U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to find new agreement with Russia on military operations in Syria, meeting with President Vladimir Putin for talks aimed at bringing an end to the five-year-old conflict and starting a political transition.
Kerry arrived late July 14 in the Russian capital and met immediately with the Russian leader. He was scheduled to speak with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov July 15.
At the three-hour meeting with Putin, Kerry "expressed concern about repeated violations of the cessation of hostilities by the Syrian regime," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Moscow.
"The two also discussed the need to need to increase pressure on terrorist groups like Daesh [Islamic State] and the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra."
Kirby said Kerry stressed to Putin that "diplomatic efforts could not continue indefinitely" in the absence of "concrete, near-term steps."
Just before meeting, Putin said his last conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama had convinced him that both sides were sincere in their efforts to find a solution in Syria.
"I hope after today's consultations you'll be able to advise him of the progress made and possible headway for us to make," he told Kerry.
Kerry said Obama thought his last call with Putin was "constructive."
"Hopefully we'll be able to make some genuine progress that is measurable and implementable and that can make a difference in the course of events in Syria," Kerry said.
The Obama administration has repeatedly expressed frustration with Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which has largely been aimed at bolstering the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.
Since launching its air campaign in September, Russian forces have hit Islamic State (IS) fighters and groups with ties to terrorist organizations, just as the U.S.-led coalition has.
But Russia has also targeted moderate rebels, some trained by the United States and its allies, and it has done little to rein in Syrian forces from hitting civilian areas with weapons like barrel bombs.
Ahead of Kerry’s visit, the White House said July 14 that the United States is "not coordinating military operations" with Russia but would "welcome military contribution from Russia" that focuses on IS militants and the Al-Qaeda presence in Syria.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Kerry was bringing to Moscow a major proposal from Obama on cooperation in Syria.
The proposal, according to the newspaper, would be a new military command-and-control headquarters that would house U.S. and Russian military officers, intelligence officials, and subject-matter experts.
In exchange for U.S. cooperation, meanwhile, the Russians would pressure Assad to stop bombing moderate militant groups and civilians, and allow unfettered aid to besieged, rebel-held areas, the report said.
Washington also wants Russia's help to start a political transition that would ultimately end the Assad family’s four-decade reign.
Kerry’s efforts to engage Russia have been met with deep skepticism in many policy circles in Washington.
According to The Associated Press, opposition to the latest Syria plan is shared by a significant number of officials at the State Department, Defense Department, and in the U.S. intelligence community.
And a so-called “dissent cable” signed by 51 State Department officials last month showed a substantial part of the diplomatic establishment believing a U.S. military response against Assad was necessary.
That wariness has been deepened by Russian air strikes in the past week against U.S.-trained rebel camps.Last month, Russian planes hit a rebel encampment despite advance warnings from U.S. officials, and then returned for a second strike when U.S. jets left the area to refuel.
A U.S. official with access to classified intelligence reports told RFE/RL the incident was “very, very, very serious,” and said the potential for a clash between a U.S. and Russian jets had been high.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, fighting has intensified near Aleppo, Syria's largest city prior to the war, and Assad has reasserted control over areas of the country he once lost.