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Syria set to dominate talks between Kerry and Russia's Putin

Mladen Antonov / AFP - Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport on Tuesday in his first trip to Russia since taking office. The civil war in Syria will likely dominate his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for discussions that will include what may be considered problem number one: what to do about the civil war in Syria.

Russia has traditionally been a backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. has sided with the rebel forces trying to overthrow him, so the issue is certain to be prominent.

A senior State Department official on Monday conveyed a sense of urgency in gaining Russia’s cooperation on Syria, noting that despite Moscow’s formal commitment to a Geneva agreement calling for a political transition in the country, it has done little to work toward that goal.

Syria has become a battleground between the Shiites (the Syrian government allied with Hezbollah and Iran) and the Sunni powers, comprised of the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

“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,” the official said. “The casualty figures are mounting, the rate of killing has gone up, and ... the situation is adding to instability in the region.”

In a briefing Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was "working with the Russians" and was hopeful that Putin would continue a pattern of backing away from support of Assad.

In February, Russian and U.S. foreign ministers met with opposition coalition leader Mouaz Alkhatib in Munich. Later that month, however, the Syrian National Coalition turned down invitations to meet with diplomats in Washington and Moscow, citing Russia’s support of Assad.

Two months earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had urged a Syrian counterpart to meet with opposition leaders so they could discuss a way to end the brutal civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people in two years, according to United Nations figures.

And in December, Putin said in a nationally broadcast news conference that “we are not concerned about the fate of Assad’s regime,” seemingly turning his back on a traditional ally.

Still, Russia has repeatedly come under fire from the United States for blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions drawn up to put more pressure on Assad.

“We have been clear in the past about our disappointment with Russia over their opposition to resolutions at the Security Council with regards to this matter, but this is an ongoing conversation,” Carney said Monday.

Washington’s hope lies not only in meetings with Russian leaders but in the increasing international outrage over what is perceived to be Assad’s cruel treatment of Syrians, Carney said.

“We have seen over the course of weeks and months an escalation by Assad of the brutality that is perpetuating on his own people, and we have consistently in our conversations with the Russians and others pointed clearly to Assad’s behavior as proof that further support for that regime is not in the interest of the Syrian people or in the interest of the countries that have in the past supported Assad. “We make that case repeatedly with the Russian government and others, and I’m sure we will continue to do that.”