US-Russia Talks Focus on Syria, IS, Ukraine

Pamela Dockins
Saying the first two rounds of talks on a political transition in Syria are a “strong beginning,” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Russia have the ability to make a “significant difference” in Syria’s crisis.
He commented Tuesday at the start of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.Putin, speaking through a translator, said the United States and Russia, together, were looking for ways out of the most “urgent crises.” The two officials are also expected to discuss the unrest in Ukraine and combating Islamic State militants in Syria.

Earlier, Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, during Kerry’s second trip to Moscow this year.

«Even though there have been differences between us,» said Kerry, «we have been able to work effectively on specific issues.»He said Russia had made a significant contribution to the dialogue on the Iran nuclear agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ahead of a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 15, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ahead of a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 15, 2015.

Speaking through a translator, Lavrov said he wanted to continue the dialogue initiated earlier by President Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama on how the United States could assist in «Ukrainian settlement.»

Kerry traveled to Moscow from Paris, where he took part in a French-led ministerial meeting on Syria and the Islamic State.

Before his departure for Moscow, a senior State Department official said Kerry intended to use the visit to Russia to help frame the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which is expected to take place Friday in New York.

Russia is part of the group, which has laid out a broad plan calling for a political transition in Syria. But the United States and Russia have been at odds over Russia’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

FILE - Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Venezuela's state-run Telesur network, in Damascus, Syria.

FILE – Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Venezuela’s state-run Telesur network, in Damascus, Syria.

Gaps remain

The United States has said Assad should not be part of any long-term political solution for the country.

A U.S.-led coalition and Russia have each launched airstrikes against militant targets in Syria.But the United States has repeatedly criticized Russian efforts, saying most of its strikes have not targeted the so-called Islamic State extremists.

In a sign that U.S.-Russia relations remain strained over airstrikes in Syria, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson (Maria Zakharova) said Tuesday U.S. “surgical” strikes against Islamic State should not boil down to “plastic surgery,” which only masks the problem without solving it.

Monday, Obama said, “We need to be smart, targeting ISIL, surgically, with precision.”

Representatives of Syrian opposition groups met last week in Riyadh and agreed on a broad plan that includes holding talks on a political transition with Assad’s government in early January.But it remains unclear if Assad will cooperate with the plan.

The official also said Kerry would discuss a possible cease-fire in Syria with Russian officials and again raise U.S. concerns that Russia needs to focus its military operation on Islamic State militants.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s comments about the Kerry visit were measured.

«The situation surrounding the Russian-American relationship remains complicated,» the ministry said. «Russia has consistently pointed to the need to observe the principles of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference.»

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pays his respects at a memorial honoring dozens of demonstrators killed during 2013-1014 anti-government protests in Kyiv, in Ukraine's capital, Dec. 7, 2015.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pays his respects at a memorial honoring dozens of demonstrators killed during 2013-1014 anti-government protests in Kyiv, in Ukraine’s capital, Dec. 7, 2015.

No deals on Ukraine

The State Department official also said Kerry would discuss efforts to get full implementation of the Minsk agreement, which includes a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and a withdrawal of heavy weapons by the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists.

He said Kerry would address «challenges» in recent weeks in enforcing a cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels.

There have been reports Russia is considering using its clout with Assad to get relief from U.S. and European sanctions that were imposed for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. But the State Department official said the United States has made its position «absolutely clear.»

«We are not playing, ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ here, trading Ukraine for Syria,» said the official.»These are distinct issues with distinct paths forward.»

As Kerry and Russian officials discussed the situation in Ukraine, the State Department released an updated travel warning for portions of the country. It urged U.S. citizens to “defer” travel to Crimea and two eastern regions of the country.

“Russia-backed separatists continue to control areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk,” the warning said, “where violent clashes have resulted in over 9,000 deaths.”

Moscow is the last stop of a tour for Kerry that included talks in Rome on a U.N. effort to unite Libya’s fractured government.

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