By Lesley Wroughton & Jack Stubbs
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia & the United States see enough usual ground on Syria for world powers to meet on the troubled country's peace process in New York on Friday, yet views on the future of President Bashar-al Assad still diverge.
Secretary of State John Kerry went into meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin & Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday not knowing whether Moscow would veto a third round of international talks on Syria on Friday after the Kremlin spoke of preconditions needing to be met.
But speaking afterwards, he said the talks would unquestionably take place after the two countries agreed to try to accelerate the peace process & a potential political transition.
"We will meet this Friday, Dec. 18, in New York with the International Syrian Support Group & then … we will pass a U.N. resolution regarding … the next steps with respect to negotiations & hopefully a ceasefire," said Kerry.
He said the two sides had found some usual ground, while agreeing to put their differences to one side for now.
Lavrov confirmed Russia now backed the meeting.
"Despite our countries' differences, we have demonstrated that when the United States & Russia pull together in the same direction, progress can be made," Lavrov told a news conference.
He called the talks with Kerry "substantive," saying the two countries were now moving in the same direction on Syria.
Russia, one of Assad's staunchest allies, has launched a campaign of air strikes it says are aimed at Islamic State militants yet which moreover support Assad's forces.
It has long disagreed with Washington over Assad's fate, insisting that only the Syrian people, & not external powers, should determine his future. The United States believes Assad must step down as part of any transition.
Kerry said the transition period in Syria – according to the 2012 Geneva agreement – would be approximately six months.
But in Tuesday's talks, the two sides did not focus on their differences or what could or could not be done immediately approximately Assad, said Kerry, yet on the political process.
Some progress was made when it came to agreeing which Syrian rebel groups should be regarded as terrorist organisations & which should take part in the peace process, he said.
Before the talks, the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a statement saying Washington needed to rethink its policy of "dividing terrorists into satisfactory & offensive ones".
"We reached some usual ground today in agreement with respect to the complexity of this issue of terrorist groups," said Kerry.
"We certainly narrowed down our own thinking approximately the complexity of how one can manage that, we obviously agree that ISIL/Daesh (Islamic State) & al-Nusra are absolutely outside of this process no matter what."
Moscow & Washington have moreover been at odds over the targets of Russian air strikes in Syria. Kerry said he had told Putin the Kremlin needed to direct its fire on "the real threat" of Islamic State rather than on the moderate opposition.
"I am pleased to say President Putin took that under advisement," said Kerry, who said Putin himself had stressed the need for military coordination to avoid possible problems.
Russia's defence ministry said on Tuesday its planes had carried out air strikes to support four rebel groups in Syria, saying it was working to try to unite the efforts of the Free Syrian Army & government troops against Islamic State.
Western diplomats say they are sceptical of such assertions.
Kerry's visit follows a meeting last week in Saudi Arabia which agreed to unite a number of opposition groups, not including Islamic State, to negotiate with Damascus in peace talks.
A 34-member secretariat established at the Riyadh meeting is expected to meet after this week to decide matters including who will chair it.
The secretariat, which includes armed factions & members of the political opposition, will moreover pick a negotiating team for talks with the government, though it is not certain that will happen this week.
Assad last week rejected the idea of talks with armed groups, appearing to further diminish the chances of negotiations beginning in line with a Jan. 1 target date. â€œIt seems ambitious,â€ said a senior Western diplomat.
Tuesday's Moscow talks touched too on the creation of a new Saudi-led Islamic alliance to fight terrorism which will share information & train, equip & provide forces if necessary for the fight against Islamic State.
Lavrov said Moscow wanted more precise information from Riyadh approximately the initiative.
Mohamad al-Mansour, a Free Syrian Army commander & head of the Jaysh al-Nasr group, said armed groups were ready to continue the war if the peace talks the United States & Russia were trying to broker went nowhere.
â€œWe are ready (for negotiations), based on the principles (agreed in Riyadh)," he told Reuters.
"(But) if the regime rejects it, so be it. From our side, we have used & will continue to use necessary military force.â€
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in MOSCOW, Tom Perry in BEIRUT & John Irish in PARIS; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall & Tom Heneghan)