and most opposition groups insist that Assad must step down for the fighting to end.
To Washington’s consternation, Russian airstrikes in Syria — which Moscow began in late September — are still largely trained on rebel fighters opposed to Assad and backed by the United States and its allies, in effect propping him up rather than targeting Islamic State strongholds. The Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria that are under its control.
“A lot of strikes continue to go in the wrong direction,” the State Department official said.
Although Iran’s support for Assad appears to be steadfast, some U.S. officials and Western diplomats believe that Russia is reluctant to get more deeply involved in a military campaign in Syria and may be softening.
“In our conversations with the Russians, there is a growing recognition that Assad will not be part of the solution,” a European diplomat said.
The Obama administration is trying to make clear in its dealings with Moscow that it cannot expect sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict to be lifted if it scales down its support for Assad.
“We have made absolutely clear on every level, from the president on down, we are not playing ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ trading Ukraine for Syria,” the State Department official said. “These are distinct issues, with distinct paths forward.”
Yet even as Kerry was in Paris for climate change talks last week, the prospects for peace in Syria made few advances and even suffered some setbacks.
A conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last week brought more than 100 opposition groups and rebels together in a bid to find agreement on a framework for peace negotiations with Damascus, including the demand that Assad must go.
Kerry said the conference was a sign of progress, but others expressed dissatisfaction. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the group was not broad enough and did not have the right to speak for the opposition as a whole. Assad, meanwhile
Assad, meanwhile, said he would never negotiate with opposition groups he considers “terrorists.”
Kerry’s trip to Moscow caps a whirlwind week in which he has lurched from one world crisis to another.
His six days at the climate change conference in Paris went into overtime with a last-minute cliffhanger over changing one word — “shall” to “should” — that toned down the legal obligation for reducing emission targets.
He left before dawn on Sunday for Rome to co-host a day-long conference on Libya, where Islamist extremists escaping the Syrian battlegrounds have ensconced themselves.
He returned to Paris that night for Monday’s talks on Syria, and he was scheduled to fly most of Monday night to arrive in Moscow just before dawn Tuesday.
In between, he marked two personal milestones. He turned 72 on Friday. And he logged travel miles that pushed him past a total of 958,000, breaking Hillary Clinton’s record and putting him on track to surpass Condoleezza Rice next year to become the most traveled secretary of state in U.S. history. One way he survives his grueling schedule is by wearing compression socks while in the air.