— Before Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, met on Friday to explore a possible political solution to the civil war in Syria
, they were well aware of the biggest obstacle: Russia
wants Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to stay, while the United States
wants him to go.
They walked out of the meeting with the same disagreement. But Mr. Kerry, speaking to reporters afterward, said that the mere fact that they were talking was a positive sign, and that the discussions had begun in a “very advanced place.”
The United States and Russia agree that the war needs to end through a political deal, and that they want Syria to remain a unified country with a secular government, Mr. Kerry said. Like the United States, “Russia wants to see that Daesh and other extremists are eliminated from the scene,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
On what he called “the resolution of the Assad problem,” Mr. Kerry said he thought the two sides could reach an agreement on a process to address that question even if they currently disagree on the Syrian leader’s role.
Mr. Kerry ran through a list of items regarding Syria on which the United States and Russia agree, and some of those on which they continue to have differences. The points of agreement include keeping a unified Syria, eliminating the presence of the Islamic State or other extremists and ensuring that Syrians have the right to choose their future leadership. Mr. Kerry described Russia’s commitment to the latter as “a possibility of transition.”
But the American secretary of state also admonished Russia, saying it should play a constructive role in fighting the Islamic State, repeating the criticism of its bombing targets to date.
“Targeting moderate fighters doesn’t hurt Daesh,” Mr. Kerry said. “It makes it easier for Assad to continue brutalizing the Syrian people, it threatens to exacerbate the sectarian tensions that feed extremism, and it encourages more fighters — particularly foreign fighters — to flock to Daesh.”
A real transition to a “responsible government” in Syria that addresses the needs of the people would help defeat the extremists by taking away their breathing space, he said.
Mr. Lavrov, in a separate briefing to reporters shortly before Mr. Kerry spoke, also focused on common ground. “We all want the crisis to be settled on the basis of preserving Syria as a unified, sovereign and secular state in which the rights of all religious groups are respected,” he said, adding that the discussions also covered “the need to fight terror and the need to start an all-Syrian national dialogue on political reforms.”
Mr. Lavrov dismissed rumors that a political deal was at hand. “I have already heard rumors that deals are being or will be made here that in a certain time period President Assad will go,” he said. “All this is not so.”
Mr. Lavrov drew a comparison to Iraq and Libya
, saying, “We all know the way that ended.” He added, “This is why our position is expressed in a very simple formula: The fate of Syria, the fate of the president of Syria and any other persons should be resolved by the Syrian people — not at the battlefield, not through some uprisings or coups, but through a political dialogue.”
The meetings in Vienna also involved the foreign ministers of Turkey
and Saudi Arabia; Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov met one another before all four sat down for talks. The four countries ostensibly share a common adversary in the Islamic State, but the Obama administration contends that Mr. Putin has used that fight as a pretext for attacking other rebel forces fighting Mr. Assad, a steadfast ally of Russia’s.
Some of the Syrian rebel forces are backed, to varying degrees, by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The four countries agreed to reconvene soon — possibly “as early as next Friday,” Mr. Kerry said — and to invite other countries to join them and “explore whether there is sufficient common ground to advance a meaningful political process.”
“While we can agree to disagree on what and when might occur with respect to the Assad problem, we clearly can agree on a process that helps bring about a resolution to that problem,” he said.
Which countries would take part in the next meeting remains to be seen, Mr. Kerry said, though he named a number of European powers and Middle Eastern allies of the United States as possible participants.
Mr. Kerry also rejected the proposal of including Iran
at the table now. “There will come a time perhaps where we will talk to Iran, but we’re not at that moment at this point in time,” he said.
“Diplomacy has a way or working through very difficult issues that seem to be absolutely contradictory and on their face begin at odds, and this is one of those issues where the statements and current positions are clearly as odds,” he said.
“If we can get in a political process, sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves,” Mr. Kerry said. “So I’m not disturbed with positions at this time when countries agree” on the broader outcome that they would like to achieve.
Despite the lack of agreement on whether Mr. Assad should have a future role in governing Syria, “today was a solid, serious discussion in a genuine effort to try to find a way to thread the difficult needle,” he said.
Mr. Lavrov said that the other countries taking part in the talks were “obsessed” with the question of Mr. Assad’s future, and that Moscow
was sticking to its position that it was a matter for Syrians to decide. Nonetheless, Mr. Lavrov said the meeting was a positive development.
“We discussed the need to find a way out of this crisis and we confirmed that we have common goals, there is no doubt about it: to stop the war, to fight more effectively the terrorists who threaten to seize this country and to more actively develop the political process on the basis of principles coordinated in the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012,” Mr. Lavrov said.
That communiqué called for a transitional government in Syria, but left open the question of Mr. Assad’s fate. On Friday, Mr. Lavrov said the communiqué called for “a broad dialogue involving representatives of all specters of Syrian society, the government and the opposition,” with any decision “made on the basis of mutual consent.”
Saudi officials reiterated their support for the American position that there is “no place for Bashar al-Assad in any transitional government,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters here.