US Secretary of State John Kerry sought in a visit to Moscow on Tuesday to make progress in narrowing differences with Russian leader Vladimir Putin over how to end the conflict in Syria.
At the start of a three-hour meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said he wanted to prepare the ground for a third round of talks of world powers on Syria, which is penciled in for Friday in New York.
It was unclear whether the meeting would go ahead without progress between Russia and the United States over the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in any political transition and over which rebel groups should be part of peace talks.
Both these issues would be discussed with Putin at the Kremlin later in the day.
“I look forward to making real progress,” Kerry said before his meeting with Lavrov, which was followed by a lunch.
“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,” he added.
Kerry told Lavrov: “Even when there have been differences between us we have been able to work effectively on specific issues.”
Russia, one of Assad’s staunchest allies, has launched a campaign of air strikes that it said targeted Islamic State militants but which also supported Assad’s forces. The Kremlin says the Syrian people, and not external powers, should decide Assad’s political fate.
Lavrov told Kerry there was a need for more effective international cooperation in fighting terror. “On that route there are still questions which today we need to look at,” Lavrov said in his opening remarks.
Kerry described the talks with Lavrov as “good” as he took a break to stroll in a shopping area near the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow where he was mobbed by a crowd who wanted a glimpse of him.
Asked whether the New York meeting would happen, Kerry said: “I need to meet with the president (Putin). I look forward to that. It will be an important meeting.”
The run-up to the Moscow talks underlined the distance between Moscow and Washington on how to deal with the Syria crisis.
For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement complaining that Washington was not ready to fully cooperate in the struggle against Islamic State militants and needed to rethink its policy of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones”.
Kerry’s visit follows a meeting last week in Riyadh which agreed to unite a number of opposition groups, not including Islamic State, to negotiate with Damascus in peace talks.
US officials expect the talks with Putin would be dominated by the list of opposition groups that would join the talks.
Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said it was good in principle that the opposition forces were coming together but he said the devil was in the details.
“We need to understand who precisely has joined this coalition, and what aims they are declaring,” he said.
Kerry’s talks with Putin will also delve deeper into details of a planned Jan. 1 ceasefire in Syria, as well as Monday’s comments by Russia on supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been fighting Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces.
Russia has given mixed messages on the FSA. News agencies on Monday quoted Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian army’s general staff, as saying his country was providing it with weapons, ammunition and material support, while a top Kremlin aide later said there was no such arrangement.
FSA rebels fighting Assad’s forces in western Syria denied receiving any support from the Russian air force, saying on the contrary it continued to bomb them.
Kerry will also underscore the importance of implementing the Minsk peace accords on Ukraine and plans for free and fair elections in eastern Ukraine.