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September 20, 2017

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US, Russia advocate 'local ceasefires' before Syria talks

PARIS--Moscow and Washington made a joint call Monday for Syria's regime and rebels to agree to ceasefires in parts of the battle-scarred country ahead of peace talks this month.

But the two countries continued to disagree on Iran's participation in the talks, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying Tehran needs to accept plans for a transitional government if it wants to take part.

Meeting in Paris with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the ceasefires to start ahead of the so-called Geneva II talks due to begin in Montreux on Jan. 22.

It was a rare pulling together of two heavyweights in the Syrian crisis, which has seen the U.S. backing the opposition as Moscow sticks by longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad.

"We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire, maybe a localized ceasefire beginning with Aleppo (in the north of Syria)," Kerry said.

"What can be done before the beginning of the conference should be done," Lavrov said. "We are going to try to send signals to all the Syrian sides on the need for the establishment of a localized ceasefire."

Washington and Moscow are hoping to build momentum ahead of the talks, which are seeking to revive efforts to hammer out a deal on moving to a transitional government after a nearly three-year conflict that has killed 130,000 people.

Damascus's ambassador to Moscow said Monday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will also visit Russia ahead of the talks, with a diplomatic source saying the visit could take place on Thursday.

Kerry and Lavrov said they also discussed possible prisoner exchanges and the opening of humanitarian corridors to bring aid to the millions affected by the conflict.

Lavrov said the Assad regime had indicated it was ready to allow access for humanitarian aid, citing the embattled Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, where thousands have been trapped by fighting.

"We expect similar steps from the opposition," Lavrov said.

'Success is defined by a good beginning'

The two said they hoped these issues could be sorted before the talks, but that they would not be preconditions for sitting down.

"Success is defined by a good beginning," Kerry said.

But divisions remained on the role of Syria's main regional backer Tehran, with Lavrov saying there was an "absolutely apparent need" for the participation of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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