Russia and the United States have announced that they will convene a conference by the end of the month to bring together representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition and rebel groups fighting his regime.
The decision was announced at a midnight press conference in Moscow between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who claimed that “we are here to say that we are ready to co-operate”.
It was Mr Kerry’s first trip to Russia as US Secretary of State and he was kept waiting for three hours by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. However, when the meeting did start, it lasted much longer than planned and later in the evening Mr Kerry announced what appeared to be a breakthrough. The logistics of how the conference will work are unclear; Mr Lavrov said it would be aimed at enforcing the plan agreed in Geneva last year which called for a transitional government but left open the question of what happens to Mr Assad. Russia has long been one of the lone international powers propping up President Assad’s regime.
Mr Kerry appeared to give more ground than Mr Lavrov on that issue, when asked by a journalist how the conference would deal with the repeated statements by Washington that no future Syrian government can contain Mr Assad. The Russian Foreign Minister said that was a decision “for the people of Syria”, while Mr Kerry said that while he could not personally see how Mr Assad could remain in power, “I’m not going to decide that tonight” – a much less categorical answer than has previously come from US officials.
“The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria – stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere,” Mr Kerry told Mr Putin before his meeting earlier in the day in the Kremlin.
Mr Kerry’s visit came amid a frosty bilateral climate between the two countries. In recent months, Washington has implemented a ban on a number of Russian officials believed to be implicated in rights abuses travelling to the US, a move that incensed Moscow and prompted a reciprocal list, as well as a ban on the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. The Kremlin has also accused Washington of funding the street protests that have sprung up in the past year and a half against Mr Putin’s rule and a witch-hunt has been launched against Russian NGOs that receive foreign money.
But Mr Kerry was in Moscow to focus on the areas in which the two countries could make some progress, ahead of a planned visit to Russia by Mr Obama in the summer. David Cameron is also due in Russia on Friday for talks with Mr Putin.