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US and Russia seek Syria solution

Top US diplomat John Kerry; his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov; and their Saudi and Turkish colleagues have met in Vienna to discuss the crisis in Syria. The nations remain at odds over the role of Bashar al-Assad.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed to continue talks as early as next week in a hope to revive the beleaguered diplomatic push to end Syria's civil war.

"What we agreed to do today is to consult with all parties and aim to reconvene, hopefully as early as next Friday with a broader meeting in order to explore whether there is sufficient common ground to advance a meaningful political process," Kerry told journalists in Vienna after the talks on Friday.

All four countries are of one mind when it comes to a particular wish for Syria's future - a unified, secular nation with free elections and an end to a conflict, now in its fifth year, that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

"One thing stands in the way of being able to rapidly move to implement that, and it's a person called Assad - Bashar Assad," said Kerry on Thursday.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkey's Feridun Sinirlioglu are inclined to agree, but Lavrov represents Assad's biggest foreign supporter, Vladimir Putin, who is not backing down. Indeed, Moscow had hoped to invite the pro-Assad Iranian government to the talks, but the Saudis were particularly opposed.

Assad's staunchest ally

Putin even went so far as to

host Assad in Moscow on Tuesday

, the Syrian leader's first known trip abroad since 2011, to discuss their joint military campaign against the regime's enemies, such as "Islamic State" (IS) jihadists.

The Kremlin defended Assad's surprise trip, even as

the White House decried the "red-carpet" treatment

for a man "who has used chemical weapons against his own people." According to Putin, Assad is willing to work with the secular Syrian rebels the US supports.

Putin also defended his country's airstrikes against insurgents, which

allegedly have not only hit IS targets

, saying it would pave the way for peace talks.

A military victory over militants, Putin said, "will not solve all problems, but it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process to encompass all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society."

None of the top diplomats attending Friday's meeting spoke to reporters before going in, but Kerry said ahead of the talks that he hoped they could "begin a process that could open up a great discussion."

es/rc (AP, Reuters)

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