BERLIN: US Secretary of State John Kerry began talks with his Russian counterpart Tuesday aimed at bridging differences over Syria after voicing confidence the two could find "common ground".
Shaking hands at the start of the meeting in Berlin, Kerry commented he was "happy to see" Sergei Lavrov since "we know each other" while the Russian minister quipped he would sit down when journalists allowed him to get to his chair.
Moscow and Washington have differences over Syria -- Russia is one of the few big powers to keep ties with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, with China, has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have introduced sanctions against Damascus.
Hours ahead of his talks with Kerry, Lavrov had slammed "extremists" within the Syrian opposition who he said were blocking the start of dialogue in the war-torn country by making unrealistic demands.
He said that recent faint hopes that dialogue was possible between the opposition and the Assad regime had dissipated.
"It seems that extremists who bet on an armed solution to the Syrian problem have prevailed in the ranks of the opposition at this time, including the so-called (Syrian) National Coalition, blocking all initiatives that could lead to the start of dialogue," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Lavrov said there was "an increasing understanding of the need to influence both the government and especially the opposition in order to persuade them against putting forward unrealistic demands as the prerequisite conditions for the start of dialogue".
"During our latest phone contact it seemed to me that he (John Kerry) understands the acuteness of the situation," he added.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem had said in Moscow Monday that the authorities in Damascus were ready to talk to armed rebels, the first time a senior official of the Assad regime had made such a proposal.
But the rebel Free Syrian Army's chief of staff Selim Idriss said that before any dialogue could begin, Assad's regime must fall, among other pre-conditions.
"I am not going to sit down with him or with any other member of his clique before all the killing stops, or before the army withdraws from the cities," he told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya.
Kerry, on an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, his first foreign trip since taking over the office, earlier told an event in Berlin with German youngsters that he and Lavrov had a "good relationship".
"I am confident we will find common ground," he said.
Washington has recently toned down its criticism of Moscow's intransigence over Syria.
"We've been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime... that there needs to be that political transition," a State Department official told reporters.
However the talks are not expected to produce a "big breakthrough", the official added.
-- 'Decision on next steps' in Rome --
As diplomatic efforts intensified, fierce clashes erupted Tuesday around the historic Umayyad Mosque in Syria's second city Aleppo, as rebels battled troops on the grounds of a police academy elsewhere in the province, a watchdog said.
And a record 150,000 people this month fled the worsening conflict, according to the top UN political official.
Syria's opposition has been calling for the international community to do more -- the United Nations says the fighting has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 -- and warned last week it would withdraw from an international conference in Rome planned for Thursday.
But Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague convinced the opposition to revoke its boycott of the Friends of Syria conference.
Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib said his group would attend after Kerry and Hague "promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people".
In London, Kerry insisted he wanted the Syrian opposition to know "that we are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We are coming to Rome to make a decision on next steps."
The trip sees Kerry, the son of a diplomat, back on familiar ground. He spent part of his childhood in Berlin and has family in France.
Kerry also met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and standing next to her reminisced in a statement to reporters how he had cycled through Berlin past the then-destroyed Reichstag in his youth.