U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will "make another stab" at seeing if the United States and Russia can work together to find a political solution to end Syria's civil war when he visits Moscow this week, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.
Kerry departs for Moscow on Monday afternoon and is scheduled to see Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss a wide range of issues including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, Afghanistan and U.S.-Russian trade.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the U.S. official said he did not know if Washington and Moscow might be able to move forward on a political plan for Syria that they endorsed on June 30, 2012, but that has since gone nowhere.
That plan, agreed to in Geneva, was aimed at resolving through talks among all sides a civil war that has cost more than 70,000 lives, but it left open the question of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exact fate.
Russia says his exit from power must not be a precondition for a dialogue among Syrians to end the conflict.
"We have their formal commitment with their agreement to the Geneva Communique of June 30th 2012 but now we need to go beyond formal commitments like that to figure out if there are ways to actually build off of it," said the U.S. official.
"It is no secret that so far we have not been able to do that but we certainly want to try to make another stab at it, to make another effort at it, because events on the ground have become steadily worse," he added.
"The casualty figures are mounting, the rate of killing has gone up and as the Israeli strikes show, the situation is adding to instability in the region," the official said.
U.S.-Russian ties have been strained by many issues over the last year, among them Syria, what the United States views as a Russian crackdown on Russian civil society and pro-democracy groups and a dispute over U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Russia, backed by China, has refused to consider sanctions on Assad's government, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.
Russia, which maintains a naval base in Syria, supplies arms to Assad's government and but says it is not delivering weapons that could be used in the civil war. Moscow has vehemently opposed arming or supporting the rebels.
Kerry on Wednesday will travel to Rome where he will meet with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has special responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the State Department said.
He will also meet Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Rome. The meetings are part of Kerry's effort to find a way to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which fell apart in 2010 in a dispute over Israel's construction of Jewish settlements on West Bank land the Palestinians want for a state.
He will meet with Italian officials to discuss issues including Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East, the State Department said.
Israel conducted two air raids on neighboring Syria over the weekend.
The attacks hit targets manned by Assad's elite troops in the Barada River valley and Qasioun Mountain, residents, activists and opposition military sources said. They included a compound linked to Syria's chemical weapons program, air defenses and Republican Guards' facilities, the sources said.
Russia said it was concerned the chances of foreign military intervention in Syria were growing, suggesting its worry stemmed in part from media reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
The U.S. official played down comments by Carla Del Ponte, a member of a U.N. inquiry into war crimes and other human rights violations in Syria, that human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria's civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin.
The Geneva-based inquiry is separate from an investigation of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria instigated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which has since stalled.
"Our understanding has been that the armed opposition does not have such weapons and so we'll have to re-check our facts but our initial take on that was that they do not have such things in their arsenal," said the U.S. official, stressing that the United States takes all such reports seriously.
"We have no information to suggest that they have either the capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons," he said of the rebel fighters.
Despite their disagreements with Moscow, U.S. officials say these have not kept them from cooperating on issues such as trying to contain the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
Among the issues that is likely to come up when Kerry is in Moscow is U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation following the April 15 attack on the Boston Marathon that killed three people and wounded 264.
The two men suspected of carrying out the attack, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens who emigrated to the United States are suspected of having detonated two bombs made with pressure-cookers in the attack.
What, if any, ties the two suspects had with foreign militants is a key question for investigators trying to determine how the pair became radicalized. How they selected their target would also shed light on their mindset.
A second U.S. official, also speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Russian authorities had been helpful to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into the attack.
"With respect to your broader question about trust and mistrust, that's a bigger historical question," he said. "We have learned that we don't always agree on all issues in our relationship with Russia.
"But that doesn't mean that if we're having a disagreement in one area, that that necessarily means that we can't cooperate on a different area," he added