Russia wants U.S. to urge Syria rebels into peace talks

Tue Feb 26, 2013 3:16pm EST
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By Gabriela Baczynska and Arshad Mohammed

MOSCOW/ BERLIN (Reuters) - Russia called on the United States on Tuesday to press the Syrian opposition to hold direct talks with Damascus, saying President Bashar al-Assad's opponents must appoint negotiators.

The crisis in Syria made up "the bulk of the conversation" between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks in Berlin on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

After talks she characterized as "really serious and hard-working", Moscow and Washington sounded a rare note of accord over efforts to launch talks to end the nearly two-year-old conflict, in which 70,000 people have been killed.

Lavrov said the new U.S. top diplomat seemed to grasp the gravity of the crisis in Syria and that the former Cold War foes had agreed to do everything in their power "to create the best conditions to facilitate the soonest possible start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition."

He said Russia wanted to see the Syrian opposition name its representatives for talks with the government at a meeting in Rome this week between the Syrian opposition, and Western and regional powers favorable to their cause.

Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over whether the Syrian opposition's calls for Assad to step down should be a pre-condition for talks.

Lavrov, ahead of the meeting with Kerry, said he would urge Washington to lean on the Syrian opposition to drop requests for Assad to go, a demand he characterized as "unrealistic".

Russia has been one of Assad's staunchest ally and, with China, has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at mounting pressure on him to end the violence that began with a crackdown on street protests against his rule.   Continued...

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Berlin February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter