MOSCOW - Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced today following several hours of meetings, including one lasting more than two hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the two countries will try and work together to help bring a political solution to Syria's raging civil war.
Both Kerry and Lavrov agreed to organize a follow-up international conference to last year's Geneva convention to be held as soon as the end of this month. The leaders agreed that Russia and the United States would work to pressure the regime of President Bashar Assad and the opposition respectively, to sit down and negotiate a political solution that will include a governing transitional body to replace the current government that will have "full executive power."
Russia's staunch position has been the foreign government's should not get involved with Syria's conflict, which it saw a "domestic issue," but the country has deep ties to Assad and the current Syrian government and Assad's ouster would not necessarily be in the best geopolitical interest for Russia. Russia, along with China, has blocked three different U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria.
The United States, meanwhile, has maintained that Assad must go and that there is no room for him in a free and democratic Syria.
Talking to reporters today, both sides appeared to compromise a little. Lavrov said that in order for a deal to be reached both the regime and the opposition will have to have "mutual willingness" to negotiate, and he pledged that Russia "will use all opportunities" along with the United States to encourage the parties to sit down and make a deal.
Kerry seemed to soften the U.S. postion on Assad's possible role in the transition, saying that while he, individually, could not see a way where Assad could continue to govern, the ultimate decision would not be up to him or the United States.
"Our position has been that it's impossible for me, as an individual, to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by a man who has committed the things that we know have taken place, but I'm not going to decide that tonight, and am not going to decide that in the end," Kerry said. "The Geneva communique says that the transitional government has to be chosen by mutual consent by the parties. Who are the parties? The parties are the current regime and the opposition."
Kerry said the goal is to get the parties to put people into the new transitional government by "mutual consent."
While Lavrov did not specifically say that Assad should be part of the negotiations, he maintained that the Russians believe the road to Syria's peace process is about more than one man.
"We are not interested in the fate of certain persons, we are interested in the fate of all Syrians," he said.
One issue both Lavrov and Kerry agreed on was that the threat of the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.
Kerry tied the decision over whether to arm Syria's rebels, which has some bipartisan support in Congress, with the outcome of the Obama administration's investigation into allegations that the regime has used chemical weapons.
"President Obama has ordered an appropriate, careful analysis of that evidence and I think the Congres will look very carefully at the results of that analysis before they make any judgments going forward," he said. But Kerry also maintained that Obama continues to reserve the right to use force if the chemical weapons "red line" is crossed.
"One thing is clear, the president of the United States said that he hasn't taken any options off the table yet, pending the determination of the chemical weapons use," Kerry said. "And he is serious about making certain that that prohibition is enforced."
Russia also takes allegations of chemical weapons use seriously, Lavrov said, be he added that evidence and facts need to be "double checked" before any action is taken. To that end, he said, Washington and the Kremlin would be working more closely together and sharing information in regards to the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria.