DOHA, QATAR — The United States and Russia back opposing sides in Syria's civil war. But they say they are also working together to organize a transitional authority to end the fighting.
The Obama administration's decision to arm Syrian rebels heightens its differences with Russia, which continues to sell weapons to the government in Damascus.
At a Doha meeting of foreign ministers backing the rebellion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington and Moscow supporting opposing sides in this conflict does not mean they are at odds over how best to end the war.
"Neither side is going to back off helping those they’ve chosen to help. We understand that. The key is for us to use the leverage with the people that we’re helping to bring them to the table and achieve an appropriate negotiated solution, and that’s what we’re working for," he said.
Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are leading efforts to bring rivals together in Geneva for talks on a Syrian transitional authority. But while Washington says that authority means embattled President Bashar al-Assad must go, Moscow says there is no such demand.
"I haven't seen significant shifts in the Russian position. Russia has been clear for some time that they would prefer a political solution to the Syrian conflict based on their reading of the agreement reached in Geneva with the U.S," said U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann.
Kerry said he took Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their word that they were working in good faith toward a transitional authority. But he said Russian arms for the Assad army were not helping.
"Russia, while nevertheless looking for this - ostensibly looking for this political solution, has also made it possible for Assad to join forces with the Iranians as well as with Hezbollah and wage this higher-level, higher-intensity war against his own people," said U.S. secretary of state.
President Putin said what was dangerous in Syria was arming the rebels, especially as some of those anti-Assad forces were U.S.-recognized terrorists. Where would those weapons end up, he asked, and what role would they play.
"We are concerned about a political vacuum in Syria," said President Putin, "if some decisions about a change of government are taken now. If President Assad goes today and a political vacuum emerges, who will fill it? Maybe terrorist organizations."
President Putin said he would honor existing arms contracts with Damascus, which could include advanced air-defense missiles. Kerry said there was no comparing arming the opposition with arming the government.
"The Russians will say, 'Well, others are arming the opposition.' And that is true. But the opposition has made it clear that they’re prepared to provide protections to all the people in the state of Syria. Assad, on the other hand, is waging war against most of the people in the state," he said.
U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann said Russian and Iranian support discouraged the Assad government from making concessions toward a negotiated settlement, especially with its recent military gains.
"The regime believes that President Assad must remain in power and must be able to define the terms of negotiation. And so with those conditions present, I think the possibilities for negotiation are limited," he said.
Despite what Kerry called "big distinctions here," he believed Washington can still work closely with Moscow.
"I think they have interests in stability. They have interests in not encouraging extremists to grow in their power. The Russians clearly have longer-term interests in the region," he said.
U.S. and Russian diplomats meet with U.N. officials in Geneva Tuesday on how best to start talks toward a transitional authority for Syria.