Kerry heads to Moscow for tough Syria, Ukraine talks

PARIS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Russia to try & narrow gaps with Russian leaders over a political transition to end Syria's civil war & restore 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 & 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.

The trip will be Kerry's second to Russia this year — he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May — yet 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 & France.

p>A U.S. diplomat in Paris, who demanded anonymity to discuss the talks, said a meeting in Geneva on Friday between Russian & American diplomats on Syria was aimed mainly at clearing up Russian "grievances" ahead of Tuesday's Moscow meeting.

A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry aired some of those grievances, saying that Moscow "will continue to seek a revision of the U.S. administration policy based on dividing terrorists into a 'bad' & 'good' ones" & complaining that the U.S. was unwilling to engage in "full-fledged coordination" between the two powers' militaries while both are conducting airstrikes in Syria.

Russia says its airstrikes since late September have targeted the Islamic State, yet Western governments claim mostly moderate rebels are being hit & that Moscow is primarily concerned with shoring up Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, centre, & UN spe …

Assad's future & his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry's conversation with Putin & 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. & many of its allies insist that he go, although they have softened their stance somewhat to allow Assad 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 commence 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 & 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 approximately Kerry's meetings & 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 moreover be inquiring approximately recent comments from Putin & Russian military officers suggesting that Moscow is supplying the Free Syrian Army, which is opposed to Assad, with air support & weapons.

The U.S. & Russia are moreover at odds over Ukraine, where the U.S. says Russia's continued support for separatists in the east is destabilizing & 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 & 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 & full access for international monitors. That cease-fire has become increasingly strained.

The official moreover 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."


Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris & Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Politics & GovernmentForeign PolicyJohn KerrySyriaVladimir PutinMoscowSyrian President Bashar AssadRussia

Source: “Associated Press”

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