Russia accused the United States on Thursday of hijacking preparatory talks for a weekend meeting of nearly 20 nations focused on ending the Syrian war. The charge was denied by U.S. officials, who expressed surprise that Moscow did not show up.
The dispute appeared to focus on the leading role the U.S. had assumed in the talks prior to the main Syria meeting Saturday, and was significant in reflecting the tensions between the two main players whose diplomatic muscle is key to hopes of progress.
At the first Vienna round on Oct. 30, the U.S., Russia, Iran and more than a dozen other nations agreed to launch a new peace effort involving Syria’s government and opposition groups.
Still differences persist on major issues including what role if any President Bashar Assad should play in a transition from war to peace. Both Moscow and Washington played up the meeting itself as a major achievement in managing to bring all sides to one table.
On Saturday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to join Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and counterparts from other nations that include adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But the dispute over working groups that have met since Wednesday was a warning of tensions ahead.
Lavrov’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told reporters in Moscow that the Russian Foreign Ministry was informed about the preparatory meetings in an email from the U.S. Embassy, rather than through usual communication channels. She said Russia was not consulted and the initiative caught them by surprise.
Russia sees this as an attempt to divide participants in the Vienna talks into “those who are leading and those who are being led,” Zakharova said. “We cannot accept such rules of the game.”
She also complained that nations including Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Italy and the EU — all participants in Saturday’s meeting — were not included in the working groups. That was denied by U.S. and EU officials.
One U.S. official, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomacy, acknowledged that the U.S. had assumed leadership of the working groups set up by Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria.
But he said that — as Russia was a member of the working group meeting Thursday on identifying legitimate opposition groups — Washington had every reason to expect Russia to show up.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the talks were organized to be “very inclusive about participation.”
“We hope the Russians will join the balance of these important discussions,” he told The Associated Press, adding Washington expected Lavrov to attend the main meeting of ministers Saturday.