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Seeking Syria accord, Kerry tells Putin of common ground

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, talks with Yuri Filatov from the Russian Foreign Ministry during a walk in Red Square, with the State Historical Museum and posters marking the upcoming Victory Day in the background, in Moscow, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Mladen Antonov, Pool)

MOSCOW: The U.S. secretary of state sought Russian help in ending Syria's civil war on Tuesday, telling President Vladimir Putin in Moscow that common interest in a stable Middle East could bridge divisions among the big powers.

Putin, however, kept John Kerry waiting three hours before their meeting at the Kremlin, fiddled with a pen while his guest spoke and made no mention in his own public remarks of the conflict in Syria, which has generated some of the frostiest exchanges between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War.

Yet with the killing now in a third year and no end in sight as U.N. intervention remains stymied by international arguments, Kerry struck a positive tone as he set about trying to narrow differences sufficiently to agree a plan for a settlement that proved out of reach at talks in Geneva almost a year ago:

"The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria - stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere," Kerry told Putin.

"We have both embraced in the Geneva communique a common approach, so it's my hope that today we'll be able to dig in to that a little bit and see if we can find common ground."

The United States and Russia endorsed a plan in Geneva last June that called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, where at least 70,000 people have now been killed since March 2011, but which left open the question of what would happen to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Long-time arms supplier to Assad and suspicious of Western aid for opponents of authoritarian leaders around the world, Moscow says Assad's departure must not be a precondition for a dialogue among Syrians to end the conflict.

Russia, backed by China, has refused Western appeals to consider sanctions on Assad, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.

The United States, reluctant to give military aid directly to an insurgency that includes militant Islamists but alarmed that violence is continuing and may spread, is making a new push for a joint international approach to contain the conflict.

Israeli air strikes in Syria have heightened a sense of urgency in a region strained by confrontations between Assad's ally Iran and other Arab powers, as well as the hostility between Israel and its neighbours, notably Iran and Hezbollah.

Differences over Syria have deepened strains in ties between the United States and Russia that are also hampered by what Washington views as a crackdown on Russian civil society since Putin began a third term as president a year ago after the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.

Kerry's visit is intended to help improve relations and pave the way Obama to hold talks with Putin in September, when Russia hosts a summit of the Group of 20 nations. Obama and Putin are also to meet at a Group of Eight summit in Britain in June.

Speaking of Obama, Kerry said: "There are many issues: ... economic cooperation, the challenges of North Korea, Iran, Syria and many other issues on which he believes that we could cooperate very significantly."

Putin, a former KGB spy who accused Washington of helping foment protests against him last year, was less effusive than Kerry but said he was glad to see him in Moscow and expressed hope that relations would improve.

Both sides have said they hope to increase cooperation on counter-terrorism following the Boston Marathon bombings, which U.S. officials suspect were carried out by two ethnic Chechens who once lived in Russia.

"We recently had a substantial phone conversation with President Obama. And we had an opportunity to discuss many aspects of our relations," Putin said.

"I think it is very important that our key ministries, our foreign ministries and agencies, work together to resolve the acutest issues of the modern world."

 

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