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US, Russia agree to convene for urgent Syria talks

Amid escalating tensions over Snowden affair, both countries acknowledge need for Geneva II meeting

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin get up to leave after their meeting in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in June, 2013.  (Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin get up to leave after their meeting in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in June, 2013. (Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)

Despite escalating diplomatic tensions this past week between the United States and Russia, the two countries agreed Friday to prepare for urgent talks on the Syria crisis.

Senior officials including Secretary of State of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks Friday, pledging to work together on shared interests even as they nursed frustration over their deep differences on issues like missile defense, Syria and the case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Lavrov told reporters that US and Russian officials will reconvene at the end of the month to plan for talks in Geneva, which have been stalled since May amid sharp disagreements over the purpose and objectives of the summit, the division among the rebels on representation and reports of battlefield gains by Assad forces aided by terror group Hezbollah.

The Geneva Conference is intended to bring rebel factions and representatives of the Bashar Assad government to the table to negotiate an end to the bloodshed, which has so far claimed over 100,000 lives.

“John Kerry assured me that the opposition would be persuaded to come to Geneva without any preconditions on the basis of reaching agreement with the government,” said Lavrov.

A US official told reporters that the onus was on Damascus. “The test is not whether the Syrian government will come to Geneva,” the US official said. “The test is whether the Syrian government will come to Geneva prepared to negotiate the transition of full executive powers to a transitional governing body.”

The first round of talks in Geneva, held last June, ended in a stalemate. At the time, the US and Russia agreed on the need for a transitional government but left open whether Assad should participate or not.

High-level talks were held between the two countries just two days after the US cancelled a summit meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for September, in a rare rebuke over Russia’s harboring of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and growing frustration within the Obama administration over what it sees as Moscow’s stubbornness on other key issues, including missile defense and human rights.

Russia expressed its disappointment with the move, charging that the situation was not created by Moscow and stressing that the invitation to Obama for a meeting with Putin was still open.

AP contributed to this report.

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