US and Russia prepare ground for talks on Syria
Russia's foreign ministry said last night that US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had agreed on the preconditions for another meeting of world powers on Syria.
Mr Kerry had previously said the aim was to hold a third round of talks in New York on December 18. It was unclear whether the agreement on preconditions meant the December 18 meeting was on or off.
The Russian foreign ministry said that the two men had agreed that the make-up of an opposition delegation that could conduct talks with the Syrian government had to be prepared before another meeting, along with an agreed list of Islamist terrorist groups to be jointly fought against.
It said Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov had also confirmed the importance of respecting the principle of consensus at the meeting when it happened and of ensuring that all of the group's members took part in the talks.
Last night Mr Kerry flew to Moscow to try to narrow gaps with Russian leaders over a political transition to end Syria's Civil War and restore stability in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Kerry will today meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr Lavrov. In Paris last night he attended a French-hosted foreign ministers' meeting to compare notes on the results of a conference of Syrian opposition figures.
The trip will be Mr Kerry's second to Russia this year - he met with Mr 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.
A US diplomat in Paris, speaking anonymously, said a meeting in Geneva on Friday between Russian and American diplomats on Syria was aimed mainly at clearing up Russian "grievances" ahead of today'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 US administration policy based on dividing terrorists into a 'bad' and 'good' ones" and complaining that the US was unwilling to engage in "full-fledged coordination" between the two powers' militaries while both are conducting airstrikes in Syria.
Russia says its airstrikes have targeted Isil, but Western governments claim mostly moderate rebels are being hit and that Moscow is primarily concerned with shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad's future and his potential role in the political transition will be prime topics of Kerry's conversation at today's talks in Moscow.
Russia has consistently said Assad's future is for the Syrian people to decide, while the US 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 have demanded that Assad leave at the start of the process, 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 organisations that would not be eligible for a ceasefire planned to take effect simultaneously with, or shortly after, the start of negotiations.
One senior official travelling with Kerry said he would be exploring ways to bridge gaps on both the political transition as well as making the point that Russia's military operations in Syria need to focus on Isil.
Russia, the US, European and Middle Eastern countries agreed in Vienna last month on a two-year timeline leading to Syrian elections, but left many questions unresolved, most notably the fate of Assad.