MOSCOW - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Friday, said the attack in Nice showed the growing need for action to stamp out terrorism, particularly in Syria.
Kerry is visiting Moscow in an effort to secure Russian cooperation in anti-terror operations in Syria, despite a breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations over Ukraine, NATO and other issues that have left both sides simmering with distrust.
Thursday night, a man driving a truck drove through a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day along Nice’s seaside promenade, killing at least 84 people and injuring dozens of others. Kerry referred to the “incredible carnage” in Nice when he said something needs to be done about terrorists in Syria, and said the U.S. and Russia were in a particularly suitable position to do something about it.
"I think people all over the world are looking to us and waiting for us to find a faster and more tangible way for them feeling that everything that is possible has been done to end this terrorist scourge and to unite the world in the most comprehensive efforts possible to fight back against their nihilistic and depraved approach to life and death," Kerry said.
He then looked to Lavrov and continued, "And you and I and our teams are in an enviable position of actually being able to do something about it.”
Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin met late Thursday night to discuss the conflict in Syria. Kerry said their talks had been “serious and frank,” but a spokesman for the Kremlin said the two did not discuss direct military cooperation in Syria.
"The topic of direct military cooperation in the fight against terrorism did not figure" in the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “An exchange of information is occurring but, unfortunately we have not begun real cooperation to significantly improve the effectiveness of efforts in the fight against terrorism."
Kerry's two days of talks with the Russians are expected to touch on a wide range of issues; but, leaked reports first published by The Washington Post suggest the top U.S. diplomat is offering Putin something dramatic: a U.S.-Russia military alliance against Islamic State, al-Qaida and other extremist groups in Syria.
Prior to departing for Moscow, Kerry declined to elaborate, but noted he would be meeting with both Putin and Lavrov.
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it,” said Kerry.
The broad outlines of the leaked proposal, a so-called U.S.-Russian “Joint Implementation Group,” amounts to synchronizing bombing operations against extremist groups in exchange for Russian pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States is not presently "conducting or coordinating military operations" with Russians in Syria. "It is not clear at this point whether or not we can reach an agreement to do that."
Washington has called on Moscow to force Assad to cease bombing moderate militant groups and civilian populations and, ultimately, agree to an exit from power. An estimated half a million people have died during the five-year Syrian civil war.
The U.S.-Russia deal, if implemented, would mark a significant turnaround in the U.S. position.
Since Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict last September, Washington has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of using its airpower to prop up the Assad regime rather than Russia’s stated goal of targeting terrorists.
That skepticism still exists. Just this week, U.S. officials accused Russia of bombing two rebel camps housing U.S.-backed rebels and their families; 135 people were reportedly killed in the attacks.
Critics from both sides also point to the lingering diplomatic fallout of the Ukraine crisis, NATO exercises in member states along Russia’s border, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and other unfriendly gestures.
This week, Jeff Shell, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and other U.S. government-supported news outlets, was denied entry to Russia, despite a valid visa and passport. Russian officials later notified him he’d been “banned for life.”
Yet Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign policy analyst with website Slon.ru, says despite the swirl of mutual suspicion, there might just be room for a deal on Syria.
"Moscow wants a political exit from the war," Frolov tells VOA.
The Kremlin, he notes, is facing “diminishing returns” from its Syrian gambit, with rising costs in blood and treasure. Despite Putin’s announcement last March that Russia had achieved its military objectives and would formally withdraw from Syria, Russian combat operations have continued.
So too, have casualties. Russia officially counts its dead at 12, including two Russian helicopter pilots shot down by IS militants in Syria last week. Outside experts suggest the numbers are significantly higher.
"The Kremlin knows that to defeat the insurgency would require a magnitude Russians have no stomach for," says Frolov.
"If casualties mount, it would be very hard to deny they're stuck," he says. "And they're stuck."