U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council December 18 in a major effort to end the four-year civil war in Syria.
Before chairing the UN meeting in the afternoon, Kerry will host a meeting of the International Syria Support Group to try to pull together support for a Syrian cease-fire and political negotiations, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
The importance of the meeting was underscored by a UN report December 17 that the Syrian conflict likely drove the number of refugees and displaced persons in the world to a new record of over 60 million this year.
Kerry traveled to Moscow earlier this week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and try to pave the way for the UN meeting.
His efforts appeared to bear fruit, as Putin declared at his annual news conference December 17: "We support the initiative of the United States, including on working out a resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria."
Putin said Kerry had shown him a draft UN resolution and that "on the whole it is an acceptable proposal," though some points still needed work.
Putin said he believes Kerry's draft plan should be acceptable to Assad as well, in remarks that suggest that Kerry may have finally found a way to resolve the longstanding dispute over when Assad should step down from power.
"I think that after the Syrian authorities familiarize themselves with the draft resolution, they will also find it suitable," Putin said. "In the attempt to solve the conflict that has continued for many years, a compromise is always possible, but concessions must be made on both sides."
Putin's support for the peace effort came after a statement Kerry made in Moscow that the United States is not seeking "regime change" in Syria, in what was widely perceived as a softening of the longstanding U.S. position that Assad must go.
Various news organizations reported that Kerry indicated the United States may be willing to go along with giving Assad a role during a transition period leading to elections in Syria, while Russia may be willing to agree with Assad stepping down at the end of that transition period.
Rumors of concessions by Kerry prompted him to meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in New York December 17, apparently to reassure Assad's most implacable foe that he is not going soft on the Syrian strongman, AFP reported.
Washington and UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura want Assad's regime and the opposition and rebel groups arrayed against him to send delegates to start peace talks early next year.
Under the outline for a deal approved by negotiators in Vienna last month, the government and rebel negotiators would have six months to form a transitional government and 18 months to organize national elections.
U.S. diplomats hope the security council at its December 18 meeting will provide its blessing to efforts to arrange those talks and achieve a cease-fire in Syria that excludes the Islamic State group.
"The secretary remains confident that we can get there," Kirby said.
While Russia and the United States appeared to be getting closer to a meeting of minds over Syria, Iran continued to raise objections, particularly to a Saudi effort last week to organize opposition groups into a single delegation to negotiate with Assad.
While the United States hailed the Saudi effort as an important step, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The Associated Press that there still "seems to be no agreement" on which groups should be included in the opposition delegation and which groups should be excluded as "terrorist organizations."
He said Iran in particular will not accept as legitimate any groups that have been associated with Al-Qaeda in the past. One of the groups in the Saudi coalition had past affiliations with Al-Qaeda.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS