Kerry Heads To Moscow For Tough Syria, Ukraine Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters following a meeting with France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sidelines of the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris on Friday Dec. 11, 2015. (Mandel Ngan, Pool via AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters following a meeting with France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sidelines of the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, in Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris on Friday Dec. 11, 2015. (Mandel Ngan, Pool via AP)

PARIS — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Russia for talks aimed at narrowing gaps with Russian leaders over a political transition to end Syria's civil war and restoring stability in eastern Ukraine.

After spending last week at climate talks outside the French capital, Kerry leaves Paris on Monday for Moscow, where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday. Before departing, Kerry will attend a French-hosted foreign ministers meeting to compare notes on the results of a conference of Syrian opposition figures held last week in Saudi Arabia that are key to the peace effort.

Two Syrian opposition members said participants at the meeting agreed on a framework that would guide the proposed talks, despite the walkout of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group.

The trip will be Kerry's second to Russia this year — he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May — but his first since frosty relations over Ukraine were exacerbated by Moscow's intervention in Syria in late September. President Barack Obama has seen Putin briefly twice since then at international summits in Turkey and France.

Washington and Moscow are deeply divided over the political process they both agree is needed to end the war in Syria. They also continue to clash over their uncoordinated military efforts in Syria, where the U.S. is leading a broad coalition against the Islamic State group. Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted the same foe, but Western governments claim mostly moderate rebels are being hit and that Moscow is primarily concerned with shoring up Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Assad's future and his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry's conversation with Putin and Lavrov, according to U.S. officials who say the results of the meetings will determine whether or not a new international diplomatic conference on Syria will go ahead as planned at the United Nations on Friday. Russia has consistently said Assad's future is for the Syrian people to decide while the U.S. and many of its allies insist that he go, although they have softened their stance somewhat to allow him to play some kind of role in the transition.

Syrian opposition groups, however, demand that Assad leave at the start of the process — a point they reiterated at last week's meeting in Saudi Arabia — which is supposed to begin in early January once the opposition groups have settled on a delegation to negotiate with the government. At the same time, Russia objects to the inclusion in the opposition of groups it considers to be terrorist organizations that would not be eligible for a cease-fire planned to take effect simultaneously with, or shortly after, the start of negotiations.

One senior official traveling with Kerry said he would be exploring ways to bridge gaps on both the political transition and the cease-fire as well as making the point that Russia's military operations in Syria need to focus on the Islamic State. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Kerry's meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that despite previous similar calls, a lot of Russian airstrikes continue to go toward Syrian rebels.

The official said Kerry would also be inquiring about recent comments from Putin and Russian military officers suggesting that Moscow is supplying the Free Syrian Army, which is opposed to Assad, with air support and weapons.

The U.S. and Russia are also at odds over Ukraine, where the U.S. says Russia's continued support for separatists in the east is destabilizing and prevents any end to hostilities.

The U.S. has been pressing its European allies to continue applying sanctions on Russia because of its annexation last year of Crimea and its support for the separatists.

In Moscow, Kerry will ask for Russia's full implementation of a February cease-fire in exchange for sanctions relief. That deal called for the removal of heavy weaponry from front lines, a Russian troop withdrawal, the release of detainees and full access for international monitors. That cease-fire has become increasingly strained.

The official also rejected suggestions that the U.S. might be willing to ease off on Ukraine if Russia alters its positions on Syria.

"We are not playing 'Let's Make a Deal' here," the official said. "We are not trading Ukraine for Syria."

By MATTHEW LEE - Dec. 14, 2015 11:04 AM EST AP


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