Kerry to meet Putin on Syria conflict

US relying on Kremlin to drag Assad to the table for peace talks with rebel opponents

MOSCOW • US Secretary of State John Kerry brought his campaign to end the Syrian civil war to Moscow yesterday, where a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide the fate of peace talks.

Mr Kerry first held talks with his usual sparring partner, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the success of his trip depends on the rare Kremlin meeting with Mr Putin.

"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," Mr Kerry said as he sat down with Mr Lavrov. "And today I hope we will be able to find some common ground."

Mr Lavrov, after laying out an agenda that included Syria and the Ukraine crisis, said: "Later today, we will tell President Putin what we have discussed and I hope that your visit will be fruitful."

Washington is relying on the Kremlin to drag Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the table for talks with his rebel opponents on ending Syria's vicious 41/2-year civil war.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

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. And today I hope we will be able to find some common ground.

US SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY

US ally Saudi Arabia is putting together the coalition that would negotiate on behalf of the rebels, with a view to first agreeing on a ceasefire and then launching a political dialogue. And looming over the effort to end the bloody conflict is the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group to spread the carnage beyond Syria's borders.

Mr Kerry said Russia and the United States agreed on the need to fight the ISIS militants, despite differences on the peace process and Mr Assad's eventual fate.

The hope is that if the regime and the rebels can agree to a truce, then they, Russia and a US-led coalition of Western and Arab allies can focus their fire on ISIS.

Washington and Moscow are the key powers in the process, leading talks through the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in cooperation with the United Nations.

Washington and the UN envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, want to hold the next round of ISSG talks on Friday in New York, but Moscow has so far refused to confirm the date.

Moscow said on Monday that Friday's talks should not take place until all parties agree on both the rebel representation and a blacklist of terrorist groups that will be barred from the talks.

US officials have expressed frustration that Mr Assad is trying to set his own rules about which opponents he is prepared to talk to and which are irredeemable terrorists in his eyes.

They insist Russia has committed to a political transition to end the war, and warn that if it cannot get Mr Assad to the table, the Kremlin's own forces will get bogged down in the fighting.

But on the eve of the talks, Mr Lavrov's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "Washington is seeking support for approaches... that don't always correspond with international law".

It added: "We will continue to demand that the US administration revises its policy, which is based on the desire to divide terrorists into 'good' and 'bad' ones."

Mr Kerry is in near constant touch with Mr Lavrov, but knows the road to peace runs through the Kremlin.

"Obviously, he has a chance to meet with Lavrov all over the world," a senior US official said. "President Putin is the decision-maker in Russia. It's important to have a chance to talk to him directly."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Kerry to meet Putin on Syria conflict'. Print Edition | Subscribe