One of the more delicate moments of Secretary of State John F. Kerry's diplomatic tour of Europe and the Middle East this week is likely to occur when he sits down Tuesday with longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The State Department has been careful in characterizing the meeting, which is expected to focus primarily on the extent to which Moscow and Washington may be able to overcome biting differences in their positions toward Syria's nearly two-year-old civil war.
Beyond saying Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov "will discuss a wide range of bilateral and international issues" when they meet Tuesday in Berlin, State Department officials have been less than forthcoming in their descriptions of what the two men are hoping to achieve.
"I would expect they'll talk about all of the issues, bilateral, regional, global," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday, adding that "particular emphasis" would likely be put Iran, North Korea and Syria. "We'll see how it goes."
The Obama administration's push for a unified international approach to the Syrian conflict has consistently been thwarted by Moscow, a longtime ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia, which maintains a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast, effectively blocked a U.S.- and Arab League-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that would have authorized an international intervention in Syria last year.
Moscow recently has shown a willingness to support U.S. and European intervention efforts elsewhere. Russia authorities on Friday flew a planeload of humanitarian aid into Mali, where French military forces are engaged in an ongoing campaign against armed Islamist groups.
But Russia's long-standing ties to Mr. Assad, coupled with more recent tension with Washington over the ongoing violence there, sets a gloomy stage for the Kerry-Lavrov meeting.
Mr. Lavrov made headlines Friday by accusing the U.S. of embracing a double standard toward Syria and of blocking a U.N. statement that would have condemned a recent car bombing near the Russian Embassy in Syria as "terrorist attacks," telling a news conference the United States was threatening international unity in the "war on terrorism" by blocking the statement.
"We believe these are double standards," Mr. Lavrov told reporters after holding talks with China's foreign minister, according to a report by Reuters.
Ms. Nuland said the United States "would reject" Mr. Lavrov's assertion.
She also disputed his account of what occurred in the U.N. debate, suggesting it was actually Russia's fault that the statement on the bombing — which killed 50 people in the Syrian capital — was blocked.
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting also comes amid speculation in Washington that the Obama administration may be ready to openly supply weapons to rebel fighters now battling Syrian military forces.
Despite calls for such a policy from some Republicans — and private support from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials — the White House has resisted arming the rebels, citing the presence of Islamist extremist groups within the Syrian opposition forces.
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