STATE DEPARTMENT —
Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that in spite of differences with the United States over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has been “constructive” in the multinational effort to find a political settlement for Syria.
Kerry commented on the sidelines of the climate change summit in Paris as he announced plans to visit Moscow Tuesday, December 15, for talks on Syria as well as the unrest in Ukraine.
The meeting will mark his second trip to Russia this year. In May, he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials in the resort town of Sochi.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said the Kremlin “had not ruled out” a Putin-Kerry meeting during the upcoming trip.
The new round of talks with Russian officials on Syria come as multiple efforts are underway, both militarily and diplomatically, to try to resolve the country’s crisis.
On Thursday, representatives of Syrian opposition groups meeting in Riyadh agreed on a broad plan to hold political transition talks with Assad’s regime.
On Friday, the U.S., Russia and a group of U.N. envoys will hold talks on Syria in Geneva. State Department spokesman John Kirby said one goal is to try to set the framework for a cease-fire.
At a Washington forum last Saturday, Kerry outlined the broad objectives of the 20-member International Syria Support Group, which has held two rounds of talks in Vienna.
“Our goal is to facilitate a transition that all parties have stated they support — a unified Syria, a nonsectarian Syria, a Syria which will choose its own leadership in the future by an election that they have all agreed will be supervised by the United Nations,” he said.
Although Russia is part of the International Syria Support Group, there is concern that the overall U.S. effort to bridge gaps with Russia on Syria will be limited.
“I hardly see any common ground between the Russian and the U.S. agenda in Syria, except for a very small window, which is combating ISIS,” said Elie Abouaoun, Middle East Program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Progress on Ukraine falters
Kerry’s visit to Moscow also comes as a fragile cease-fire between the Ukraine government and Russian-backed militants is fraying.
“There has been an increase in incidents since the first of September — several hundred cease-fire violations on both sides, but predominately on the Russian side,” said Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army Europe commander.
At a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels this month, Kerry repeated a U.S. call for Russia to fully abide by a multinational agreement to halt the war in eastern Ukraine and withdraw heavy weapons from the country.
Concern about Libya, IS
Ahead of his trip to Moscow, Kerry will travel to Rome on Sunday, December 13, for talks on unrest in Libya.
There is growing international concern that the Islamic State is taking advantage of Libya’s lack of a unity government to strengthen its foothold in the country.
The State Department said Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni would co-chair a December 13 ministerial meeting on Libya.