U.N. envoy seeks deal to oust Assad, end 20-month fight

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DUBLIN -- With the support of the United States, the U.N. special envoy on Syria is mounting a diplomatic push for a brokered agreement that would lead to the ouster of the country's president, Bashar Assad, and the installation of a transitional government.

The envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, convened an unusual three-way meeting Thursday night at a Dublin hotel with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

After the 40-minute meeting, Mr. Brahimi said his goal was to "put together a peace process" that would build on discussions that the United States and Russia had in June but which quickly collapsed.

Mr. Brahimi and senior U.S. and Russian officials plan to meet again in several days to see if they can agree on specifics of a negotiating approach that might end the 20-month conflict, which has killed more than 40,000 Syrians.

With Mr. Assad's fortunes looking bleaker and persistent worries that the Syrian leader is considering using his chemical arsenal, the hope on the U.S. side was that the Russians might throw their weight behind Mr. Brahimi's effort.

"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways," Ms. Clinton said before the meeting, alluding to reports on chemical weapons developments. "The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus appears to be increasing."

The United States is in a race to prevent the military developments in Syria from outpacing the nascent arrangements for a political transition. But daunting questions remain, including the possibility that the Russian position has not fundamentally shifted and the absence of any indication that Assad government loyalists and the Syrian opposition are interested in negotiating a transitional arrangement with each other.

"The longer Syrian violence continues, the more extremists benefit," the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said in remarks at a Washington event organized by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nongovernment group.

The United States is trying to shape and broaden the Syrian opposition so that it can play a major role in a political transition should Mr. Assad be driven from power. Ms. Clinton has hinted that the United States will recognize the Syrian opposition as the legitimate political representative of the Syrian people at a meeting next week in Marrakesh, Morocco -- assuming that the opposition continues to flesh out its organization and political structure.

Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have already formally recognized the group.

Recognition by the United States would be more than symbolic. The hope is that the group becomes a mechanism for channeling aid inside Syria and governing territory that it liberates from the Assad government.

"For the first time, there is a national opposition leadership," Mr. Ford asserted in his appearance Thursday. "Finally, people on the inside are working with those on the outside."

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