With a ceasefire in Syria crumbling, U.S. officials said Kerry was travelling to Moscow to offer Putin military cooperation on intelligence and targeting information against jihadist groups in Syria, something Russia has been requesting for months and previously resisted strongly by some in the Pentagon and the White House.
The proposal -- which was leaked to the Washington Post and has been confirmed in its broad outlines by State Department officials -- is the most ambitious offered by the U.S. to Russia over Syria, seeming to reflect a sense in the Obama administration that there is little time left to change the course of the conflict which has claimed over 400,000 lives.
The U.S. will offer to establish a “Joint Implementation Group” with Russia that will share intelligence and targeting information on Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, according to the Washington Post report that quoted the text of the proposal.
Until recently, the U.S. has balked at such an offer, concerned that the information might be misused and that it risked putting the U.S. in alliance with Assad, who administration officials consider a war criminal. The U.S. has previously accused Russia of pretending to target al-Nusra while actually striking moderate rebel groups opposed to Assad.
The Kremlin hopes that military cooperation with the U.S. will legitimize its claim to be acting as a bulwark against terrorism. But the American condition that it force Assad to ground his air force may be too much for Russia.
Despite the Assad regime’s dependence on Russian air strikes and weapons supplies, the Kremlin often insists it does not have that sort of leverage on the Syrian government.
In their meeting on Thursday evening, both Kerry and Putin though were effusive about their hopes for Friday's talks. Kerry told Putin he hoped for "real progress" and said both he and President Obama believed that Russia and the U.S. together "can do much, very much for the good of the world."
The boldness of the offer appeared to suggest the Obama administration viewed it as one of the last rolls of the dice for altering the course of the Syrian conflict through a deal with Moscow. Though Moscow has previously committed to preserving a ceasefire, its forces have continued to strike rebel positions and to support attacks by Syrian government troops, while claiming to be repulsing attacks by rebels.
U.S. officials have suggested Kerry’s proposal is meant to test whether the Kremlin is sincere about pushing for an end to the conflict in Syria and fighting terrorism, rather than defending Assad.
“We will not commit indefinitely to diplomacy that does not achieve real results. We cannot provide political cover for those seeking to pursue a different agenda,” a State Department official said ahead of Kerry’s visit. The official said it was still not clear the U.S. would be able to reach a deal on military cooperation with Russia.
Russia though, analysts have said, does not view the removal of Assad as helpful to ending the conflict in any case.
"We do not see that as a solution," Fyodor Lukyanov, an influential policy analyst in Moscow told ABC News. "It's not even about just opposing the Americans. It's what the official and unofficial position is. It would be a collapse."
Kerry’s trip is made against the looming deadline for a political transition laid out in a U.N.-backed peace plan. According to the plan, a transition should begin by Aug. 1, but the U.N. talks in Geneva around it have ground to a halt. The last round of the so-called “proximity talks” ended with the main opposition group leaving in protest at continued government attacks.
While U.S. State Department officials suggested that Kerry's proposal was intended to press Moscow to fulfill it commitments, some familiar with Moscow's thinking said it was the U.S. that was being pulled along by the Kremlin.
Qadri Jamil, the leader of a Syrian opposition delegation backed by Moscow at the Geneva talks, said Russia would continue its policy on the ground regardless of any deal with the U.S.
As an example, he pointed to Russia's campaign against al-Nusra around Aleppo, Syria's second city, which is divided between government and rebel forces. Offensives by the Syrian army on Aleppo caused the Geneva talks to break down in February and again recently. In the past two months, the Syrian army has again launched offensives around the city, saying it was repelling al-Nusra attacks, a claim echoed by Russia. Last week, the Syrian army closed in on the last road leading to Aleppo, threatening to put it and the 200,000 civilians inside under siege.
The fighting there is a key obstacle to restarting the Geneva peace talks but despite this, Jamil said that Russia intended to destroy al-Nusra around Aleppo regardless of the U.S. position. He said the only question for Russia was whether the U.S. would join it in doing so.
"The Russians will bomb," he said. "They aren't doing it yet because they want the Americans to do it with them. It's going to happen, with or without the Americans."