MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State John F. Kerry agreed during more than three hours of talks Tuesday that negotiations on ending Syria’s brutal, protracted civil war will resume Friday in New York.
Kerry said they had managed to find some measure of “common ground,” narrowing gaps over military strategy and the mechanics of a political transition to replace the current government in Syria.
“We agreed nobody should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists,” Kerry told reporters in a news conference with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the meeting with Putin ended.
“We are committed to try to destroy Daesh,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.
Despite the warm words smoothing over differences between the United States and Russia, the talks broke little new ground and the two sides remain divided over how a lasting political settlement will be found to the conflict in Syria and what will be the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
Both Kerry and Lavrov agreed that the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, would be included on a list of terrorist organizations that will be barred from the negotiations and will continue to be targeted by airstrikes. But neither gave any hint on whether any other groups might be placed on the list.
“We reiterated our common determination to uproot this evil,” Lavrov said.
Kerry said he told Putin that the United States would work closely with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, “provided Russia directs its fire at Daesh.” He added, “Some of Russia’s strikes have hit the moderate opposition rather than focusing on Daesh.”
But both men made it clear they still have much to accomplish in New York, where diplomats from most of the countries that have pledged to work toward an end to the four-year-old Syrian civil war will seek a cease-fire and a political settlement in Damascus.
In a news conference after his meeting with Putin, Kerry also addressed the crisis in eastern Ukraine, saying that the West would roll back sanctions against Russia when a peace plan known as the Minsk agreements is fully implemented. The accord reached in Minsk, Belarus, in February dictated a cease-fire and measures to end fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
The visit to Moscow was Kerry’s second meeting with Putin this year. He was accompanied by Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; Celeste Wallander, a senior official with the National Security Council; and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft.
The United States and Russia, which are both conducting airstrikes in Syria, are two key players among many nations that back various factions in the war. But they disagree over how and when to start negotiations between anti-government rebels and representatives of Assad. They also have differing military strategies for combating Islamic State militants, who have declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.
The ultimate aim of Washington and its allies is to start peace negotiations by January with a cease-fire that would exempt groups listed as terrorists. That would allow everyone to direct firepower against the extremists.
The United States also wants Assad to step down eventually in a political transition. And opposition groups that met in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last week demanded that Assad step down before negotiations start.
Publicly, Russia has maintained that Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria, and Putin’s spokesman said in October that “it would be inappropriate to talk about a political settlement in conditions when a terrorist threat fraught with Syria’s disintegration and the loss of
its territorial and political integrity is still dominating in the country.”
Assad, for his part, has given no indication that he is willing to go.
Russia has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September, largely to prop up Assad, whose forces were losing ground in the summer. Russia insists that its bombs have been aimed at Islamic State strongholds, though the United States says it is targeting the moderate opposition to Assad.
As the intervention has dragged on, some Russian officials and analysts have signaled frustration at the ineffectiveness of the Syrian army as a partner to Russian air power. In early October, Russian officials said they expected the intervention to last three or four months. It is now predicted to last as long as a year or more.
Some U.S. officials and European diplomats say they have detected signals that Russia might be willing to soften its support for Assad. At the very least, they hope Russia will play a role in persuading him to send a representative to negotiations. Assad, however, has insisted he will not meet with “terrorists,” who he says are among the groups that have been invited to the table.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the formation of an anti-terrorism military alliance of Muslim countries. The 34-nation coalition, which includes Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, will be based in Riyadh and focus on developing joint mechanisms for combating international terrorism, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
The announcement comes amid concern that Saudi Arabia has become so focused on prosecuting its nine-month-old war against Iranian-aligned rebels in Yemen that it no longer is contributing much to the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s foremost rival, is not a member of the new anti-terrorism alliance.
Before leaving Moscow on Tuesday night, Kerry also met with Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, 88, a prominent human rights activist in Russia.