“The United States and its partners are not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Kerry said in a news conference inside the Kremlin, before immediately adding that the U.S. continues to believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has no possibility of remaining the country’s leader in the future. However, Kerry said the talks didn’t focus on “what can or can’t be done immediately about Assad” but rather on establishing a political process where Syrians will be able to choose their own leader.
The statement appeared to be the most explicit sign yet that the U.S. is softening its policy towards Assad and marked a significant rhetorical shift for the U.S. towards Russia’s policy in Syria, which previously American officials have said was almost fundamentally at odds with their own.
Washington had been insisting Assad must step down immediately, although recently U.S. officials have suggested that he could remain in power during a transition period. Kerry’s efforts to shift the discussion away from Assad’s personal future, seemed to bring the U.S. closer to Moscow’s position that real peace talks might be able to begin prior to Assad’s removal.
“Despite the different positions of our countries, we have shown that Russia and the United States are moving in the same direction,” Kerry said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was also upbeat, calling the talks “substantive.”
Kerry’s unusually long, three-and-a-half hour meeting with Putin followed a day of discussions with Lavrov, trying to explore ways of inching forward a peace process for Syria, which recently has taken on a new urgency.
The massive influx of refugees into Europe -- as well as recent terror attacks by the Islamic State -- have prompted the U.S. to begin more actively looking for diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Russia, which has launched an air campaign to prop up Assad, has also been pressing for talks and calling for the US to combine efforts to destroy the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
But while Kerry’s comments appeared to mark a certain warming in relations between Russia and the U.S., it was still unclear how this would translate into a peace agreement on the ground in Syria. The Assad government remains embattled in a bitter fight with hundreds of opposition groups, many of which are still determined to topple the regime. Kerry reassertion that Assad must step down in the future may also still prove unacceptable to the Syrian regime.
Although both sides agreed to work on a list of Syrian groups they considered terrorists, there was little indication the U.S. was now ready to work more closely with Moscow militarily against ISIS. Kerry again raised American concerns that Russia is targeting moderate opponents of Assad, rather than ISIS.
Moscow has generally treated most groups opposed to Assad as terrorists, including several groups armed by the U.S. The U.S. has said Russian offers to coordinate strikes against ISIS are not sincere.
Recently, there have been incremental steps taken towards peace talks. In November, negotiations in Vienna for the first time included Iran -- Assad’s chief military backer -- as well as his key regional opponents, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Last week, a meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, saw some Syrian opposition groups agreeing to form a united group for negotiating with Assad. However, Russia has rejected the initiative as containing some groups it considers terrorists.
Kerry said he had come to Moscow to find “common ground” and many of his statements appeared intended to clear space for a more functional working relationship after two years of confrontation with the Kremlin following the Ukraine crisis.
Opening today’s meeting, Putin was also unusually warm with Kerry, joking that he couldn’t keep up with Kerry’s grueling schedule of foreign trips and that the secretary of state ought to get some sleep and “relax.”
Kerry did take a brief break to walk in central Moscow. After meeting with a prominent human rights activist, Kerry visited a souvenir store on a main street and talked with a group of surprised Russians, who surrounded him.
Standing outside a Dunkin Donuts, Kerry told the Russians around him, “I want to wish that the Russian people and the American people are good friends.”